Preserving food at home is probably as old as humanity itself. But that doesn’t mean that the old way is always the safe way. No one wants to get sick from home canned foods. So how do you determine if your canning process is safe? Start by considering these guidelines.
Keep it clean
A clean kitchen work space is a safe kitchen work space. Clean ounters, utensils, and cutting boards to prevent cross contamination. This also means that the cloths you use to clean these areas should be clean and sanitized. Sponges happily absorb bacteria – keep them sanitized by running them through the dishwasher on a regular basis. Before I start a new canning project, I wipe down my counter space with an anti-bacterial wipe, or a sanitizing bleach solution (1 teaspoon bleach to 1 cup water).
No garden soil here
Making pickles from your fresh picked garden cucumbers? Jam from the strawberries you picked up at the farmer’s market? Canning tuna from your big fishing trip? Don’t forget to wash your raw product first. Garden soil tends to hide in produce crevices, so scrub those cucumbers well and submerge the strawberries in warm water to dislodge dirt. Drain blood from animal stomach cavity and wash well. Botulism spores, fungi, and other contaminates hide in soil; unwelcome groupies we want to wash away.
Use the water bath canner
Here’s the deal – high acid foods also need to be processed to be safe. In days gone by we covered our jam with paraffin wax (or simply turned the jars upside down to seal), but those methods are no longer considered safe. If you ever opened a jar of jam and removed the wax plug only to find mold, you understand why. So, once you have followed a safe recipe, follow the safe processing instructions and use the boiling water bath for the stated time.
Something to keep in mind – processing time starts when the water returns to a boil after adding the jars. For example, if the water is boiling in your canner and you add 6 jars of jam that need to be processed for 10 minutes, start the timer when the water starts boiling once all the jars are in the canner – not when you first add them.
High acid foods include most fruits, tomatoes, and most pickled foods. There are exceptions; stewed tomatoes, melon jams, etc. are not acidic enough to safely can in a water bath canner. Be sure to use an approved recipe.
How to find an approved recipe: 5 Sources for Safe Home Canning Recipes
Some of my favorite canning books: Favorite Canning Books Everyone Should Own
Use a pressure canner
A pressure cooker is not a pressure canner. They have two different purposes. Almost all pressure cookers are too small to safely act as a pressure canner, and most do not hold heat at the stable temperature needed to safely pressure can food.
The pressure canning process is absolutely necessary to safely can low-acid foods like meat, vegetables, and seafood. Since these products do not have enough natural acidity to destroy contaminates in conjunction with boiling water, they need pressure added to increase the water temperature higher than the boiling point.
A pressure canner is always needed to can vegetables (even if your grandmother used a water bath canner for her green beans!), fish and seafood, and meats. There are other safe preserving methods for low-acid foods; dehydrating or salting or freezing for example, but the only safe canning method is pressure canning.
Watch out for misinformation
We live in the era of misinformation, and that includes canning misinformation. Unlike politics, most canning misinformation is unintentional and runs from simple typing mistakes to abject ignorance and everything in-between.
There are tons of canning sites now with all kinds of creative recipes. But no matter how creative, you still can’t safely water bath can banana jam (or pressure can it either as there doesn’t seem to be an approved recipe), and you certainly can’t water bath can fish – as a recent well-known magazine site led us to believe was safe. At the very least you will waste time and money by following an unapproved canning method, at worst you may put your life in danger. Remember, low-acid foods must be pressure canned to protect us from botulism and other nasty bugs.
Botulism – Not an Old Wives Tale
Home canning is the perfect way to preserve safe, high-quality food. It allows us control over unwanted food additives, helps us stretch the grocery budget, and lends a sense of self-reliance. But there are rules. Follow them and your home canning process will be a safe process.
Have you ever had vinegar eels in your homemade vinegar? I followed your peach vinegar, everything was looking and tasting great. Then all of a sudden I had vinegar eels. How do I avoid these? Thank you.
Erica, I have never had vinegar eels develop when making any kind of vinegar. But, it is a thing, and supposedly not harmful. You should filter them out before stabilizing the vinegar. They should not develop after the vinegar is stabilized. To avoid them, perhaps not letting your fruit peels sit as long? Or maybe try making vinegar when the weather is hotter or colder than when you tried before? I need to study this problem! Thanks for bringing to my attention.