Friday, February 24, 2012

Home Pressure Canning

   Wow, I haven't done any canning for several years, and about a week and a half ago, I got the bug.  It's been on my mind since the last 3-day power outage when I was thinking how wonderful it would be if I could crack open a quart and a pint of homemade spaghetti sauce with lean ground beef, sweet Italian sausage and chunky veggies and sort of just live on phenomenally delicious spaghetti, all for the time and hassle investment of making a box of pasta. 
   Whether during a power outage or just in the course of living, there's just nothing like a bunch of mason jars in your pantry, filled with recipes of homemade goodness that normally takes 2-3 hours to make each.  Split Pea Soup for example, Beef Stew for another, your own family recipe of spaghetti sauce with good quality lean ground beef and sweet Italian sausage.  Chunky veggie stew and even "real" gravy for open face sandwiches using cold cuts on bakery fresh bread. 
   The only kind of canning I knew how to do originally was Hot Water Bath canning, where you are very limited in what you can safely can—mostly fruits and fruit based jams and jellies.  Those are high acid foods and they're wonderful if canned in season because unlike commercially canned peaches, you can do them when they're at perfection of ripeness.  And spice them up with cloves and a stick of cinnamon in the jar. 
   Alas, however, canning peaches, for instance... while there's nothing like them otherwise, it means lots of pots, lots of time, lots of space, timing and a huge amount of clean up.  With Water Bath Canning, you need to sterilize the jars, boil the lids, have one pot of syrup, another for blanching the skins loose, your sinks somehow available for peeling off the skins, another pot for treating the fruit so it doesn't darken... everything gets sticky and messy.  In fact the times I've done it, the floor also has to be well-mopped because that sticky syrup drips around as you're rushing to get sterilized jars filled and closed.
   About 10 years ago, actually more, a friend introduced me to pressure cooking, and from there I went into pressure canning.  Now that had always sounded very scary to me.  Low acid foods are where people get into trouble with little things like botulism.  However some research (and I did a LOT) made me realize that if you learn how to do it and observe all the safety rules, it is SUCH a no brainer!  I mean, ridiculously simple.  You don't even have to sterilize the jars, it's all done in the high heat processing.  So Pfffft.  Easy Peasy.
   From there and more research, I started seeing that you can, and often should, undercook everything before canning it which avoids ending up with the mush you get from grocery store shelves.  Is that safe?  Yup.  Because it's cooking inside the jars as you process.  75 minutes under the high heat that takes place under 10 pounds of pressure... if you don't undercook it at least a little, you'll end up with mush.
  Yesterday I made Split Pea Soup again because I canned a half recipe of i a week ago and it's almost all gone.  Prior to that, I made spaghetti sauce.  This weekend I'm planning beef stew.  And probably some canned carrots with dill, just to have on hand.
   I forgot how simple it is, how little cleanup it generates, and how unbelievably great it is to get to enjoy a recipe (that takes several hours to make) months later with nothing more elaborate than 2 minutes of reheating in a nuker.

Split Pea Soup with sliced carrots, potato and ham...  Total "active" time?  Maybe an hour accumulated.

These carrots do not disintegrate in your mouth, nor are they anything like the flavorless pap you get commercially.  They went into the pot of "al dente" undercooked pea soup only long enough to heat through, as did the potatoes and ham.   

   A quart jar of homemade spaghetti sauce.  I use a LOT of meat, both ground beef (90% lean and excellent quality) and sweet Italian sausage, plus this "straight-from-Italy" authentic family recipe uses pretty good sized chunks of bell pepper, carrots and other things.  Try finding that on your supermarket shelves, it just doesn't exist.  Jar is lying on its side to see through better...

 There are certain things where newer isn't necessarily better, and it's been my experience that cookware is an arena where that's true.  I use a vintage Mirro-Matic 12-qt. pressure canner.  It does 8-10 pint jars (depends whether regular mouth or wide mouth style) or 7 qts. of either jar type per load. 

Pardon the splash of pea soup on the side, it was a casualty of a ladle that slipped as I was loading jars and didn't notice it when I took the photo.

A close-up of the pressure gauge which was mounted here to operate the canner at the 10 lbs. pressure used for canning...

   This vintage canner is like a tank.  I haven't seen today's "new and improved" ones that are made in China, I only know that they are significantly thinner material, and for something like pressure canning, I personally prefer heavy cast aluminum.  It works every bit as well today as it did when it was sold off the shelf, and I have no idea when that was, probably 60s or 70s, I doubt later than that. 

   One thing to know if you buy a vintage pressure canner.  Most sold on eBay come with a manual but if it doesn't, you can often find one sold separately on eBay.  You might also be able to get one from the manufacturer (I'm for sticking with Presto or Mirro for vintage pressure cookers/canners).  If not, you might be able to get  someone to photocopy the chart and use pages and snail mail them to you, or scan and attach to an email.  Use that manual as your guide for operating the canner itself, including steam exhaust directions, how much water to use, etc.  Do not settle for what it contains regarding how long to process the various low acid foods.  Many of those numbers have changed over the years and you want updated information for canning safety, meaning info not the pot itself, but the length of processing time, here's what I've found to be our best bet. 
   The absolute best, and undisputed authority on all things having to do with canning is Ball who produces the jars and lids we use, and has for a zillion years.  Ball puts out an inexpensive but wonderful book that they update from time to time, called The Ball Blue Book of Canning and Preserving (called simply "the blue book").  They sell for under $10.  Get one.  Study it.  Follow its time charts.  It covers hot water bath canning (fruits), pressure canning (low acid foods), freezing, dehydrating and has tons of tips plus recipes.  If using your own family recipes, there will be a similar one, most likely, in the Blue Book.  Make sure you aren't using any ingredients that aren't in their recipe, and if you are, no problem; in that case, just verify that its processing time doesn't require longer than called for in the recipe.  In other words, your total processing time is always that of the longest called for by any of the ingredients.  If everything else calls for 45 minutes and your one added ingredient requires 90 minutes, you might want to choose to omit that ingredient because it's forcing all your others to go disproportionately longer. 
  As for testing the seals, again follow Ball.  Let everything cool completely because lids often pop down during that time (you can hear them pinging, one by one).  Do not be alarmed if when you remove your jars from the canner you are still seeing boiling or simmering action inside the jars, even for 30+ minutes after they're out of the canner.  This is HOT stuff.  But observe the tests set forth in the Blue Book for knowing if you have good seals or not. 
   Third, don't panic if you see food around the neck of the jar and on the inside of the lid.  During the exhaust of air inside the jars, food can be carried.  It doesn't hurt anything unless it interferes with the seal, and you'll know that with the lift test (which you'd of course do with your other hand ready to catch the jar should the lid come off). 
   Once fully researched so you get the shtick of pressure canning understood, you have all sorts of fun ahead of you.  To say NOTHING of saving a fortune between your own far superior home canned soups and stews vs. that pap we find on grocery store shelves.  (By comparison.)  It's all relative.

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