Don’t get yourself in a pickle: Understanding food preservation basics

Before you home preserve, avoid these outdated practices: clockwise from top left, do not use parafin, a pressure cooker in place of a pressure canner, never use a boiling-water bath to can non-acidic foods, do not home preserve in oil.
Before you home preserve, avoid these outdated practices: clockwise from top left, do not use parafin, a pressure cooker in place of a pressure canner, never use a boiling-water bath to can non-acidic foods, do not home preserve in oil.

Soon, produce will be rolling in, and gardeners who enjoy preserving the harvest to last all winter long often turn to food preservation: pickling, canning and dehydration.

The University of Illinois Extension used to offer a volunteer Master Food Preserver Program (which I participated in back in the ‘90s). Now they offer canning and food preservation programs, some are even available online. The important part of all this is education.

You can learn to cook like great-Aunt Edna, crochet like grandma, even do woodworking like cousin Eddie, but if you food preserve like they did, you might not be here to try again.

Unlike many traditions passed down over generations, food preservation, if not done right, can kill you, literally. Botulism food poisoning isn’t running for the bathroom and the Pepto Bismol; it stops you from breathing. And many of our former food preservation practices have been scientifically proven unsafe.

And food preservation is popular again with a whole new audience. Between all those foodie shows on myriad channels, plus the renewed interest in everything homemade, many are trying their hand at food preservation.

But with access to endless recipes — whether clipped from a 1920’s church cookbook, or downloaded of the internet — there are no safety updates (on anything really). So, before you start sterilizing those mason jars for your next preservation project (which you still should), here are some important updates:

Take jellies and preserves: I am sure some of you still remember getting a gift of strawberry or another berry preserve topped with a thick layer of paraffin wax. As a matter of fact, just yesterday, I was at the local grocery store, admiring the fresh display of canning supplies, and there they were. Those rectangular boxes of wax.

The wax was thought to create a complete seal to keep bacteria and fungi out, and that just-picked freshness in. But it doesn’t. Over a fairly short period of time, that wax starts to shrink imperceivable to us, but not to bacteria and fungi, some of which aren’t visible to the naked eye. So, save those bars of paraffin for your next trip back to the 1960’s candle making craft night.

Another set of preservation recipes you should ignore and pass right by (better yet, just throw away) are home preservation using produce or herbs submerged in oil. It doesn’t matter what kind of oil; it is a recipe for disaster. Anerobic disaster.

Anerobic means without air, and this is the ideal environment botulinum toxin loves. It is in the “without air” conditions that botulism thrives. You might be a tiny bit horrified when I tell you that botulism naturally occurs in nature and soil. Not a problem, until something we are preserving involves an anerobic environment. Such is the case with preserving in oils.

You can find hundreds of recipes on “gifts from the garden” that include putting herbs or certain produce in decorative bottles and then “preserving” them in oil. Just don’t. I know many of our heritages includes recipes “doing just this and people swear this” is the fifth generation making oil infused herbs or zucchini in herbed oils. Again, just don’t. Don’t you want to live to be a sixth generation? It is OK to make homemade flavored vinegars, but leave any oil-infused products to professional companies.

When it comes to canning, there are two types: boiling water-bath canning and pressure canning. Only high-acid foods can be boiling water-bath canned. What are high acid foods? Many fruits have natural acidity, and other foods can be boiling water bath-canned where you add acidity, as in the case of pickling.

Did you know that tomatoes are no longer considered acidic enough on their own to be boiling water-bath canned? A large research study was done evaluating a large variety of tomatoes across the United States, and results showed that today’s tomato isn’t as acidic as they used to be (and that isn’t only the yellow low-acid ones).

That makes sense if you look at the seed catalogs. Many tout their varieties as having the sweetest flavor. You don’t see any descriptions saying “high-acid” tomato The National Center for Food Preservation now recommends adding lemon juice or vinegar to tomatoes before processing to assure adequate acidity for boiling water bath.

All other non-acidic foods need pressure canning. And many people make the mistake thinking the relatively recent new multipot cookers that have a pressure cooking feature like the Instant Pot can be used to pressure can also. This is as different as a goldfish is different from a Golden Retriever.

Yes, both are using pressure for food processing, but that is where the similarity ends. Pressure cookers cannot preserve food. The main issues are size and time. Pressure cookers heat up and cool down faster than pressure canners, not allowing for enough time for the pressurized food to be totally processed.

Also, pressure cookers are one-third to one-half the size of pressure canners. Just like in the garden, right plant-right place. For food preservation, you must use the right canning tool for the job.

And speaking of the right tool for the job, start with the right basics. Just because a jar is glass, does not make it a canning jar. I know gardeners and canners are frugal, but why go through all the work of preparing and canning, only to find that the mayo jar you used to can, cracks and splinters in the canner? Only use canning jars and fresh tops (the wax seal is only good for one use.) You can re-use the canning rings as long as they are sound and still round.

It is also important to make sure the vinegar you use is at least 5% acidity, If it doesn’t say it on the label, pass that by and choose one that is. With so many boutique food products today, it is important to check you are getting the proper acidity.

So where do you find food safe recipes that use the latest science to assure safe preservation? The National Center for Food Preservation is the best start, and the University of Georgia’s current issue of So Easy to Preserve (6th edition).







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