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Can Do! If Done Properly, Home Canning Can Help Lower Grocery Bill

August 13, 2008

By Valerie Phillips Deseret News

Home canning is making a comeback, as rising grocery prices have spurred people to stretch their food budgets.

Jarden Home Brands reports a 28 percent increase in the company’s Ball canning products since 2007. Also, sales of the company’s plastic freezing containers have doubled.

In a recent survey of 1,800 visitors to Jarden’s Web site, www.freshpreserving.com, more than 70 percent of those who responded said they intend to preserve more foods this year to save money on weekly groceries.

But here’s a scary thought: In a 2005 national telephone survey, almost a third of home canners interviewed admitted they deviated from current USDA recommendations, increasing the risk of spoilage and food poisoning. Clearly, there’s a need to learn proper canning techniques.

Irene Brock of North Salt Lake has been gardening and canning what she grows for nearly 40 years, since she was 8 years old. Over the years, she has won numerous ribbons from state and county fairs.

“It helped me with the family budget, and it makes you feel more self-sufficient knowing you have a food supply on hand,” she said. “There’s also a standard of safety. With all the scares that you have each week, whether it’s tomatoes and jalapenos and salmonella, or spinach and E. coli, or whatever, I know I have tomatoes and peppers in my garden and I know they’re good. And I know I’ve got canned goods that can tide me over.”

But be forewarned: “If you don’t like hard work and activity, gardening and canning is not for you,” Brock said. “I only can the foods that I’ll definitely eat. If not, it’s a waste of time.”

In fact, if you have to buy all your fruit or vegetables, jars and equipment at regular prices, and factor in wages for your time, you might be better off finding a good case-lot sale, said Teresa Hunsaker, a home economist with Weber County’s Utah State University Extension.

However, the jars and equipment are reusable year after year. And if you have fruit trees or a garden, or you’re able to get a good deal on tomatoes, then you can save money. Besides, learning to home can is an investment in learning to be more self-reliant, Hunsaker pointed out.

“When the trees are loaded with apricots, and people are giving them away like zucchini, you’ve got that skill to turn it into syrup or jam and stretch your food dollars,” she said.

Also, you can make it a family experience, with everyone working assembly-line style. Turn on the TV, and they can catch a Saturday afternoon football game or a movie while they’re peeling and coring.

Other advantages: better flavor, color, texture and taste, and possibly better nutrition, Hunsaker added. “You can take into account health concerns like hypertension or diabetes and adjust the sodium or sugar.”

However, would-be canners should realize that if the food turns out to be inedible because it wasn’t processed right, all that money and effort goes to waste.

In a survey by the University of Georgia in 2005, about one in five households home-canned foods. Of those, 30.5 percent said they altered recommended canning procedures. Open-kettle canning, where hot food is poured in jars and left to seal on their own, was practiced by 44 percent of them. And 32 percent reported jars that didn’t seal properly.

“That is bad news to an extension agent,” said Sara Oldroyd of the Salt Lake County USU Extension.

Updated safety guidelines

The USDA has updated its safety guidelines over the years, stating that jams and jellies need time in a boiling-water bath. As the popularity of salsa has risen, so has the amount of time that tomato products need to be processed — now 95 minutes for cold- packed quarts for Wasatch Front altitudes.

Years ago, you might have sealed jams and jellies with paraffin wax. Today’s guidelines call for metal lids and screw-on bands to seal the jars against any bacteria or mold.

This year’s salmonella outbreak cast suspicion on tomatoes, jalapenos and serrano peppers. But pathogens are killed when heated to boiling-water temperatures, said Oldroyd.

“In fact, that is why we do boiling-water baths,” she said. “Botulism is the bacteria we are wary of in home canning, because it can survive in anaerobic conditions and at temperatures above boiling. So either we have to add acid or pressure can.”

Oldroyd wouldn’t recommend buying tomatoes when there’s an outbreak, and the USDA advises against it. “But now that the outbreak has passed, tomatoes can be bought and processed again. However, freezing doesn’t kill E. coli, and neither does refrigeration. If you decide to freeze your mother’s salsa recipe, make sure the tomatoes and chiles are from a safe source.”

How canning works

The premise of home canning is to interrupt the natural decay that happens to food from existing enzymes, mold, yeast and bacteria. You place food in canning jars, top them with a lid and screw cap. To “process” them, the jars are heated in a boiling- water bath canner, a steam canner or a pressure canner, at a high temperature long enough to destroy the microorganisms.

When the jars cool, they vent excess air and form a vacuum seal on the lid.

Processing times (and whether you should water bath cans or pressure-can food) are determined by:

Acidity level: Most microorganisms can’t grow or produce their toxin in an acid environment. So, fruits with high acidity are good candidates for canning, while low-acid vegetables, such as corn and green beans, must be pressure canned. On a scale of pH acidity levels, lemons are 2.0. Peaches are 3.6. The cutoff is 4.6, and tomatoes are a 4.1 to 4.3 — just barely enough acidity to qualify them for water-bath canning.

Density of food: If the food is packed together, the heat from the boiling water can’t penetrate as well.

Bacteria load: Across the country (and around the world) there may be a higher density of different types of bacteria, said Hunsaker.

“It may seem ridiculous that any microorganism will survive 40 minutes of water bath, but we don’t have the same microorganisms today that they had years ago,” she said. “Our environment changes over the years.”

One bacteria in tomatoes withstands high temperatures for a long time, she said. This bacteria lowers the acidity level over time, so botulism can take over. This is why the USDA raised the processing time for tomatoes, and recommends adding 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, vinegar or other acid per pint.

Salsa is especially susceptible to botulism, because you’re adding low-acid foods such as peppers and onions. In 1986, an Ogden woman nearly died after eating her own salsa, and a few years ago in Cedar City, a couple died after eating their home-canned salsa. So, although it doesn’t happen every day, it’s a real safety risk.

It’s crucial to use a salsa recipe for canning that has the right ratio of acid in it. If you prefer more cilantro, chiles, etc., you can always add those just before serving. Or freeze the salsa instead.

If you forgot to add lemon juice or vinegar to your canned tomatoes, you’ll need to open the jars, add the recommended amount, and reprocess them for the full amount of time. Or refrigerate the jars and use within a few days.

Jams and jellies: Sugar acts as a preservative, combining with pectin and the fruit’s acidity to bind the moisture so that most microorganisms can’t grow. But mold can still grow without a great deal of moisture. Even if you scrape the mold off the top, the mold spore can penetrate deeply into the jam or jelly, said Hunsaker.

USDA guidelines call for a 10- to 15-minute processing time, depending on the type of jam being made.

Jars, rings and lids: Use proper canning jars, which can be reused each year if there are no nicks or cracks. Used mayo bottles, etc., aren’t made to take the heat and pressure. The metal lids are one-time use. The screw-on rings can be reused, but not if they’re dented or rusted.

“If they’re rusted, they won’t apply uniform pressure to get a good seal,” said Brock.

Fresh produce: The fresher the produce, the better the results, said Jeanne Pulliam, another award-winning home canner. “When people use old fruit to make jam, they find out it doesn’t set up because the properties of the fruit have changed,” Pulliam said.

Some fruits are easier to can than others. For instance, pears are labor-intensive to peel. If you’re doing peaches, you will save time and frustration by using a “freestone” variety of peaches, so the pit comes out easier than a “clingstone” variety, said Hunsaker.

When slicing the fruit or vegetables, make the pieces uniform in size, said Pulliam. This allows uniform heat penetration during processing.

If you’re doing a “hot-pack” recipe, where you bring the food to a boil, it’s not OK to let it cool before processing. The processing times are based on the food being hot in the beginning.

Smooth-top ranges: Most smooth-top ranges have a thermostatic control that shuts off when it’s too hot or weighed down with lots of water and bottles of fruit. The heat won’t stay consistent for processing, and some tops will crack. Hunsaker said a few models allow one burner for canning, but shoppers should investigate to make sure.

If you buy a smooth-top range, save your old range in the basement, or invest in a camp stove. (As a bonus, you can do your canning outside and avoid heating up the kitchen.)

Sugarless canning: In the case of canned fruits, sugar is not a preservative, although it keeps the color longer, said Hunsaker. She prefers using white grape juice or orange or pineapple juice, which gives more flavor to the fruit.

When making jams and jellies, though, too little sugar prevents gelling and may allow yeasts and molds to grow. So use an approved recipe for these, or a special “low-sugar” pectin.

TOMATO/GREEN CHILE SALSA

3 cups peeled, cored, chopped tomatoes

3 cups seeded, chopped long green chiles

3/4 cup chopped onions

1 jalapeno, seeded, finely chopped

6 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 1/2 cups vinegar

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

2 teaspoon oregano leaves

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan and heat, stirring frequently, until mixture boils. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Ladle hot into pint jars, leaving 1/2-inch head space. Adjust lids and process in a boiling, 20 minutes at 1,001-6,000 feet (Wasatch Front); 25 minutes above 6,000 feet. Makes 3 pints. — New Mexico State University Extension Services

FRESH APRICOT JAM

3 1/2 cups finely chopped apricots (about 30 medium)

1/3 cup lemon juice

1 3-ounce pouch Ball Liquid Fruit Pectin

1/2 teaspoon butter or margarine, optional

5 3/4 cups sugar

6 8-ounce half-pint glass preserving jars with lids and bands

Prepare boiling water canner. Heat jars and lids in simmering water until ready for use. Do not boil. Set bands aside.

Combine prepared apricots with lemon juice and sugar in a 6- or 8- quart saucepan. Add up to 1/2 teaspoon butter or margarine to reduce foaming, if desired. Bring mixture to a full rolling boil that cannot be stirred down, over high heat, stirring frequently.

Add pectin, immediately squeezing entire contents from pouch. Continue hard boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Skim foam if necessary.

Ladle hot jam into hot jars leaving 1/4-inch head space. Wipe rim. Center lid on jar. Apply band until fit is fingertip tight (it’s on firmly, but still has a little “give” in it).

Process jars in a boiling water canner for 15 minutes for Wasatch Front altitudes. Remove jars and cool. Check lids for seal after 24 hours. Lid should not flex up and down when center is pressed. Makes about 6 (8-ounce) half pints. — National Center for Home Food Preservation

CANNED PEACHES IN HEAVY SYRUP

17 pounds (about 1/3 of a bushel) peaches

Ascorbic or citric acid (follow package directions to make solution)

8 1/4 cups water

5 1/4 cups sugar

7 quart jars

Choose ripe, mature fruit. Dip fruit in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds until skins loosen. Dip quickly in cold water and slip off skins. Cut in half, remove pits and slice if desired. To prevent darkening, keep peeled fruit in ascorbic acid solution. Place in quart jars.

Heat water and sugar together to make a syrup.

Hot pack: In a large saucepan, place drained fruit in syrup, water or juice and bring to boil. Fill jars with hot fruit and cooking liquid. Place halves in layers, cut side down. Leave a 1/2- inch head space. Adjust lids, place in water bath canner and process. Jars should be completely covered by the boiling water for 35 minutes (for Wasatch Front altitude of 3,000-6,000 feet). Makes 7 quarts of fruit.

Raw pack: Fill jars with raw fruit, cut side down and add syrup, leaving 1/2-inch head space. Adjust lids and process. Jars should be completely covered by the boiling water for 40 minutes (for Wasatch Front altitude of 3,000-6,000 feet). Makes 7 quarts.

Note: If using pint jars, subtract 5 minutes from processing time. — Adapted from National Center for Home Food Preservation

E-mail: vphillips@desnews.com

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