|Karen Savino, TNCEP Educator|
Heather Guinn, County Director
Instructor Heather Guinn began our Canning College with this clear precaution statement, "It's really important that we follow our instructions to the letter." Over the course of two evenings, our groups of adult students would work together to sterilize jars and lids, blanch fruits, chop, process and time. The kitchen got pretty hot with all of that boiling water constantly on the stove.
We were reminded that you have to work fast, and that timing is critical. "Before you start picking, make sure you have time set aside for canning," Guinn cautioned. We used a timer as we read through specific recipes, needing to process the food just enough to destroy the chance for molds, yeasts or bacteria to appear - without overcooking.
|Filling jars with peach preserves|
Our first session focused on fruits that have a high enough acidity level to be processed in a boiling waterbath. A team of instructors showed us how to use boiling water to blanch the peaches and tomatoes in order to ease the skins off them, prior to actually processing them for a specified amount of time in their jars. Students took turns blanching, cooling, peeling and processing the food. We were told that sterile jars, brand new tops and the freshest possible produce were essential. We found out that although sugar is helpful and tasty, it's not always necessary.
Our second evening was about using a pressure canner for vegetables or meats that had low levels of acidity. Lyvonne Lewis and I both brought older, weighted pressure canners that the instructor was unable to test because not enough was known about them. A typically free service offered by extension agents around the country is to test pressure canners to confirm that they will work properly. Some newer canners can also be tested, while others with gauges don't need a test. In the case of my approximately 30-year-old canner without the instruction booklet, the agent finally reluctantly advised that I might be better off replacing it. Sounds like a reasonable precaution to me, considering how dangerously hot the steam is that sprews from those things.
|Cucumbers changing color with boiling|
We learned to carefully wipe the tops of the jars before securing brand new lids on them. We listened for the distinctive popping sound that indicates the jars have sealed correctly. If they don't seal, they're unsafe. Occasionally, something strange can happen, even if you think you've done everything right. I asked Guinn what her most frequent questions are from people in her community. "Usually it's problems with canning, like 'if it didn't seal, what do I do next?', or one lady had the white milky substance on her green beans -- that was botulism."
The class also mentioned that freezing and drying can be other methods of preserving our own foods. We didn't get into the details of those. When I asked about squash, the instructor says it's currently recommended to freeze but not can the squash.
|Packing green beans tightly|
How easy or difficult is home canning? Depends on who you ask. Yes, people have been doing it for centuries, and anyone can learn. But mistakes can potentially be deadly. It's not like a dinner recipe that you can fudge on. Skip one step, like sterilizing, boiling for a certain time, or checking the seal, and you could jeopardize a good batch of food. I asked our instructor if she thought everyone needed to take her class. Guinn replied, "You don't necessarily have to take a class, but the biggest thing is getting your information from research-based, trusted sources." She made clear that you should have your canning recipe and pressure canner instruction booklet with you in the kitchen at all times, because there's no room for guesswork.
A few details even change over the years, so there's a chance that something Grandma taught you might not still be the best method. For instance, my grandmother used to seal some jars with paraffin wax. That's no longer recommended. That's why this writer is not trying to give you complete instructions on canning. I will add some links below to several sources of canning information that our instructor recommends. One source is connected to a Georgia extension service, where they publish a popular book based on the latest scientifically based methods for food preservation.
The best part was getting to bring home a beautiful sampling of the foods our class prepared together. We had peaches, tomatoes, salsa, green beans and pickles. I'm excited about cautiously canning my first solo batch of something this summer!