Traditional canning methods like open kettle canning (for jam and pickles) or water bath canning meat and vegetables are … in a word, unsafe.
And I know, that’s probably not what you want to hear if you’re reading this. Keep reading and let me make my case, okay?
Frequently the argument is heard that a certain method of food storage was traditional, used for decades or centuries, that Grandma used it, and clearly we are all still here to tell the tale.
Therefore, they say, it must be safe.
The problem is that “they” are wrong.
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It is very easy to scoff at the necessity of modern methods of food preservation.
Our grandparents or at least great-grandparents, after all, potted meat and stored it in the cellar, used open kettle canning for pickles and fruit and even meat and vegetables, covered jams and jellies with paraffin wax, and engaged in many practices that modern food storage experts decry as unsafe and very dangerous.
They survived, didn’t they?
If these practices were so dangerous, why does the human race continue? Many of us have stories of mothers and grandmothers who did these things, raising large and healthy families on this “unsafe” food.
There are a number of factors at work here, and I keep thinking about my mother and her pickles.
Now, my mother has always made wonderful pickles.
A meal was not complete unless we had a jar of tomato chow chow or bread and butter pickles at the table. My mother started making pickles and jam in 1971 as a brand new housewife, asking questions of older women, experimenting, and essentially teaching herself.
Hats off to her – she’s an amazing lady.
I remember one year that she experimented with paraffin wax – she said almost all of her jam went moldy and she never tried that again.
We had buckets of flour in the kitchen, bushels of apples in the back porch, massive bins of carrots and potatoes in the cellar, a chest freezer big enough to hide an army, and the ever present pickles and jams – I grew up with the idea of food storage, thanks to my mother.
She is the person I credit in my cookbook A Cabin Full of Food. Mom taught me about the importance of storing food, purely by example. Until I moved out on my own, I thought flour only came in 50 pound bags.
In 2010, she gazed around my growing stockpile of home canned foods and made this pronouncement (a whole afternoon summed up):
“Your apartment is too warm. If you store home canned food in this apartment, your jars will be exploding within a month. You really need to have a cold cellar where the jars can sit, undisturbed. You shouldn’t be taking off the rings, either, or the lids will come off. And meat? Are you sure it’s safe to can meat? I’m pretty sure you’re all going to get sick from that. Marie, you really can’t safely can meat. And besides, even if it’s safe, you’re putting up too much food. Only put up enough to get you through the winter. Not a year’s worth, just the winter. Home canned food doesn’t last through the summer, not even in a cold cellar.”
At Christmastime, she looked in horror at a jar of pickles she had given me.
She had left the ring on, of course, and, when she gave it to me, she said, “Put it in the fridge. Your place is too warm for pickles.”
Curious as to what would actually happen, I placed it in the cupboard next to my home-canned meat.
Live dangerously. I knew that Mom had open kettle canned it, and I wanted to see who was right.
Before I go any further, I need to define open kettle canning.
Open kettle “canning” is when you put HOT food into HOT jars, cover them with HOT lids …. and then trust that that seal from the cooling food protects your food. It’s not really canning.
Two weeks later, the pickles were puffy and the lid was bulging.
Mom asked me what I did with it, and I told her.
She said, “You put that right next to the stuff you canned? And your stuff is fine?”
A week later, my mother gave me all of her jars and rings and said, “If I want to can, I’ll come to your place and you’ll show me how to put up stuff that can sit in the cupboard.”
A few months later, I heard Mom telling friends “Marie puts up meat and vegetables and they’re safe in the cupboard and very tasty!” On her birthday, I bought her a boiling water bath canner and later she bought her own pressure canner. She’s now very quick to explain to people why we don’t use the old-fashioned methods.
Since then I must admit that gifts of home-canned food are all put through that same test at my house. I place them in the kitchen cupboard for a few weeks to see if the lid pops off.
I think that this highlights some very important information about traditional food preservation. Like modern food preservation, it required very specific, controlled circumstances.
My mother was very clear on The Rules of Safe Open Kettle Canning:
- Maintain perfect cleanliness while putting up food, boil all tools, and work fast
- Remove ONE jar from the hot water at time, fill and seal it before getting another jar
- Keep home-canned food in a dark cold cellar
- Leave the lids on, although some people do take them off, as removing lids may cause the seal to break
- Do not touch or disturb jars in any way until ready to eat or the seal might break
- Plan to can enough to get through the winter only (some might last longer, but don’t count on them)
- Stick to pickles, jellies and jams
- Watch carefully for any signs of spoilage, dispose and boil everything
Clearly I am lazy because that is TOO MUCH WORK for me, TOO MUCH WORRY and TOO MUCH UNCERTAINTY!
Another example I will give is my friend Leona, an Old Order Mennonite farmer in southern Ontario.
When she showed me her cold cellar, I noticed strangely coloured meat in one of the jars, and she said, “Oh, I guess that one’s gone bad.” She sure wasn’t surprised – she regularly goes through and removes jars that have spoiled.
Later, when I asked about their ways of preserving, she stressed that they learn at the knees of their mothers, aunts and grandmothers.
They have very, very strict rules about what can and can’t be done (never, ever, ever boiling water bath can beans or corn, for example) and what to look for in a jar that has spoiled.
Although they will preserve applesauce or tomato sauce in quantities to keep two years, mostly everything is to be used up by spring, since jarred food, as my mother said, “only keeps over the winter”.
A cold cellar maintains a temperature just above freezing during the winter months.
It is about the same temperature as the inside of a refrigerator. Today, we know that food that is improperly processed should go into the refrigerator, where it can stay good for a while.
In other words, all of these old methods are making ‘refrigerator jam/pickles’, etc.
This is something to consider when looking at old food preservation methods. They relied on circumstances that many of us don’t have – like a cold well in which to keep butter, or a cold cellar where barely-processed jars of fruits and pickles would usually keep through the winter.
Usually. That’s the important word there.
Whenever you see an historical recipe – like potted or confitted meat – which says that it will keep for “six months”, consider that our forebears would have kept it in a cold cellar and would have planned to use it up by Lent. And winters were colder than they are now – my grandfather would wrap meat in burlap and hang it in the barn during the winter, secure in the knowledge that it would stay frozen until close to Lent.
There’s no way I can guarantee freezing temperatures from November until April!
Food storage (with some exceptions) was intended to get the family through the winter, not through the next thirty years.
In addition, I want to consider some things that my grandfather used to say.
He was born in the middle of World War II, in rural Canada, and has long ago passed on. He had very little fondness for “the good old days”, which he said were brutal and hard. People died of things which are rare today, and everyone simply accepted it as normal.
One thing I always remember is a conversation I overheard between him and my father.
My grandfather said that the spring time “stomach flu”, which used to kill so many people every year, all but disappeared with the introduction of electricity and refrigerators to rural homes.
Even with cold cellars and a lifetime familiarity with traditional food storage methods, people often died of food poisoning in that period just before Lent, when young animals were not yet ready for slaughter (veal, spring chickens, lamb, kids) and the remaining meat had frozen and thawed in the barn a few times too many.
How many people have you known to die from food poisoning? According to my grandfather, this deadly “stomach flu” used to be common.
This is why my grandparents, as soon as home pressure canners were available after World War II, bought one. In late winter, when meat would soon be in danger of thawing and spoiling, they brought it inside, cut it up and canned it.
Traditional canning methods – that is, boiling bath canning meat or open kettle canning pickles and jams – “worked”, but only under very strict circumstances, with a short shelf life, and with an unacceptably high mortality rate.
The crazy thing is that the United States Department of Agriculture announced in 1917 that canned meat had to be pressure canned in order to preserve it properly. This is not new technology. Although home pressure canners were scarce for a while because of the wars, they became available again the 1940s. This is why my grandparents, dirt poor farmers from rural Nova Scotia, Canada, owned and used one after the war.
All food storage has its limits, including pressure canning. Whatever methods you use, please know the limits, the risks, and the proper way to do them.
However, please always choose the safest, most current method of preserving your food. I can think of no reason why any of us should use food storage methods which were proven unsafe in 1917 and which have been repeatedly tested and proven unsafe ever since.
Sum it up – what do I NEED to pressure can?
- A safe, modern pressure canner. Two of the most popular ones are Presto 23 quart pressure canner and All American 921 21-1/2-Quart Pressure Cooker/Canner The Presto is the most popular, but survivalists and preppers might want the consider the All-American, which does not need replacement gaskets every year.
- A second canning rack for the Presto (the All-American comes with two)
- A canning kit with magnetic lid lifter, jar lifter and more
- Optionally, but I recommend it, a stainless steel canning funnel
- If you have a Presto canner, a three piece weighted regulator because the canner really should come with one but does not. Having an extra sealing Ring on hand is also wise because my experience is that they fail when you have vital canning to do.
- Jars. Do not re-use glass jars from jam and other condiments. They are made for single use and are not designed to withstand pressure canning a second time. I mostly use pint jars but you can also use half-pints or quarts. The first jars you buy will come with lids and rings. After that, buy canning lids. The reusable canning lids are more expensive but are worth the price.
- Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving: 400 Delicious and Creative Recipes for Today
The initial output is fairly high, but every item in that list will last you for *years*.