"The question isn't who is going to let me; it's who is going to stop me?" ~ Ayn Rand, "The Fountainhead"

Friday, December 21, 2012

Food Preservation for Self-Reliance, Part three

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for the March, 2012 issue of the Owl Creek Gazette, placed here with their permission.  For more great articles you can read the latest and all archived monthly editions of the Owl Creek Gazette online!

Food Preservation for Self-Reliance
Part 3 of a 5 part series
By Roxanne Bare, owner of Terra Mater

Can you feel it? Spring is just around the corner.  Some people are already planting the earliest crops that can withstand the chilly nights and light frost.  We may be a couple months away from planting the less cold-hardy crops but time flies and it will be summer before you know it.

In the January issue of the Owl Creek Gazette, I started this series with reasons why to preserve your own food.  In February, I talked about food safety and prevention of food-borne illness, particularly focusing on Botulism.  Preventing the growth of Cl. Botulinum, the organism that causes the Botulism, is key to having the safest food possible from your home preservation endeavors. This month we explore the methods of home canning your foods, proper equipment and which are appropriate for what foods. 

The canning methods I follow are the ones that have been studied, tested, and approved by the USDA.  The University of Illinois and other land-grant colleges have put a great deal of research into safe food preservation and it is my humble opinion that this may be the best thing the USDA has ever been behind.  Historically, there have been other methods of canning done in homes that may have worked out ok most of the time, but now we know more about dangerous micro-organisms.  It just makes sense to use the methods that have been proven to be the safest.  The two methods that are used for home canning are the water bath method and the pressure canner method depending on whether your food is low-acid or high-acid.

First, you will need are some canning jars, also referred to as Mason Jars.  The ‘Mason Jar’ was patented in 1858.  The Mason jar was developed to withstand the high heat required for canning foods.   Thinner glass jars and bottles will not take the repeated exposure to high heat and somewhat quick cooling.  Canning jars are still being produced and you can purchase them at many stores.  They can be expensive to buy brand new but you can probably find them at yard sales and estate sales.  Before using a jar it is important to check the jar carefully for cracks and chips.  If there are chips in the rim, the seal will not be made properly.  A crack in the jar will likely lead to leaking or even an explosion in the canner.  I have had this happen!  Let me tell you, it is quite a noise when a jar of green beans blows up inside a pressure canner.  It is a rare occurrence though and easily avoided by inspecting the jars carefully.

 Today’s canning jars use a two-piece lid system.  The first part is a flat lid that has a soft ring of rubber built in that sits on the rim of the jar and creates the seal.  The lid flat is intended to be used just one time then thrown away after opening the jar.  The second piece is a metal ring that screws onto the jar to keep the flat in place through the process.  The ring is not thrown away and can be used many times.  I have rings that are many years old and only throw them away when they begin to get quite rusted. 

For canning high-acid foods, a water bath canner is appropriate.  This is a large pot that is deep enough to have 1 inch of briskly boiling water covering the jars.  It should have a rack on the bottom to keep jars from resting directly on the bottom of the pot and a well fitted lid.  High-acid foods that can be water bath canned are fruits, jellies, and pickles.  Tomatoes are on the line between high and low acid, depending on the variety of tomato. To ensure the safety you may add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to pint jars.  For quarts, add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice.  Vinegar can be used instead of lemon juice at a rate of 2 tablespoons to pints and 4 tablespoons to quarts. 

When canning low acid foods, a pressure canner is necessary.  It takes the buildup of pressure to achieve the temperatures needed to destroy spores of bacteria that cause botulism as well as other types of spoilage.  Low acid foods are vegetables, meats, poultry and fish.  Low-acid tomatoes should be processed in a pressure canner as well.  Pressure canners are large, heavy pots with very tight fitting lids that seal tight.  There is a rubber ring that fits just inside the rim of the lid.  There are two types of gauges on a pressure canner; a dial gauge and a weighted gauge.  If you have a dial gauge, it should be checked every couple of years for accuracy.  If you accidentally knock the gauge or drop the lid, you may want to get it checked.  Often, local University Extension offices can arrange the testing for you.  You may have heard stories of pressure canners exploding and food splattering all over a kitchen. There are safety features built into pressure canners that prevent this sort of thing from happening.   Properly cleaning and maintaining the seal, safety plugs and vents will keep your canner in tip-top shape.

There are many books available that have all the instructions for canning methods, recipes, procedures of preparation, and time tables.  The USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning is available online at http://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/publications_usda.html or can be ordered in print from the link given on that webpage.  The booklet printed by “Ball Corporation” is usually available in stores near the canning supplies and is an excellent resource for the basics of canning.  Their website includes an online version of their guide and it can be located at http://www.freshpreserving.com.  

One of the cons to canning is that there is a lessening of nutritional value of food due to the high heat and longer cooking times.  However, using the freshest foods available and processing the food quickly can help reduce that nutrition loss.  It does take some invest of money to get started.  However, there is something very satisfying about seeing those jars filled with delicious foods lined up on the shelf.  With canned foods, you don’t have to worry about losing all of your hard work to a prolonged power outage.  You can open a jar in a snap and be ready to cook something delicious without additional thawing time. 

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