I was so happy that Mother Earth News published an article on pressure canning recently! I've seen lots of articles about canning over the years, in several different magazines, but these articles have been almost exclusively about water-bath canning.
I have been canning since I was 15 years old. At the time, 9th-grade girls at the high school I attended in north Seattle were required to take Home Economics. I hated the sewing part. The cooking subjects were mainly boring to me; I already knew how to boil pasta and make apple pie. It's still a mystery to me why Mrs. Jones thought it useful to teach us how to make a Baked Alaska, something I've never done since then. Still, I did learn the basics of canning in that class, for which I am grateful to this day. It was the beginning of my continuing love for all kinds of food preservation.
For many years, I did only water-bath canning. We made pickles, all kinds of jams and jellies, canned pears and peaches and homegrown tomatoes. I remember once or twice watching my Mom use a pressure canner to can green beans. My memory is that it seemed complicated and stressful. It wasn't until many years later that I bought my first pressure canner; actually I think I was in my early 40s by then. Once I got used to using it, I quickly realized the advantages of being able to can low-acid foods as well as high-acid foods.
A brief word of explanation: High-acid foods can be safely canned in a boiling-water bath. Examples of high acid foods are pickles, jams, and fruits. Tomatoes are generally considered high-acid foods, as well as tomato-based preserves such as salsa. Low-acid foods must be canned in a pressure canner. At 10 pounds pressure, the temperature inside the pressure canner is 240F, much higher than 212F, the boiling point of water at sea level. This higher temperature kills potentially dangerous bacteria that can survive boiling-water temperatures.
Even when we still lived in the city, I found I was using my pressure canner year-round. Having come from a large family, I was accustomed to cooking in large quantities. When I had a lot of tomatoes, I made big batches of marinara sauce and canned it. David does the grocery shopping and is an excellent bargain hunter; when he came home with ten pounds of green beans, out came the pressure canner.
Once we moved to the farm, my food preservation skills took on an added importance. We have a very small (8 cu.ft.) propane refrigerator/freezer. The freezer is just big enough to hold a couple of ice cube trays and a few small packages of meat. Obviously I wasn't going to be freezing containers of homemade chicken stock! I made the necessary mental adjustments, and before long I was canning big batches of chili, smoked tuna, homemade corned beef, minestrone, garden vegetables, and a lot more. And of course, once we started raising poultry, eventually I was canning homegrown chicken meat and stock.
Incidentally, one of the benefits of canning things like chicken stock instead of freezing is that you don't have to remember to take it out of the freezer in time to thaw before using. I just grab a jar off the shelf, pop off the lid, and that's it. I love the convenience of this, especially when I'm tired or rushed and want to get a meal ready quickly.
Several years ago, I went through the Master Food Preserver course offered by our local county extension office. I heard many stories there about the horrible experiences people had with pressure canners. I remember feeling quite nervous the first few times I used mine; I sat there (at what I imagined was a safe distance from the pressure canner), instruction booklet in hand, re-reading the directions for the umpteenth time. It actually isn't that complicated, but remembering my Mom's experiences with her pressure canner probably influenced me at the time. However, it only took two or three canning sessions for me to feel comfortable with the process. These days, I honestly can't imagine not having a pressure canner in my food-preservation arsenal.
My mother always had a vegetable garden when we were growing up. We went every year to local U-Pick farms: Strawberries in June, raspberries in July, blueberries in August. I remember doing a lot of canning during my high-school years, along with Mom and several of my siblings. Mom used to say, when proudly surveying the shelves full of home-canned food, "This really makes me feel rich."
Oh, I know that feeling well. For me, it's more than simply knowing the pantry is stocked up for the winter. It's also very important to me not to waste anything. So when we have an abundance of green beans coming out of the garden, and can't possibly eat them all fresh, I get out the pressure canner. When we have a lot of leftover soup or spaghetti sauce, it gets canned. A couple of years ago, David brought home 20 pounds of fresh tuna; by the end of the next day, it was smoked and canned.
Do you use a pressure canner? What do you can with it? If you feel a bit fearful of using a pressure canner, believe me, you're not alone. We've probably all heard some scary stories about them. Don't let that deter you from trying it yourself; I'm confident that you'll find, as I did, that being able to preserve low-acid foods will take your sense of self-sufficiency - and self-satisfaction - to a whole new level.
Victoria lives with her husband David on their off-grid farm in northwest Washington state. Her first book, Pure Poultry: Living Well with Heritage Chickens, Turkeys and Ducks, is due out in November from New Society Publishers (www.newsociety.com). Blogs: potpiesandeggmoney.blogspot.com; canyoncreekfarms.blogspot.com.