Preserving the Harvest

First of all, I must issue an apology to all.  I have been having a somewhat “interesting” summer.  My mother, who is in a nursing home with Alzheimer Disease, has taken a turn for the worse;  my father-in-law who lives in Canada had to be placed in a nursing home after suffering both a fall and a heart  attack and much time was spent preparing his home for sale; and my dear sister (and companion gardener) died of Breast Cancer at the end of June.  All of these issues have caused the July and August episodes of this blog to be late.  I apologize for this.

I promised to discuss canning and preserving.  I have received numerous questions about canning and I hope this material answers those questions.

First and foremost of all,  “CANNING” does not mean turning everything from the garden into pickles.  If you have been pouring vinegar over everything and jarring it, it is no wonder that your family may have come to hate canned foods.

Actually, you can can (sheesh!) virtually any food, including meats, soups, stews, and the like.   You can produce canned vegetables that are better than anything from the supermarket, if you have the right equipment. Abundant home-grown fresh fruits and vegetables can be enjoyed all year if you know how to preserve them by canning.  In addition, the ability to can food extends to  meats, poultry, and seafood.  This means that sales on meat and fish become occasions where savings translate into the opportunity to savor savings all year. Here, you see some of the canned foods I’ve put up thus far.  There are pickles, of course, but there is also canned chicken and beef broth, canned green beans, canned peas and canned okra.  I’ve also canned Ketchup, Sauerkraut, Sweet Potatoes and White Potatoes.  Everything doesn’t have to be pickled.  Read on. . .

Canning and Preserving Safety and You

Before you read any further, it is essential that you study and internalize this information about safe canning and preserving.

Forget all about whatever it was your mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, or old aunt told you.  Those old family recipes are NO GOOD if they don’t meet modern safe  canning or preserving practices!

Why am I putting this first ?  Let me begin with a little story about something that simply frightened me.

After eating some of my special bean salad at the annual picnic a couple of years ago, one of my neighboring gardeners asked me whether or not it could be canned.  I told her that it could be canned and shared my recipe.  I then asked her about what she was going to do with all of the corn she had harvested.  She replied that quite a bit had been given to family and friends, and that the rest had been canned.  I asked her what type and size of pressure canner she used, and her face went blank.  She explained that  “I just put the corn up in jars, put it in a regular canner and boil it hard for several hours.  Those jars just ping like mad when I take it out—that’s how we know it’s okay,” she said.

I was horrified, and it must have shown on my face because she then told me that no one in her family had ever gotten sick from eating corn, beans or squash that had been canned like that.    I asked her to never do that again, and I warned her to be aware of any strange changes in the food that she had canned in that old-fashioned method.  I also encouraged her to invest in a pressure canner.

The simple fact of the matter is that there are numerous old “family recipes” like hers out there that are GUARANTEED to spell trouble.   Years ago people simply didn’t know any better and they took a chance.  And taking that chance meant numerous cases of what oldsters used to all Ptomaine (Toe-main) Poisoning—what doctors now call Botulism.  The simple fact of the matter is that certain vegetables and no meats or seafoods  should ever be processed in a boiling water bath canner under any circumstances.  It is simply dangerous.  Period.

The following is a basic list of foods that cannot be canned in a standard boiling water bath canner.  I REPEAT—DO NOT ATTEMPT TO CAN THESE FOODS IN A BOILING WATER BATH CANNER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.


Asian pears,





Ripe pineapple,


Cabbage  (Except Sauerkraut)

Green Beans

High Sugar Tomatoes (such as cherry or ‘grape’ tomatoes)*




Sweet Peppers

Beets  (Except vinegar PICKLED beets)


Sweet Potatoes

White Potatoes

Cucumbers  (Except vinegar PICKLES)




Zucchini  (Except vinegar PICKLED Zucchini)

Squash (Except vinegar PICKLED squash)


Beans  (any type)



Collard Greens

Mustard Greens

Turnip Greens



All Meats

All Fish and Seafoods

*all tomatoes must have lemon juice added, even tomatoes that are in spaghetti sauce

Pressure canning is the only canning method recommended for low-acid foods like meat, poultry, seafood and vegetables. Clostridium Botulinum,  the bacterium that causes food poisoning, is destroyed in low-acid foods when they are processed at the correct time and temperature in pressure canners. Canning low acid foods in boiling-water canners is absolutely unsafe because the botulinum bacteria can survive this process. If Clostridium botulinum bacteria survive and grow inside a sealed jar of food, they can produce a deadly toxin.    Just a tiny taste of food containing this toxin can be fatal.

How horrible it would be if food so carefully tended and lovingly grown caused sickness or even death to dearly loved family members!!  Careful canning is so very important!!

Canning Basics

If you’re a novice to canning, this outline will give you a basic knowledge of the terminology and instruction of canning. The key to successful canning is understanding the acidity and spoilage factor of the food you wish to can, as well as the acceptable canning methods to process those foods. There are two types of food, categorized as low-acid (vegetables, meat, poultry, and seafood) and high-acid (fruits and, generally  tomatoes). Both types can be successfully canned by pressure canning. However, pressure canning is the only method recommended safe for canning low-acid foods according to the United States Department of Agriculture.  Boiling water method is another recommended method of processing, however this method is only acceptable for high acid foods.  Local State extension agencies have information on the pH values of various foods.  Always follow the processing method stated in the current recipe for canning.

Invisible microorganisms and enzymes are present all around us. Fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry and seafood contain these microorganisms naturally. Yet, they are not a problem unless food is left to sit for extended periods of time, causing food spoilage. This is nature’s way of telling us when food is no longer fit to eat.

There are four basic agents of food spoilage – enzymes, mold, yeast, and bacteria. Canning interrupts the natural spoilage cycle, so food can be preserved safely. Molds, yeast, and enzymes are destroyed at temperatures below 212° F, the temperature at which water boils (except in mountainous regions). Therefore, boiling water processing is sufficient to destroy those agents.

Bacteria, however, are not as easily destroyed. The bacteria, Clostridium botulinum produces a spore that makes a poisonous toxin which causes botulism.  Unless the food is high in acids this spore is not destroyed at 212° F. In addition, bacteria thrive on low acids in the absence of air—such as in a canning jar. Therefore, for a safe food product, low-acid foods need to be processed at 240° F. This temperature can only be achieved with a pressure canner.  Boiling water only ever reaches the lower temperature of  212° F.

You can still purchase a pressure canner at some local stores.  Target and K-Mart for example.

Online sources are:

Caning Supply Company



Any extra large comodious stockpot can be used for water bath canning.  You can even use a washtub as long as it is water-tight and fits on your stove.

Oh. . .and a word about stoves.   The above is an image of my stove.  It is a heavy-duty GE gas stove with digital controls and with cast iron grates on top and a self-cleaning oven.  It’s GREAT for canning.  The commodious stove top accommodates my largest canner, and it has a special extra large gas heating element with “Power Boil” for extra large pots.  The black color also matches my kitchen.   I love this stove!

It is NOT RECOMMENDED that canning be done on any ceramic or glass top electric range.  Just don’t do it.  The reason is because the HEAT that is generated by the canning process will  crack and destroy ceramic or glass top stoves.   You CAN CAN successfully on a traditional electric range with regular elements.  Just DON’T DO IT on any of those new-fangled fancy ceramic or glass top ranges.

So. . .you don’t have a regular electric range or a gas range. . .what are you to do?

Use the propane barbeque grill, that’s what!!

Simply put your canner on a regular size (not portable) propane barebeque grill and can away!  Same canning rules and timing applies.  Of Course, you must can OUTSIDE (never bring the propane grill indoors!).

Before you begin…

If you are using an old pressure canner, it should be thoroughly examined and tested at the county extension office or with the manufacturer to ensure their proper operation. Another way to make sure your pressure canner is in good working condition is to replace any worn or old parts, such as the pressure gauge, safety vent, and rubber seals.  You don’t want to take a chance that the canner is ok.  Finding a problem when there is a load of vegetables in the canner can be quite disheartening and wasteful. If your pressure canner is new and if this is your first canning project, do a test run with water only to determine how the canner should function.  Always read and refer to the instruction manual for your canner.

Always use current published instruction and recipe manuals. Though recipes that have been handed down through the years may hold sentimental value, they are oftentimes unreliable and usually do not include scientifically tested processing pressures and times that are vital to a successful and safe canning project. Extensive research has been conducted on canning in recent years. Canning information published prior to 1988 may be incorrect and could pose a serious health risk.  For example, some old recipes say that you can can by using the oven or a boiling-water “steam” canner.  This is not true.

And. . .a word about MICROWAVE CANNING—DON’T.    It doesn’t work.  Period.

Before you begin, assemble all ingredients and supplies needed for your canning project. Carefully read, understand, and follow the recipe and canning instructions as directed. Do not substitute or omit ingredients. Always follow specific manufacturer’s instructions.

Selecting Jars
Glass home cannng jars, sometimes referred to as Mason jars, are made of heat-tempered glass for durability and reuse. These are the only jars recommended for safe home canning. They are available in standard sizes and will withstand the heat of a pressure canner and boiling water bath canner, time after time.

Do not use recycled jars from commercially prepared foods such as mayonnaise and peanut butter because they were made for single-use only. Glass home canning jars offer a deep neck and wide sealing surface to assure a tight seal. Always visually examine canning jars for nicks or cracks. Recycle or discard any chipped, cracked or damaged jars.

Always use the jar size and exact processing time and pressure indicated in the recipe. Research has been conducted using half-pint, pint, and quart jars. Half-gallon jars are not recommended for canning. Glass home canning jars should be thoroughly washed in hot, sudsy water. Do not use wire brushes or abrasive materials because they may damage the glass. Rinse jars completely with hot water. To help prevent jar breakage, allow jars to stand in very hot water prior to canning. A dishwasher may also be used to wash and process jars. Wash and dry jars using a regular cycle. When cycle is complete, remove one jar at a time, keeping the rest of the jars in the dishwasher until needed.

Using bands and lids
The two-piece home canning vacuum cap (lid and band) is the recommended closure for home canning. It consists of a flat metal lid with a rubber-like seal on the underside and a threaded metal screw band that secures the lid during processing. The bands can be used repeatedly if they remain in good condition, however, new lids must be used each time. Always prepare lids and bands according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Avoid closures such as zinc caps and glass lids that require a jar rubber. These closures do not provide a proper method to determine if the seal is safe. Also, avoid recycling commercial one-piece caps even if they have a rubber-like gasket because they are intended for one-time use only and chances are that the rubber gasket is worn out and will not seal again.

Measuring Headspace
All recipes will indicate the amount of headspace necessary for the food being canned. Headspace is the air space between the top of the food or its liquid and the lid. Leaving too much headspace can result in under processing because it may take too long to release the air from the jar. Darkening of the food at the top of the jar is also likely, however, this is not a sign of spoilage. Leaving too little headspace will trap food between the jar and the lid and may result in an inadequate seal. As a general rule, allow 1/2-inch headspace for fruits and tomatoes and 1-inch for all vegetables, meats, poultry, and seafood.

Removing Air Bubbles
After food has been packed in jars, remove air bubbles that are trapped between pieces of food with a clean, nonmetallic spatula. I have a little heat resistant silicone spatula that I use for this purpose.  Wipe sealing surface wth a clean, damp cloth to remove any residue. Apply lid. Place a band over the lid and screw onto the jar just until resistance is met.  Do not overtighten the bands.

Storing Canned Food
Once jars of food have been canned and thoroughly cooled, it is important to test the seals before storing. Press down on the center of the lid. If it is concave, or stays down when pressed, the jar is properly vacuum sealed.  If the center of the lid flexes or moves, the jar is not property sealed and this food should be stored in the refrigerator for immediate use.

After 12 to 24 hours, remove bands and wipe off any food residue from bands and jars. If bands are left on, they may rust and become difficult to remove. Store canned food in a cool, dark, and dry place. Home canned food can be kept for many years. However, after one year the quality will begin to deteriorate. For this reason, always date and label jars before storing.  If canning the same food item more than once, you will also want to note the particular “batch.”  For example, the second batch of Spaghetti Sauce canned on August 10th would be labeled, “Spaghetti Sauce, 8/10/2011, Batch B.”  Though your memory may serve you well, squash and pumpkin will look remarkably similar when making Thanksgiving pie.  You will also want to use the first batches up first and work your way through the subsequent batches.

Detecting Spoilage
If up-to-date instructions are followed carefully, spoilage is uncommon. However, it is still recommended to check for signs of spoilage before tasting any canned food. Check for a broken seal, gassiness when opening, mold, sliminess, cloudiness, or unpleasant odors. If any of these signs are present, discard the food.

As a safeguard against using canned low-acid and tomato products which may be affected with spoilage that is not readily detected, boil food 10 minutes for altitudes up to 1,000 feet above sea level. Extend the boiling time by 1 minute for each 1,000 foot increase in altitude. For example, Harrisburg is 335 feet above sea level.  This means that you would need to boil the food for 10 minutes.  Many times odors that cannot be detected in the cold product will become evident when the food starts boiling.  If, after boiling, food does not smell or look right, discard it without tasting.

Canning Equipment

We have already discussed the importance of using the right canner and the right jars.  Here is a list of other equipment that you will need for canning:

Jar Lifter

Magnetic Wand for lifting lids out of hot water

Jar Funnel

Spatula  (heat-resistant silicone is best)

Non-metal spoons and ladles (wooden, for example, or silicone)


Measuring Spoons

Measuring Cups

Kitchen Towels

Kitchen Timer

Potholders and Hot Pads


Large Sieve

Permanent Marker

4-Cup or 8-Cup Measuring Bowl or Jar

Mixing Bowls

Food Mill

Canning Ingredients that you will Need

These are ingredients that you will need to prepare most canned foods:

“Fruit Fresh” AND Ascorbic Acid Color Keeper—this powder protects the flavor of fruits and vegetables that darken when peeled or cut.  “Fruit Fresh” contains some sugar, and so it is more appropriate for fruits, while Ascorbic Acid (basically vitamin C) is good for vegetables like potatoes that tend to darken when peeled.  A suitable substitute is to soak fruits and vegetables in a solution of 2 tablespoons vinegar and 2 tablespoons salt to one gallon of water.until ready for processing.

Plain Salt—Canning Salt, Kosher Salt or other plain, non-iodized salt is appropriate for canning.  Plain Salt is free of additives that will cause cloudiness in brines.

Sugar—when recipes call for sugar, it is because sugar is necessary to thicken the recipe.  Sugar also interacts chemically with pectin so you will need to follow any recipe that calls for both exactly.

Pickling Lime—not the fruit lime, but a calcium hydroxide powder that keeps pickles firm.  You are supposed to dissolve this powder in water and soak your cucumbers for a day or two, then rinse the cucumbers in several changes of water to remove the excess lime.  This is usually only used for pickles of one kind or another.

Pectin—Pectin causes jams and jellies to gel.  Pectin also helps to make Ketchup and Spaghetti Sauces thicker.  Never use cornstarch or flour to thicken any canned foods.

Vinegar—Vinegar is key to making pickles, salsas, ketchup, hot sauce, and many other preserved foods.  Your recipe will tell you which type of vinegar to use, but if the recipe is not specific, then you should use white vinegar with acidity of at least 5%.

Bottled Lemon Juice—in canning recipes, such as those for tomatoes, bottled lemon juice is used to boost acidity so that the final product is safe to can by the boiling water method.

Various Dried Spices and herbs—fresh herbs should not be used in canning recipes because they can alter the acidity of the recipe enough that the safety of the recipe can be affected.  Dried herbs and spices only should be used.

Next time—I will give you some common recipes for canning that I have used with success.  I will also talk about the correct way to prepare veggies for the freezer.

Enjoy the harvest!


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