"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Controversial Canning (A Confession)

These last four years, I've done a lot of canning. In past years, before I moved up here, I know I must have canned at least a few times, but I can't for the life of me remember doing it. I just know that when I made my first batch of jam up here, I wasn't doing it for the first time.

So I guess I can't really remember how I learned to can. I do remember watching my mother can when I was quite small, when we lived in Woodinville before the divorce. My dad put in a good sized garden every year and mom would usually preserve something at least once or twice a summer. My memories are vague rather than specific: standing near - but behind - my mother as she peered into a large steaming kettle; the wooden spoon, stained red with strawberry juice; touching the tops of the hot jars to see if they had sealed properly. I certainly don't remember any lessons happening.

Canning is intimidating; there's so much work involved, for one thing. Another thing I remember is my mom all sweaty and angry with her hair hanging down and tomatoes everywhere. Now I know why - dealing with twenty or thirty pounds of ripe fruit is a lot of work. Washing jars and finding lids and carrying kettles of boiling water around is hard work. Forcing gallons of applesauce or tomato paste through a foodmill is excruciatingly hard work. Hot work, too. And it always happens in August.

Then there's the fact that home canning can kill you. If you read a book on the subject (the Ball Blue Book is the best known and the most venerable: Amazon.com: Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving (0797190001428 ...) you will come away convinced that legions of Americans die every year from improperly home canned food. My general impression, when I first looked into home canning, was that the annual death toll from botulism in this country was on a par with, oh, say, traffic accidents. In actual fact, the incidence of botulism from home canned foods between 1990 and 2000 in the united states was approximately one in ten million (Botulism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia).

Now here's where things get controversial. As anyone who cans, or who has read a book on canning knows, there are two methods for home canning: the water-bath and pressure canning. Water bath canning involves filling sterilized jars with food and then immersing them in boiling water for a length of time. Water bath canning is safe for all high acid foods like tomatoes, chutneys, pickles, and also for high sugar foods such as jams and jellies. Pressure canning involves a pressure canner, which allows the cook to achieve temperatures higher that that of boiling water, temperatures high enough to kill the pathogen that causes botulism.

I have always avoided pressure canning. It just intimidates me. I do OWN a pressure cooker, but I'm not totally sure how to use it, and I think I lost the regulator. Once when I was a child, my mom was cooking beans in a pressure cooker and there was an explosion and boiling beans hit the ceiling with such force that that it rained beans. The stain never left the ceiling. Nor is that the only pressure cooker explosion I know about. In fact, my sister's sister-in-law (got that?) suffered third degree burns over 16% of her body in a pressure cooker explosion. She was in the hospital for a week. I think my brother may also have experienced some kind of pressure-cooker blowout but I'm not sure.

So on the one hand, we have a one in ten million incidence of botulism (which, by the way, has a 4% fatality rate in adults), and on the other hand we have two or possibly three incidents in my immediate experience of catastrophic pressure-cooker accidents, with serious injury. I think I am justified in being more frightened of pressure cookers than I am of home-canned food.

Now to be clear - I am NOT advocating that anyone disregard the United States Government's recommendations on home canning procedures. They are very sensible, free, and you can read them here: National Center for Home Food Preservation | USDA Publications. But I AM saying that I personally am not going to break out the pressure cooker.

That does limit me as far as what I can can. I can can (la da da-da-da-da, la da da DAH- da-da-da, la da DAH-da-da-da dum dum dum dum dum dum dum dum...) tomatoes, all types of pickles, salsas, chutneys, and jams and jellies. I can not can vegetables, fish or meats.

But it seems to me there's a little wiggle room there. I know that what matters is the acid level. I should do a little research into what the actual acceptable levels of acid are that permit water bath canning. If you add a tablespoon of lemon juice to your green beans, is that enough? Are you really flirting with a gruesome death if you water-bath can eggplant caponata?

Well I hope not, because that's what I did yesterday. That's a jar of eggplant caponata at the top of this column, and a thing of beauty, too. There was a sale on eggplants at Trader Joe's. They always have the MOST beautiful eggplants there - I don't know why, but their eggplants are larger, firmer, glossier, and purpler than any other eggplants. And cheap, too. I got three for under $5. In the house I had the other ingredients: tomatoes, herbs, and celery from the garden, onions and garlic from my neighbor's garden, raisins in the pantry. Caponata is meant to be rather acid, but to be on the safe side, I added more than the usual amount of vinegar, and therefore more than the usual amount of sugar, too. In fact, I added so much extra sugar and vinegar that I think I can call the result a chutney.... which is perfectly safe to water-bath can....

The fact is, I fudge. I don't follow recipes. I use my common sense, born of experience. Am I an expert? Heck no! But I am a very experienced cook, and I am growing more experienced with canning every year. Also I am a trained nurse, and I know the difference between clean technique, sterile technique, and how to maintain a sterile field. It may be that when I do more research I find I am wrong - hunches are often wrong - but my hunch is that the danger involved in canning comes from inadequately sterilized equipment BEFORE it is processed, and that if great care is taken to sterilize jars, tongs, spoons, etc, then the method pf processing is less important.

In any case, if you are on my Christmas list don't worry - I will only send you absolutely 100% safe stuff like pickles and jam. But here at home I will be eating my caponata. And I may even can chile! Or soup! Hell, I'm a renegade! I already feed my children raw MILK!

But that's a post for another day...


Lana from Farm Life Lessons said...

This was incredibly informative. I love your details, they are very critical in areas such as canning. I'd love to know your spin on sterilizing, to make sure I am doing everything right. I've not canned, but I have purchased several books, have the water bath equipment and am gathering the courage. My mother canned; every year I remember having her pickles.

Anyway, I truly enjoy reading your blog and look forward to the next visit!

Aimee said...

Thank you Lana, that's very nice to hear. I have enjoyed perusing your blog, too!

Go for it! Canning, I mean! Really, water bath canning is just cooking. All you need to know is:

-use fresh, best-quality produce (poor quality produce will not yield good results)
-use a kettle large enough to hold your jars with an inch of headroom - you want the water to cover the filled jars by a full inch
-Lay down a freshly laundered towel on the counter next to your kettle. This is your "clean field." Nothing dirty or unsterilized goes on the towel.
-ALWAYS use new lids. You can get away with re-using bands, but not lids.

That's it! Enjoy!

jj said...

I have to admit, I'm a big old chicken when it comes to the idea of potential food poisoning. Which is pretty silly from a girl who hitchiked in Morocco and Egypt, but there it is.

Kudos to you, though. The theory is sound, and even if it isn't, botulism is pretty rare, so likely no harm to be done. Heck, Mom was eating WB canned TURKEY a couple weeks ago (I freaked on her, by the way, and she laughed at me).

Enjoy your eggplant :)

steak and eggs said...

Aimee, you say you drink raw milk. I have a question for you. My mother used to tell us if you drink raw milk and eat fish it would kill you. I wonder if you ever heard this or if it is true.

Anonymous said...

Ooooh...gosh...I'm all for rebellion, but I don't think I'd eat that caponata. It seems likely that the reason botulism is waaaay down is that people are not water bath canning low-acid foods much any more! Especially stuff with garlic and onions; the botulism lives in the soil and garlic is a key way it gets into food.

Botulism may have a mortality rate of only 4%, but its other side effects include paralysis. Is it really worth the risk?

Modern pressure canners with a dial are far safer than the old style with the weighted gauge, and they are different from pressure cookers.

If you are going to risk it (and yes, I know many people have survived many cans of water-bath canned low-acid foods), be sure to boil the food for at least 20 minutes after you open the jar. If any botulinum toxin has been produced in the jar, boiling can neutralize the toxin.

Aimee said...

Steak and eggs ... No, never!
ECTH: thanks for the information. Everyone has their own risk tolerance: I know people who would never eat home canned food but who think skydiving is safe enough for them. Some people think travel in third world countries is safe but won't let their kids eat food with artificial flavors in it. Or that motorcycles are ok but not the Internet. You get my point - all of us make our own choices about which risks are acceptable.

Anonymous said...

Amen, sister, about risk! I figure if people have good data, they will make the best decision for themselves. I shared my data...now I butt out. :)


Laura said...

The MAXIMUM pH for water bath canning is 4.6. (with 6 being neutral).

I have a pressure canner, and have happily canned 14 chickens with it. I think the exploding pressure cookers (sorry your family seems to represent the downside!!) are due to a) faulty rings, b) faulty gauges - they need to be checked every year (the extension usually does it for free) or lack of attention (letting the pressure build up too high).

Having a minor in chemistry (and a degree in biology), I would not deviate from the blue book or the USDA guidelines for canning, particularly canning meat or low acid foods.

We once had an anthrax scare at a place where I worked. Guess how the person who found a powder in the envelope checked? Of course, she SNIFFED it! When I told her how ill-considered that was, I equated it with eating poorly canned food - botulin toxin doesn't taste bad, but it will still kill you dead!!

Aimee said...

Laura - I'm guessing this was a typo but Nuetral on the ph scale is 7, not 6. Thanks for the info - now I can use a simple ph strip to make sure I am safe.

Christy Geyer said...

I have always shied away from pressure canning too, but not from a fear of the pressure cooker. Your grandmother had botulism poisoning from home canned corn and drilled into me not to trust home canned veggies when I was young. I'm not sure when it happened but I'm pretty sure it was before I was born. She did a lot of water bath canning of pickles, jams, tomatoes, fruit...but never veggies. Those went in the freezer and that's pretty much what I do.

Christy said...

I have always shied away from pressure canning too, but not from a fear of the pressure cooker. Your grandmother had botulism poisoning from home canned corn and drilled into me not to trust home canned veggies when I was young. I'm not sure when it happened but I'm pretty sure it was before I was born. She did a lot of water bath canning of pickles, jams, tomatoes, fruit...but never veggies. Those went in the freezer and that's pretty much what I do.519

Aimee said...

That's fascinating, aunt christie. Thanks for the story. It's the first firsthand story I know of anyone being sickened by home canning. I'm the years since I wrote this I have stuck to water bath canning, except for salmon one year, which I did with experts in a pressure canner.