Homesteading, Organic Gardening, How to Farm, Preparedness, Self-Reliance
The Happy Homesteader
With the summer garden fully planted now and the plants growing quickly I know that the harvest is just around the corner. It's this time that I do the most canning. Of course, I'm growing and preserving food all year long, but the summer provides a bounty of fresh veggies and many of them lend themselves to canning as the best preservation method.
For those of you that are new to canning, first let me say that there are two types of canning. The easier and most common way is called "water bath" canning and it involves submersing jars of food into a pot of boiling water. This water bath is what heats the food up to the correct temperature in order to kill any bacteria, vacuums out the air that is in the jar, and seals the gummy lid so that no new air can get in. The other type of canning is called "pressure canning" and it involves putting the jars in only a small amount of water, but then sealing the lid of the water pot so that the pressure builds up inside. It is this pressure that creates intense heat to kill bacteria, vacuum out air, and seal the lids. Pressure canning is a bit more involved because you need more specialized equipment (i.e. a pressure canner) and you must regulate the pressure with a weight gauge. For this reason, many people choose to start by learning water bath canning and then graduate to pressure canning.
The reason why there are two types of canning is because food varies in it's acidity level and different pH levels need different amounts of heat in order to kill the bacteria. Highly acidic foods already have the environment which is pretty inhospitable to bacteria, but low acidic foods have an environment which is easier for bacteria to grow so you need that initial intense heat from canning to make sure absolutely no bacteria spores remain sealed in the jar. Imagine for a minute that you canned food that had a slight amount of bacteria in it and it wasn't killed during the canning process. Over the next few months that the jar sits on the shelf that bacteria will grow and eventually colonize the whole jar. This is why it is important to kill off any bacteria during canning so that the food remains shelf stable. High acid foods, which will have a low pH, can be water bath canned and the bacteria will be killed off. Low acid foods, which will have a high pH, need more heat in order to kill their bacteria. In order to get the more intense heat, you need to pressure can. The one caveat is that you can water bath can low acid foods if they are prepared following a recipe that adds a lot of acid to them. This is great for the water bath canners out there because it opens up many more options of items you can can without venturing into pressure canning! One example is that if you want to can beets, then you will have to pressure can them. However, if you prepare the beets with a vinegar syrup, which is high in acid, and make pickled beets, then they are at the right acid level for water bath canning. You must ALWAYS be sure to follow a tested recipe when doing this though because these recipes have been specially formulated in order to ensure the correct pH level for safe water bath canning. To read more about low vs. high acid foods and the process of killing bacteria visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation site.
To gear up for the seemingly endless number of days that I'll spend in the kitchen, I first go through my supplies and see if I need to stock up on anything. For water bath canning, you will need a large pot. There are pots made just for this purpose, but really any pot where you can completely submerge the jars with water will do. The special canning pots are just sized to fit a certain number of canning jars and are made of pretty thin material so that the water heats up faster. I suggest buying the biggest you can find because you'll certainly use it and my canning pot comes in handy for things other than canning! You'll also need glass mason jars which are usually sold with metal lids and screw bands. I suggest stocking up on mason jars anywhere you can find them such as yard sales or second hand shops. You can always buy boxes of screw bands and lids separately and in fact, you'll have to buy new metal lids each time you can because they are not reusable. Tattler makes reusable plastic lids with rubber seals which are worth the investment as long as you keep track of them to use over and over. Also, somethings that are not absolutely necessary, but make canning so much easier are a jar lifter, funnel, small spatula, and magnet metal lid lifter. Most of these can be bought together in a beginner's canning kit. The only added item you will need for pressure canning, which can be quite expensive, is a pressure canner which has a locking lid and weighed gauge.
The other things I am sure to keep on hand in large supply during canning season are things that I use in abundance for my favorite recipes. I stock up on vinegar and pickling salt for all of the pickles, dilly beans, pickled beets, etc. I also stock up on lemon juice because I always add a bit to canned tomatoes and tomato sauces. Tomatoes have been selected over the years to be less acidic because people tend to enjoy them more this way. The result has been that tomatoes can actually be a low acid food unsafe for water bath canning. Adding a bit of lemon juice in the correct ratio solves this problem. Sugar is another item that I use a good bit of when making things like sliced peaches or blackberries in syrup. Lastly, I begin to dry lots of herbs like basil, oregano, and thyme to add to spaghetti or pizza sauce recipes.
While my favorite canning book looks like a personal diary with dog-earred pages and scribbled notes in the margins after years of use, if you are new to canning then now is good time to thumb through a canning book to find recipes you want to try. I like Ball's Complete Book of Home Preserving. If you have never canned before, don't be intimidated! The first time you will scrutinize over recipes and procedures, but once you have your first jars canned, then the next time will be a piece of cake!
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