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.
Thursday, August 4, 2011
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...