Before I rant, and I am afraid you’re in for a bit of a rant (sprinkled with some pictures to soften the blow), I want to thank all of you for the great What-To-Do-With-800-Canning-Rings challenge. Congratulations to Flan who had the idea of using bungee cords. Done and done. Thank you, Flan. I’ll send an email, please send me your mailing address. Jars on the way!
And, because subjective judging is so annoying, I promised a randomly selected winner for another pantry giveaway box, congratulations Madeline. I’ll send you some extra rings while I’m at it.
Alright, warning warning. Here comes the rant.
This. An NPR story about a man who canned elk meat and gave himself a good dose of botulism. There are so many things wrong with this story, I hardly know where to start. Why did he use a pressure cooker when he should have used a pressure CANNER? (Or was that bad reporting?) Why he opted to can meat using “his mother’s recipe” but never before had done any canning himself yet did no additional research? Just cut up a wild elk (and who knows how long he took to harvest the whole beast), put it in jars, place those jars in the WRONG equipment and then, rather than follow the instructions, alter to suit, all so his canning was more CONVENIENT? No, he did not listen for the ping indicating a SAFE SEAL, he listened for the ping that indicated a seal had FAILED and then decided to refrigerate and eat that jar? Seriously, what kind of stupid is this?
Once I stopped muttering under my breath, it occurred to me I had never addressed all these fears directly. Let’s get it out there and start a conversation. Because, really, there is plenty to fear. But with knowledge comes power, right? The power to preserve intelligently.
Botulism is the biggest anxiety producer, for sure, but Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter, Listeria monocytogenes, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, Bacillus cereus, and Entero-pathogenic Escherichia coli are just a few of the other food borne illnesses out there. Yet, with all those potentially sick making scary names, the CDC expects 88 deaths each year from domestically prepared foods. (The most recent numbers available seem to be from 2011.)
On the other hand, growing up in Ohio we drove nearly an hour to eat at a small Mexican restaurant near Detroit. They served the most delicious salsa. And that salsa killed 13 diners one night. Improper preservation techniques. This is a story that I tell my preserving students because we could all use a little fear. We should respect that canning is not cooking, it is science. And without respecting the science, you risk making people sick.
Here are a few of my rules of the road. There are so many more, so many I take for granted. Chime in below, leave a comment, tell everyone how you ensure safety with your canned products, or tell us what scares you and I’ll try to allay your fears. I want to see everyone preserving, sure, but I want it to be safe to eat, too.
Use recipes from trusted sources. My canning knowledge comes from years of experience, plenty of reading, and many many experiments. When I am unsure, there are places to get recipes tested for a reasonable fee.
When “adjusting” a recipe, remember No Freewheeling with anything other than swapping sweeteners (by weight), adding or omitting herbs and spices, exchanging vinegars (if they are 5% acidity) and adding small amounts of liquor. I received an email from a reader recently saying a jam had not set to their satisfaction. They questioned the recipe, but when I prodded, admitted to cutting the sugar in half. That is not following the recipe. Of course the jam didn’t set. And shelf stability for a year can’t be guaranteed when you decide to change a ratio.
Follow the rules. Read the instructions many times before starting. If you haven’t canned before, get a friend and do it together. Two heads are better than one. Or ask to help a veteran canner and learn by doing. It’s the best way.
If you can often, you will develop a rhythm and have a body memory of the process. If you only can once a year, reread the recipes and all the instructions before you get going. There will be things you forget. Give yourself plenty of time.
Keep your equipment in top shape. If you pressure can, check the gauge every year. Most hardware store and many auto mechanics will check the gauge for you. The rubber gasket on dial-gauge machines will wear out. Check carefully for rips and tears and replace it when needed.
If the jar does not seal, refrigerate it right away and use the product as soon as possible. If an entire canner load fails to seal, the jars can be emptied, reheated, ladled into re-sterilized jars and sealed with new, never used, lids. But if an entire canner load failed, it’s time to review your actions. They should not fail at that rate. Did you remove the air bubbles before sealing the jar? Did you overfill the jars? Did you carefully clean the rim of the jar and all the threads before placing the lid? If waterbath canning, did the boiling water completely cover the jars? Did you use the correct jar size for the recipe? If pressure canning, did the pressure spike? Was there undue siphoning?
When you grab a jar from the pantry, if it is no longer sealed, throw it away. Do not taste it. Just toss it. Jar and all. If it is sealed, but there is mold growing in the jar, throw it away. If it smells like something died in the jar, throw it away. Don’t feed it to the dog. Don’t taste a little, just to see. It’s just not worth it.
Keep it clean. Everything. Before you start to can, clean all the counters, the sink, the stove. Give the pots and pans a good going over. Sterilize the jars.
Finally, let’s agree to be smart about all of this. I give away jars of food all the time with confidence. But would I give home canned meats and other pressure canned and low acid foods to someone with a compromised immune system? Never.
Only a person of questionable sanity would choose to can elk as their first project. It’s best to start with pickles or jam, move on to putting crushed tomatoes or tomato puree in a jar, and just as with any new endeavor, warm up and stretch before going for the gold.
Last word: This sauce is divine.
Peach Melba Sauce with Thai Basil
Makes 4 – 12 oz jars
3 pounds white peaches
1 pound raspberries
3 cups sugar
Juice of one lemon
1 oz Thai basil sprigs, about 8, tied
Peel, pit, and halve the white peaches. Slice each half into four long crescents and place in a largish bowl.
Squeeze the lemon juice over the peaches and stir.
Run the raspberries through a food mill right into the bowl with the peaches. Alternately, press the berries through a fine sieve to remove the seeds.
Add the sugar and basil and macerate for 12 to 48 hours.
Empty the fruit into a colander placed over your preserving pan (any heavy weight 5 quart pan – Le Creuset is a good choice). Discard the basil. Let the syrup drain into the pot for about 20 minutes. Place the colander into a bowl and hold aside.
Clip on a candy thermometer and bring the syrup to 215°F. Add back the peaches and cook until the sauce has thickened, the peaches no longer float on the surface of the syrup, and the foam has cleared, about 25 minutes.
Ladle into sterilized 12 ounce jars. Wipe the rim of the jar carefully, place a warmed lid and ring on the jar, “finger tight”.
Process 15 minutes in a water bath. For more information on water bath canning, see this post.
Slather in layers with pound cake and whipped cream for a fantastic trifle, spoon over crumbled meringues (like this mess from David Lebovitz), stirred into yogurt or ribboned through peach ice cream.
Still here? I had to share these two snapshots from my time at Canal House last month. We’ve started photographing The Book. Goodness me, it’s feeling very real.