Those of you who regularly use your pressure canners, may want to skip this post. This is aimed at folks who are wanting to get into pressure canning, but have some concerns about safety. I used to be afraid of two things, when it came to pressure canning. The first one, was my canner blowing up like the stories I’d been told, and the second was botulism poisoning! Honestly, I feel that both of these are perfectly understandable fears.
With the gardening season fast approaching (Or perhaps it’s already here for some of us!), it seems like an appropriate time to start thinking about how to preserve your bounty! Personally, I like to freeze, dehydrate and can my extra produce. If you’ve thought about how nice it would be to have shelf stable vegetables from your own garden, but had some apprehensions about getting into canning, perhaps this post will help put your fears to rest.
When I bought my pressure canner and used it for the first time, my hands were shaking because I was so nervous about exploding canners. Seriously, why does there always have to be that one person who says something to the effect of “Oh you’re going to get a pressure canner? My aunt So and So had to be rushed to the hospital back in 1958, because her pressure canner exploded!” I must’ve had at least three people tell me their family tales of exploding canners when I was trying to get the nerve up to use my canner for the first time.
From what I’ve read, back in the 1940’s, there were quite a few pressure canners made and sold, with metal that was of lesser quality. The better steel was being used for the war effort. Because the government was encouraging everyone who could, to have “victory gardens”, and grow as much of their own food as possible, people bought pressure canners to preserve it all. It seems there were some instances of exploding canners, because of the lesser grade of metals being used. That’s probably why many of us (myself included) have had this fear! These days, however, pressure canners are made with multiple safety features, making it far less likely that an explosion will happen. I would urge anyone looking to purchase a canner, to do plenty of research before buying. Once you buy a pressure canner, read the instruction booklet that comes with it and become familiar with the process before you start canning. I also strongly encourage folks to buy a good, current canning book or two. My favorite canning book I use every year when my garden is producing abundantly, is the “Ball, Complete Book of Home Preserving”. There’s hundreds of recipes, as well as very detailed instructions on water bath and pressure canning. The other one that lot’s of people use (myself included) is the “Ball Blue Book”. Another helpful book I have is the “Completed Guide to Home Canning and Preserving” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Now, lets talk a little about botulism poisoning! Wheeeeee! Being wary of botulism poisoning is not an irrational fear in my opinion. That being said, following safe canning guidelines will take care of most of the risk, which is why you need a current book on canning and food preservation. (Go ahead and buy the one from 1965 that you find in a used book store, because it’s bound to be fascinating. Just know that many practices have changed over the years, due to safety concerns. When you actually go to can something, use a newer book for the most up to date information!) Botulism poisoning is caused by the toxins that occur when the bacteria Clostridium botulinum has grown in an oxygen free environment and then died. When we put low acid foods like most vegetables and meats in a jar, and seal it, it’s often the perfect environment for Clostridium botulinum bacteria to thrive, at least for a while. Eventually the bacteria dies and produces the toxin that attacks the body’s nerves. (Some foods are high acid foods, meaning they are acidic enough to safely can in a water bath, such as jams, pickles and most fruits.) With low acid foods, however, you need the high temperature that can only be reached in a pressure canner, to kill off any bacteria that might otherwise flourish and then die, leaving the toxin behind in your food.
The good news, is botulism poisoning is rare, even when you do everything wrong. (That’s why your great grandma may have used the open kettle method or water bath method for everything, with no one getting sick) Unfortunately, however, when it does happen, it’s pretty darn serious. I love my friends and family, and don’t want to poison them. (I’m sure they are happy to know this fact) I choose to follow safe canning guidelines, so I don’t have to worry about botulism poisoning, even if it is rare. I have read in several trusted canning books, that once your open the jar to use the food, heating the contents of the jar to a medium boil, or hotter, for about ten minutes before eating it, can destroy the toxin, making it harmless. If the contents of the jar are questionable, however, don’t eat it. While the toxin from Clostridium botulinum is not known to have a detectable taste or smell, if the canned food is moldy, smells bad, or the lid was not properly sealed, it’s best to not eat it. (I feel a bit silly even writing that, because I don’t think I know anyone who would eat moldy or bad smelling food, with the exception of cheese, perhaps.)
I have now been canning for close to ten years, with no issues. I am careful to follow safe canning guidelines. You need to know how to properly prepare the food to be canned, you need to know your elevation (easy to find online, using your zip code) so you can find the correct weight to use (either with a weighted pressure canner or a dial gauge pressure canner), and you need to follow the manufacturer’s directions for venting, bringing up to pressure, etc. It may sound a bit daunting, but when following good directions, pressure canning can add another valuable option for preserving your garden’s produce, or maybe that deer you or your spouse got while hunting!
Here’s one last bit of info, which might help put things into perspective. I take chances every day of my life. That being said, I’m in no way a reckless person. In fact, I tend to be fairly careful. Driving is most likely, much more of a risk to my well being than exploding canners or botulism poisoning, yet I drive nearly every day. Riding a bike, which I and my kids do fairly often, is probably a bigger danger to our well being than exploding canners and botulism poisoning. I’m not suggesting that we should throw caution to the wind, and just can whatever and not worry about safety guidelines. I’m suggesting that sometimes the things we find scary, aren’t as bad as we think, when we take simple precautions. Get a pressure canner. Grow a great big garden. Preserve your healthy, homegrown bounty safely, and enjoy the “fruits” or your hard work!