I’ve gotten into canning and food preservation in the past few years. As a child I remember my mother’s gigantic garden, with rows upon rows of vegetables. She canned green beans, corn, carrots, tomatoes, peaches, pears, applesauce, jams and jellies, and even chicken and beef. The low rattling sound of the pressure canner was a familiar one, as was the admonition to “Stay out of the kitchen!”
A few summers ago I started going over to my parents’ farmhouse to help mom with the canning. Mom and I have had some great conversations while pealing apples and cutting up chicken breasts. I’ve gotten pretty comfortable helping her through the process, and naturally, eventually I decided to give it a go on my own. I borrowed her water bath canner, jar lifter, and other necessary supplies, assembled my ingredients, and last summer put down tomato sauce and grape jam, all by myself!
Last summer I admit I was pretty nervous about my canning operations. This summer however, I felt like I was big stuff. I figured I knew what I was doing. So when we amassed 20 lbs of tomatoes from two backyard plants, I was ready.
Spaghetti sauce here we come!
I don’t like the idea of having a pressure canner at my house at this point in our lives, with two small (and very mobile) children running around and no good way to block off our open floor plan kitchen. So once again I borrowed mom’s water bath canner and went to the almighty Google for a great “homemade spaghetti sauce” recipe.
I was feeling pretty smart…
The recipe was pretty basic, calling for tomatoes, tomato paste, onion, green pepper, herbs, a bit of sugar, some salt, and some oil. I dutifully chopped everything up and then (because I was feeling really smart) figured that I may as well get some additional vegetables into my awesome sauce and threw a large zucchini and a few extra green peppers into the food processor along with the other vegetables. Then the whole mix went into the crock-pot to simmer overnight and be ready to go early the next morning.
The next morning I woke up at 5:30, went downstairs, filled the water bath canner with water, and put it on my hot plate for heating. Again I was feeling pretty smart, since I remembered how long the water took to heat last year and hoped to be all finished by mid morning.
I hadn’t looked at any directions or canning times for spaghetti sauce, and for a minute figured I’d just wing it….30 minutes in the water bath should be plenty to seal the jars right? But something told me that I should really take the time to look at some actual instructions, so I pulled up the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s website to take a peek at what they said about spaghetti sauce.
And here’s where things started getting complicated. They were talking about pH levels and acidification and botulism poisoning and spoilage. Wait a minute, I thought canning was all about just getting the food cooked and sealing it in jars?? As long as things are clean and you use good sterile practices you’re golden, right?
Turns out that this little thing called pH matters a LOT in canning. My “very smart” (I thought) move of adding the zucchini and additional peppers to the recipe changed the pH and lowered the acid level of the product to point where even adding citric acid or lemon juice to the jars (as my recipe did call for) did not counteract their effect on the pH of the final product. This is why water bath canning of mixed produce tomato products, such as my spaghetti sauce, is not considered a safe preservation method by the recognized canning experts. The only safe method is using a pressure canner according to guidelines based on the altitude of your location, the size of your jar, and the contents.
Remember how I said that I had borrowed the water bath canner from my mom? Well, now I had a huge pot of bubbling spaghetti sauce (which in my defense did smell incredible!), a giant water bath canner full of near boiling water, two boys and a husband getting up for the day, and no way to finish the preservation. I growled, I groaned, and I imagined eating pasta every day for the next two weeks so as not to waste my giant batch of sauce. And then I did the thing I should have done in the first place:
I called my mother.
My mom has a degree in microbiology, and spent part of her professional career teaching food microbiology (in addition to other things) at the local community college. I admit I was hoping she would tell me I was overreacting and I could go ahead and proceed as I had planned. But alas, she echoed what I had been reading and confirmed that the safest method to preserve what I had made was to use a pressure canner. Thankfully, she wasn’t busy that morning and offered to meet me halfway, pick up my jars, and take them home to finish with the proper equipment.
So what did I learn out of this experience? Primarily I learned that home canning, while not exceedingly complicated, still has rules and procedures that are based in science and put in place to ensure the safety and quality of your food. Here were my other take-aways from the morning’s spaghetti sauce adventure.
Lessons Learned While Attempting Home Canning:
1. Canning is not a great time to experiment. Pick recipes that have been tested by reputable sources and are known to be safe for canning. Stick to the ingredient list and proportions. The National Center for Home Food Preservation has many wonderful recipes and instructions for good, evidence based processes for safe food preservation. Another great source is the Iowa State Extension and Outreach, which also has an “Ask an Expert” hotline that you can call with questions. Also, check out ICMB’s very own Beginner’s Guide to Water Bath Canning!
2. Science matters. Many things can be safely canned and preserved, but there are a whole host of considerations over and above if the jar seals. That pesky pH scale that you learned in high school chemistry and haven’t thought about since? It comes into play here in keeping your food safe from toxins like botulism, staph, and bacillus bacteria that at best can make your food spoiled and moldy and at worst could send you and your family to the ER. If you’re not sure the best process to preserve a certain food item, consult the experts and follow their advice.
3. Call your mom. No matter how old I get and how many things I learn, sometimes I still need my mom to come rescue me from my efforts!
Do you enjoy canning and food preservation? What are your favorite things to preserve and by what methods? Share with us in the comments below!