Canning is a familiar practice most people in Fair Grove will at least use, even if they don’t do the actual canning themselves. Canning something is to prolong its shelf life by sealing it in a glass jar and preserving it at room temperature. The most common thing that is canned would be jellies, jams, and fruit preserves. Some people will also be familiar with pickling certain vegetables and storing them the same way. Come with me and we’ll crack the seal on this hundred year old tradition!
The first thing you should know is how diverse and useful canning can be. If it can fit in a jar, then it can be pickled or canned. This includes things like meat, butter, eggs, and even powdered goods like baking ingredients, sugar, etc. The most common canning is normally fruit or vegetables since these are the hardest things to keep fresh and palatable, especially if they’re grown in a garden and have no preservatives in them.
For meat you want to partially cook it before time, mostly to just drain out the excess fat. During the canning process (which we will be going over later) the meat will cook almost fully. Then when you’re ready to consume the preserved meat, you can cook it one last time to finish the process, ensure there is no leftover dangerous bacteria, and freshen up the flavor. For eggs, they would need to be boiled and then pickled afterwards, which is a great way to add more flavor and texture into your cooking.
While it doesn’t put your food at risk to add seasoning or flavors before canning, it is advised against. Why is this? Well this rule normally stands only for large canners who will preserve large amounts of food at a time. This could result in multiple pounds of ground beef, hundreds of tomatoes, or gallon jars of green beans. The reason you want to refrain from adding seasoning is so the food can be split up and used in multiple different dishes with varying flavors to them. This is especially true for meat. If you are canning a small amount of food at a time then there is nothing wrong with preseasoning, it’s just a decision you’ll have to make depending on how you cook.
Now with these preferences and basics out of the way, how does canning work? Some people get uneasy at the thought of fruit, meat, or vegetables stored at room temperature for years at a time. It makes sense to us that this food would be rotten and unsafe, but magically, canned food is often still as flavorful and healthy as the day it was canned. This is due to one simple thing, the seal. An airtight seal is placed on the jar that keeps the food practically paused in time. This keeps out moisture, bacteria, mold spores, insects, and obviously air flow, all things that contribute to the ripening process.
So how is this seal made? It seems like fancy machinery will be needed but all that you really require is a pot of water, a heat source, a way to remove the jar, and obviously your food and a proper jar to can it with. Once the food, which is almost always hot, is added to the jar, the lid is shut tightly and the jar is submerged in a vat of boiling water. The hot water not only sterilizes the entire outside of the jar, but creates the seal. This creates a cloud of hot air inside the jar that cooks the food further. Once the jar is removed from the hot water, the air cools and contracts, causing a suction that pulls down on the lid and creates a pressurized seal.
Now that you know the science behind it, how can you do it yourself? It’s a simple process that requires simple tools, though for more experienced canners, there are all sorts of fancy tools and machines that speed up the process. None of these are needed for a beginner, though, and you shouldn’t feel pressured into spending money on things you don’t need. Suggested but not required items would be rubber tipped tongs, a funnel, a food scale, and a labeling machine. These are all things that either speed up the process, keep it from getting messy, or just make things look nicer. Again this is not required, but for someone who cans yearly or regularly, they might be good gifts or investments. What is completely required would be a large pot, a heat source, water, heat-safe gloves or tongs, jars, button top lids, and obviously your food of choice.
The process is quick and easy, though it’s common to receive burns and have dangerous spills. Always use caution when working with hot materials. Before you even prepare your food, you need to prepare your jar or jars. Submerge your jars into a tall pot of water so that the jars are completely covered. Throw in with them the button top lids, including the ring. Bring this water up to a boil and allow the water to boil for 10 minutes to sterilize everything.
Many canners will begin this process, then as the water heats up and boils, they prepare their food. Almost always this will involve heating the food up, such as cooking meat, melting butter, boiling a brine solution, or reducing jam. Once the food has been prepared and the jars are sterilized, take your jars out of water and quickly dry them with a fresh towel. Portion your food into the jars equally and quickly place the lids on them, making sure to shut them tightly. Once this is done, place the jars back in the boiling water for another ten minutes. This ensures that the jar and food is hot.
Turn off the water and remove the jars. Leave them out until they completely cool to room temperature. Now check if the jars are properly sealed. You do this by pressing your finger into the button in the center of the lid. If you can push it up and down, the jar is not sealed and not safe. If the lid stays completely still and you cannot push it up or down, then it is sealed and ready to be stored.
This is a tradition that no doubt takes lots of practice, but once you have it under your belt, there’s no limit to the way you can store excess food. Canned food is a great gift to give out to friends or family, especially if the food in it was grown yourself. Preserved food, especially jams and jellies, are also hot commodities at farmer markets and harvest festivals. It’s an inexpensive and handy habit to get into, so give it a shot this winter season!