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Home Canning: Ensuring Safe Food Storage

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There was a time when colorful jars of home-canned fruits and vegetables lined most everyone’s basement shelves. Canning was a normal part of the harvest season – those jars of preserved summer crops made the budget stretch and added a little warm weather flavor to the root crop drudgery of the late winter months. Because modern food storage is so inexpensive and easy, many families have stopped canning food – especially in the last generation, and the oral tradition of how to preserve food and keep it safe for later consumption has been lost. However, with the urban farming and self-sustainability movements, there’s a resurgence in learning how to preserve homegrown food. While long, hot days in the kitchen may have caused an entire generation to give up the annual preservation ritual, modern conveniences like food processors and air conditioning (and the thought of enjoying summer corn in February) have given rise to a whole new generation shopping for Ball jars and wax.

Canning food can save a family hundreds of dollars a year, provide a nutritional and emotional boost during the winter months, and add another element of peace of mind to your self-sustainability plan. Think about it: in a Plan B scenario, if you can grow your own food and the preserve it, you’ll be able to supplement your emergency food supply all year round. If you can’t preserve it, you can only have fresh vegetables in the summer months.

Before you haul out the pressure cooker it’s important to learn Canning Safety 101 as improperly canned or spoiled food can make you very, very sick.

Clostridium botulinum is the bacterium that causes botulism—a deadly form of food poisoning. Botulism is sneaky in canned food because the spores can survive in soil or water for many years. Botulism bacteria actually proliferate in an absence of air – so canned food is an ideal place for them to grow. In fact, botulism loves moist, low-acid foods, temperatures between 40° and 120° and environments with less than 2% oxygen. In other words, a badly canned jar of green beans in your basement. This unique and lethal little critter is why you want to pay close attention to your canning method and throw out anything that is suspect.

Correct processing times and methods (a complete list can be found in the USDA’s Complete Guide to Home Canning available as a free PDF download here.) are vital to prohibiting bacteria, yeast and mold in your food. The rules are simple but varied – processing times and temperatures depend on your elevation, the acidity of the food and where you’ll be storing your jars.

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the safety basics in the PDF (represented pictorially – it’s a fast read), brush up on the recommendations for ensuring safe, high-quality canned foods, also outlined in the PDF.

  • Begin with good quality fruits and vegetables
  • Can fruits and vegetables within 12 hours of harvest
  • Can meats without delay
  • Obtain high jar vacuums and air tight jar seals
  • Fill hot foods into jars and adjust headspace as specified in recipe
  • Tighten screw bands securely
  • Store jars in a cool, dark place preferably between 50°and70°F
  • Can no more food than you will use within a year

If you’re thinking of learning to can as a survival skill, it’s a great idea. Canning can be done without modern conveniences if you’re skilled at sterilizing and processing. However, taking a few practice runs on the stove (in your air-conditioned kitchen) can help you get confident with the process as well as the necessary safety measures.

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