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The History Of Home Canning

As you line up your freshly sterilized glass jars and get ready to can your bumper crop of beans and your bubbling crockpot filled with garden-fresh spaghetti sauce, you can’t help but think of the scores of women who spent hours upon hours preserving fruits and vegetables to help get their family through the lean winter months. The history of preserving food goes as far back as humans being able to comprehend that the cold months offered fewer food options.

Ancient man, being at the mercy of the elements, was forced to rely on methods that were inspired by nature, like drying vegetables, fruits, and meats in the sun and the wind. These dried preserves were then stored in the coolest parts of caves or pits dug in the earth until they were needed during the winter months when food was much more scarce. Freezing temperatures outside offered ideal storage for preserving food during the winter months, with caves, streams, and eventually cellars offering a means of prolonging the cooler environments as spring arrived.

Various civilizations around the world have left behind evidence that they not only relied on nature to preserve their food stores, but also built crude and sometimes oddly sophisticated shelters that were heated by fires in order to create the heat that was needed to thoroughly dry out the foods; smoke was also a popular method of preserving meats, and to this day smoked fish and other smoked meats are a strong part of certain cultures.

Pickling, curing, and canning followed in due course, ultimately changing the way that humans lived and survived the variations in temperatures and availability of food during the winter and early parts of spring.

It really wasn’t until the Napoleonic Wars that canning and preserving food stores became a priority. Napoleon offered a tempting reward to the individual or business that could come up with a new method of preserving foods so that his troops could remain fed and healthy while out waging wars against other nations. In the 1790s a French confectioner determined that if food that was sealed in glass jars was heated to a certain temperature that the food inside of the jars was then protected against deterioration. In the 1800s, Nicolas Appert’s methods of canning food was put into practice and provided the French Navy with a better method of feeding their troops. In 1810 an Englishman took the methods that Appert had discovered and started using tin cans versus glass jars. It wasn’t until Louis Pasteur made the discovery between illness and microorganisms, and of course food spoilage, that the actual principles behind Nicolas Appert’s methods were wholly understood. The invention of the pressure canner in 1851 allowed cans to be heated to temperatures that exceeded 220 degrees Fahrenheit and allowed for further advances in food preservation and of course food safety.

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For several decades, there was much thought and experimentation about the best method of canning foods in order to ensure the best seal, the best shelf life, and of course the lowest risk for illness. The American Civil War saw a surge in popularity of a two-piece jar lid that included a lid and disposable rubber gaskets; this was, of course, the precursor to the Mason jars that we know and love today. An increased availability and affordability in sugar saw women in the 1880s spending a lot of time canning fresh fruits and jams to be enjoyed throughout the year or to be given as gifts.

Through trial and error, and likely a few cases of botulism, the canning method that is preferred in homes around the world was discovered.

  • Sterilizing the glass jars and the jar seal in boiling water
  • Packing the jars with the food that was to be stored, whether jams, jellies, vegetables, or pickles
  • Sealing the jars with the two-piece lid system
  • Placing the jars back into a boiling water bath for up to fifteen minutes

Once the jars are removed from their hot soak and allowed to cool on the counter, the lids will start to pop as the vacuum seal is formed. For a home canner, that popping is the sweet sound of canning and preserving success!

Food items that are high in sugar, brines, or acid are able to be safely stored for up to six months. This means that ketchup, chutney, pickles, jams, chili sauce, tomato sauces, and other similar food items are all popular and successful canning choices. Green beans, carrots, peas, sweet corn, asparagus, beets, mushrooms, spinach, peppers, cubes of squash, and sweet potatoes are all great choices for canning and will provide you with the ability to readily enjoy your garden’s fresh bounty long into the chilly winter months. Their low acid content, however, means that they must be processed longer to ensure safety.

While many people associate canning with the cans they buy their sodium-soaked corn in from their local grocery store, canning is actually the process of preserving food in both glass jars and cans. The sterilization and sealing process is very similar for both, as both the jars and cans are heated beyond the boiling point in order to effectively destroy enzymes and microorganisms that would otherwise lead the food to spoilage. The cans or jars are then allowed to cool before being stored away until they are needed. This heating and cooling process also provides a very effective vacuum seal between the jar and the lid in order to prevent food from becoming contaminated from other microorganisms present all around us.

Prior to the discovery of the effectiveness of the canning process, meats and vegetables were often placed in heavy ceramic crocks and covered with brine, vinegar, or other pickling agents in order to preserve them. This was effective to a degree, but it often led to a fair amount of food spoilage long before the bounty of spring arrived to reinforce food stores. While today we can simply pop out to the grocery store and pick up a few steaks or a bag of potatoes, we are also fortunate enough to have access to a steady amount of glass jars and lids that will provide an effective vacuum seal for our garden bounty.

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