Canning is something many of us may remember our parents or grandparents doing. In fact, that is often the visual that comes along with the idea of canning. But, canning and preserving food has made a popular comeback in the last few years. From weekend gardeners to survivalists, almost anyone involved in loves the idea of enjoying fresh foods months and even years after it has been harvested or collected.
Preserving the food you grow can go a long way in making both healthier and economically friendly eating choices. However, canning food does not just mean you can put your food into a jar, screw on a lid, and plan to store it for awhile. You have to understand the type and amounts of food you want to preserve and how long you want to preserve the food, as well as the possible methods to preserve it. Two of the most popular methods, pressure canning and water bath canning, may provide similar results; however, they are both significantly different enough that using the wrong method with the wrong type of food can cause unsafe food conditions that can make your whole family ill.
What is a Pressure Canner?
Pressure canning is the best method to preserve low-acid foods. Low-acid foods include milk products, seafood, poultry, red meats, and fresh vegetables (except for tomatoes). (It is important to note though, that the USDA and canning companies do not recommend canning or preserving milk products at home.) Although there are a variety of pressure canners on the market, most follow a similar design. They are usually lightweight, as most modern ones are constructed of aluminum or stainless steel. A lid is a necessity, as pressure canners work with the steam that circulates inside the canner. Safe canners should include space for at least four-quart size cans. Most modern pressure canners have a rack for the jars to be placed on, a gasket to seal the canner, a gauge to measure the pressure, a steam vent that can be closed by a counterweight, and a fuse for safety. The size and inclusion of the pressure gauge is one primary and important difference between pressure canners and pressure cookers, and it is imperative not to confuse the two.
What is a Water Bath Canner?
Water bath canners are used to preserve highly acidic foods only; this is the process used to can fruits, tomatoes, pickles, or other condiments with lemon juice added. The canner itself is a fairly simple design, and these are typically the image of canners that come to most peoples’ minds. Almost any pot will work as a water bath canner as long as the pot has enough depth so that all the jars remain covered by at least one to two inches of water when the water is boiling because the jars must remain submerged throughout the entire process. Most water bath canners are constructed from aluminum or steel covered in porcelain. Additionally, the canner must have a rack placed at the bottom that will keep the jars from touching the bottom and being in direct contact of the heat. Water must also be able to circulate freely around the jars to ensure proper food preservation. Most modern water bath canners include a rack that hooks to the side for easy lifting of the jars. Water bath canners do not have necessarily require flat bottoms; however, flat bottoms are essential if the canner will be used on an electric range.
Water bath canners work beautifully to preserve acidic foods. Jams, jellies, apple butter, applesauce, and a variety of other fruit preserves can be easily canned using water bath canners. However, they cannot and should not be used to preserve other vegetables and meat products. If you are testing the acidity of your foods, the general acceptable guideline is a pH level of 4.6; anything below that may be processed in a water bath canner. If the food tests above that level, a pressure canner should be used. These low-acid foods can only be preserved safely at temperatures of 240 degrees Fahrenheit for a specific amount of time. Water bath canners cannot meet and hold this temperature, as most water bath canners maintain a temperature around 212 degrees Fahrenheit; therefore, pressure canners must be used for these types of foods. Although both pressure and water bath canners can be found both new and second hand, caution should be used when purchasing a used pressure canner. Older pressure canners may have gaskets that are damaged or missing pieces that are hard to replace, which will make it difficult to safely preserve food.
Water bath canners are typically a little cheaper in price because their design is simpler. These canners can cost as little as $35 with an average price of $50 to $60. Pressure canners can range in price from $80 to the upper $300 range, depending completely upon style, make, model, and brand. The average price of pressure canners is around $100. Combination pressure and water bath canners can be bought as well. In fact, many pressure canners can become water bath canners by simply leaving the lid off. Purchasing a pressure canners may be the way to go if you are planning to preserve large amounts or varieties of food simply because it will offer you such a large range of versatility.
The following visual indicates general guidelines to determine which type of canner should be used in different situations.
Tips to Follow When Canning
- Pressure canning timers should not be started until the gauge reads the correct pressure.
- The type of stove you have can affect the size of canner you should use. In order to avoid cool spots, the diameter of the canner should not be larger than four inches wider than the heating element.
- Your location can also impact the effectiveness of the canner. For individuals who live more than 1000 feet above sea level, special attention must be paid to the manufacturer’s instructions. Often, the pressure must be increased to achieve safe and accurate results.
- Every part of the canning jar, the jar, flat lid, and metal band, must be in good condition to ensure a solid vacuum seal, which will keep the foods in a safe, preserved condition.
- Canning is an active process. Maintaining accurate pressure and heat throughout the entire process can ensure food is safely preserved and harmful bacteria does not cause problems.
- Do not leave the jars in either canner longer than the time required as it can lead to overcooked foods.
- Once the canning time has been completed, the jars should be removed safely with a jar lifter and placed on a towel to cool on the counter. The jars should not be touching so they can cool completely. During the cooling process, you should hear the lids make a “popping” sound, which indicates the vacuum seal has been made.
- Verify that all jars have sealed within twelve to twenty-four hours of completing the canning process. If the jar is sealed, the lid should look concave (pressed in) and should not move if you press on it. When pressing, if you hear a popping sound or feel movement, the food will not be properly preserved.
- Canning jars and metal bands can be reused for later canning; however, the flat metal lids can only be used once.
- Use recipes, particularly when you are first learning the canning process. Share recipes with your friends and family or sift through your grandmother’s old recipes to find ones long forgotten. Good recipes will help ensure you are not only preserving food, but also doing it in a way your family will love. Tried and established recipes will also help you maintain the correct balance of acidity for the method of canning you are using.
- For those just beginning the canning process, a starter canning kit can be an excellent place to begin. Most kits include valuable information and tools you may not even know you need.
No matter the method, canning and preserving food safely should always be a top priority. Understanding the type of food you are preserving, as well as possible methods of preserving, will allow you to decide the safest means to preserve your food and feed your family.
©2012 Off the Grid News