It was beautiful to be surrounded by men and women who genuinely cared about teaching people about preserving food and were willing to take half of a week to get trained. Some folks were farmers, looking to produce value-added products like jams and pickles to their booths at the farmer's market. Some folks had worked for UW Extension for a while and wanted to be able to answer people's food preservation questions themselves. A few people had never tried canning before and wanted to learn to do it safely. And then there were the folks like me: Big stupid grins on our faces because we're so freakin' obsessed with canning and excited to be surrounded by others like ourselves.
I'm sure my grandmothers canned at some point in their lives. Perhaps my mom even helped... But I never witnessed anyone canning anything until I did it myself. I learned from the internet and cookbooks. But even if I didn't directly learn from my family, I feel like I'm continuing a tradition by preserving food. Because I know my ancestors preserved their own food...Otherwise they wouldn't have survived!
And the number of people interested in food preservation is increasing again, so I'm thrilled to do my part in reviving this tradition. It's a connection to culture, tradition and good quality local foods. And it's a way to make the short warm months of Minnesota last a bit longer.
One of the most challenging parts of the preservation training was learning to stick to the recipes. It goes against every instinct in my soul to stick to a recipe. But we learned about when it is safe to change a recipe and what is safely changed. Here are a couple of important lessons and commonly asked questions:
1. Just because it's in a cookbook doesn't mean that the canning recipe has been tested for safety. Recipes from your local University's extension services, the National Center for Home Food Preservation, or Ball cookbooks or website HAVE been tested to ensure no nasty bacteria or spores will survive your preservation process. This is important!
2. High acid foods are the simplest to can because they won't grow C. botulinum, the bacteria that causes botulism. Your canner can be as simple as a big soup pot- no special canner required. High acid foods are things like fruits, salsas and pickles.
3. Low acid foods MUST be canned in a pressure canner to ensure the C. Botulinum spores have been killed. This includes non-pickled vegetables, soups, broth and meats (if you're into that sort of thing). A pressure canner is different from a pressure cooker. You can use a pressure canner as a pressure cooker, but you can't use a pressure cooker as a pressure canner. Got it? Your pressure canner will have a special weighted gauge or a dial gauge to let you control the pressure inside the canner. This is essential for canning.
4. Monkeying around with recipes is frowned upon because it can upset the delicate acid balance in a recipe...Then you don't know if it will be safe. Some safe substitutions are things like swapping the same volume of hot peppers for mild peppers in a recipe. Or adding a few spices to basic canned vegetables. Or adding or reducing sugar in a pickle recipe or canned fruit syrup. All those things are fine.
5. Don't reuse those canning lids! The jars and rings/bands are perfectly fine to reuse year after year, provided they have not chipped or rusted. But the lids need to be purchased new each time- luckily they're cheap as heck. Why? Because there is a sealing compound around the rim of the lid and it is needed to get a good seal. Also, opening the lids often bends the lid just a bit and that can prevent a good seal. And you'd hate to lose a whole batch of homegrown tomatoes, right?! Just buy the lids!
6. Tomatoes need to have acid added. With all the variety of tomatoes these days (hybrids, heirlooms, etc), there is enough variability in the acidity that it's necessary to add lemon juice or citric acid to your tomatoes before canning them to make sure they are safe from C. Botulinum spores. Check your canned tomatoes from the grocery store and you'll see the same thing. If your recipe for canned tomatoes doesn't call for added acid, you'll know it has not been tested for safety. Someday the awesome scientists who get to test canned foods might have a recipe that's approved for a pressure canner without added acid, but not yet!
7. Grandma didn't kill you with her [insert unsafe canning method here, like open-kettle canning, oven canning, sealing with paraffin wax, etc.], but that doesn't mean you should use her recipe. Chances are you can find a similar recipe or method from one of the safe resources that is pretty similar to Grandma's. Grandma would want you to be safe.
Got questions? Send 'em my way!