Preserving the harvest doesn’t have to be hard
Since March 2020, many people found themselves with more free time than they knew what to do with. After the COVID- 19 pandemic hit the United States, businesses were shut down and many people transitioned to a life working at home. With this, people had to get creative and find new ways to occupy themselves. Many took on new hobbies and activities, one of these in which includes home canning.
While canning and home food preservation isn’t a new thing, there’s been an increase in interest after everyone’s lives were shut down. Dr. Barbara Ingham, University of Wisconsin Professor of Food Science and the Division of Extension Food Safety Specialist, said that canning has become more popular in recent years. “With the coronavirus pandemic, people being at home more often, we have seen a resurgence in home food preservation in general and home canning is certainly the type of preserving that we most often think about this time of year,” said Ingham.
Rebecca Zuleger, the owner of sustainable farming business We Grow, recalls a shortage of lids for Mason jars that came from the sudden popularity of canning. However, she believes that everything is caught up and back in stock. Zuleger has been canning food for about 15 years and she recommends that people use fresh picked produce when canning. She also explained how there are many different things people could can. “You can can a wide variety of things. Also mixing vegetables together you can do, but also adding meats you can do,” said Zuleger.
There are a number of recipes for home canning available for salsa, tomatoes, jams, jellies, meat, fruits, vegetables, and pickles. Both Zuleger and Ingham emphasized the importance of following the recipes exactly as it’s important to make sure that the preserved food is safe.
“The first and perhaps the most important thing for canning specifically is one of the food preservation techniques that we look [which] is to start with a research- tested recipe,” Ingham said “The research testing is important because we know that someone has actually been into a laboratory to know that the product is safe and it will also produce a high quality product.”
Following a proper recipe can allow people to preserve food that’ll never be unsafe to eat. “As long as you follow a recipe that we know that the food is safe on the shelf like that, it will never become unsafe. It’s not possible for that to happen once you properly preserve the product. So all that work that goes into it is an investment well spent,” said Ingham.
While the canned food will remain safe to consume, the quality of it may go down over time. Ingham said that they recommend that people consume the food within a year of canning it. However 2-3 years is the general end date that a lot of people go off of when canning. The longer the canned goods remain canned, there may be changes to the color, texture, or flavor.
“With canning, we say leave that creativity behind. It really doesn’t make sense to risk your health or the health of your family or friends by trying something just to see what happens,” said Ingham. She explained that sometimes things change when it comes to food preservation, so some older family recipes may be out of date which is why she emphasizes that people use research-tested ones. She said that people can be creative after the food’s preserved and they have to prepare to serve it on the table.
Research-tested recipes can be found on the UW Extension website. Recipes for canning meat, salsa, fruits, and vegetables, along with how to care for and use a pressure canner. The UW Extension acts as a hub for information to answer any question people may have on canning.
On their website, there’s also many blog posts and short articles published. There are a variety of food-safety-related posts, including ones on canning. Some of those articles found are titled “Preparing for a home food preservation season: pressure canners” and “The jar sealed, is the food still safe? (and other questions)” Zuleger said that the Extension website is an excellent source for people to use. “The website’s a great resource. Not sure if there’s a better guideline than that. That would be where I would start. The Ball Blue Book of Canning that got me started, that’s a really good resource. [It had] a lot of tried and tested recipes in there,” said Zuleger.
One of the most popular things to can is pickles, according to Zuleger. She explained that just about any hard vegetable can be turned into a pickle. Canned green beans and beets are also common and those are what We Grow sells the most of. “Last summer was very much a demand for especially tomatoes, sauce and paste tomatoes, [and] pickles.”
They’ve also sold pickles, she’s only allowed to sell a small amount of pickled goods because they are high in acid as well as jams and jellies. She said that without a commercial kitchen, they can’t sell over a certain dollar amount. She also likes to can garlic scapes in the spring that don’t get sold right away. “I can sell them then at my own speed. There lasting a lot longer,” said Zuleger.
When it comes to home canning, there are simple mistakes that can be made and cause unsafe practices. Ingham said that one of the most common mistakes people make with home canning is finding recipes on the internet from Pinterest or other sites that haven’t been research tested. “There’s a proliferation of recipes, cookbooks, old family recipes, so people will choose these and I’m asked ‘well, is this safe?’” Ingham recommends for cases like these to find similar research-tested recipes and compare those with the ones people find to see just how safe they are.
Another mistake that Ingham comes across is not using the proper equipment. “You want the right equipment and you want that equipment working properly,” said Ingham. “For canning that either is a boiling water canner or an atmospheric steam canner, either of which will work and do great for things like fruits and pickles and products that are high in acid. If you’re canning low acid foods which would be vegetables, meats, those types of things, then you need a pressure canner.”
Pressure cookers with dial gauges should be tested and calibrated yearly, according to Ingham. She said that the Extension food safety site has a an interactive map for people to find a county nearby that is able to test the dial gauges. Customers who purchased their pressure cooker from Presto out of Eau Claire can get their gauge tested free of charge. “Make sure that your pressure cooker has been tested and is in good working order because with that you could get injured with the pressure releases not working correctly,” said Zuleger.
Both Zuleger and Ingham expressed the importance of using proper equipment when canning, this includes using the right kind of jars. “You can use old ones, but stay away from mayonnaise or recyclable non-Mason jars. That would be something that would crack or fall apart,” said Zuleger.
Canning can be a great way to prepare food that can be enjoyed in the future. “I encourage people to try it. It’s not something to be scared of,” said Zuleger.
To get started in canning and knowing how and where to begin, Ingham recommends a number of websites for people to check out. These include: https://nchfp.uga.edu https://foodsafety.wisc.edu https://fyi.extension.wisc.edu/safefood/ category/canning-general/