water bath canning
By Lorelei Kellogg
For many of us, the art of putting food by is a labor of love with which we are no longer familiar. And for a few, like yours truly, when we first hear the phrase “putting food by”, we immediately ask ourselves what, exactly, are we putting this food next to? Luckily I didn’t utter this question aloud, but apparently my brain couldn’t help itself.
Suffice it to say that the work of preparing, keeping and storing the bounties of the fall harvest, in order to sustain ourselves and our families through the winter, is no longer the common activity it was in our grandmother’s time. However if the numbers are to be believed, home gardening is flourishing. With many first time gardeners taking a page from the White House’s book, and with seed sales increasing between 20 and 30 percent depending on the plant, it seems pretty clear that more people are gardening. And if more people are gardening, more people are canning.
Canning is my preferred method for putting food by, for a variety of reasons. First, canned goods can survive without refrigeration, unlike frozen foods, which will rapidly go downhill in a blackout. Secondly, canned fruits and vegetables actually maintain a higher nutrient content than things stored in root cellars or in the refrigerator. If done properly, canning is the best way to take the abundance of your garden and keep it to snack on later.
There are two methods to modern canning – the water bath method and the pressure canning method. These are the safest methods to can foods and pressure canning is the only way to go if you are canning low acid foods, which include vegetables and any meats or beans, as well as pre-made soups and stews. Water bath canning is primarily for high acid foods, such as fruits, tomatoes and some pickled vegetables. The addition of the vinegar in most pickle recipes raises the acidity to the point where water bath methods are deemed safe. Regardless, I recommend that you follow proven canning recipes for both methods.
Open kettle canning, a popular “old-school” method, is no longer recommended, due to the fact that it does not sustain for long enough the high temperatures necessary to kill pathogens that can cause illness, particularly botulism.
The basic process for water bath canning is easy and if you set up your kitchen like an assembly line, or even better, invite people over to help, you can make quick work of the process. I prefer to can in large batches. If you’re going to make applesauce, you might as well make ten quarts and get it all done in the same day. Not only can you pat yourself on the back afterwards for such a huge accomplishment, but it also affords you the luxury of not having to pull everything out, re-sterilize it and do the whole process over again tomorrow.
When canning, you want to begin by boiling your lids and jars. This guarantees that they are sterilized as well as warm. Jams and jellies, as well as applesauce, tomato sauce and even whole fruits, should be canned using a hot pack method. This means, for example, that you pour hot applesauce into hot canning jars and then submerge it all in boiling water. By keeping everything hot you are doing two things: first, you are ensuring that there is never a point at which the food cools enough to encourage microbial growth and second, you are protecting yourself and your canning jars from unfortunate cracking or bursting. Glass canning jars are temperature sensitive and placing cold jars in hot water is just asking for trouble. Additionally. trying to bring a canner full of cold jars to a boil will take forever. Things will go much quicker if everything is hot to begin with.
Fill your canner half full of water and place it on the stove, bringing it to 180 degrees while you fill your jars. If you have a canner with a simple rack, put this in now. If you have a basket-type rack you can leave it out and lower it into the water once you have filled it. Jar racks are necessary in order to keep the jars from being too close to the heat source, as well as each other, during processing.
In order to avoid burns, you will want to make use of jar lifters, a lid magnet, a canning funnel and, possibly, a hot mitt. Take your sterilized and still warm jars and place them on a clean dish towel on the counter. Ladle your warm filling into each jar, using the funnel to avoid messy accidents. Be sure to leave the appropriate amount of headspace! Each recipe will provide you with the appropriate amount, typically somewhere between ¼ and 1 inch. Recipes will generally tell you what size jar to use as well and you should follow the recommendation, as jar size affects processing time.
Place a two part lid on your jar, tightening the ring top firmly but being sure not to over tighten. The heat of processing will cause the lids to form a vacuum seal and if they are over tightened, that can lead to cracking. Using the jar lifters, carefully place the filled jars in the water bath canner or basket. Once you have filled the canner to capacity, pour more boiling water over the jars until you have covered them by at least an inch. Let the water come to a rolling boil and then lower the heat, cover, and boil gently for the appropriate processing time. It should be noted that, due to the elevation of the greater Santa Fe area, fifteen additional minutes should be added to the processing time listed on any water bath canning recipe.This is to accommodate the lower boiling point of water at 7000 feet. So if your applesauce recipe tells you to process for twenty minutes, you need to process for thirty-five.
When finished, simply remove the lid and, using your jar lifter, place the hot jars on a clean dishtowel, being very careful not to let them touch. Let them sit until they come to room temperature in their own time, as any attempts to hasten their cooling at this point could lead to explosions. Once cool, you can remove the ring lid and set your canned goods up to store, for later use.
Regardless of steps taken, be sure to check all home canned goods for signs of spoilage before using. Common signs include bulging or leaking lids, explosion or oozing upon opening, slimy texture, cloudiness or frothiness, or mold growth. Do not test any canned goods that exhibit these signs by tasting. Instead, dispose of them in a sealed trash container, where domestic pets and children cannot get to it.