Ease pressure on your lofty self-reliance goals by mastering the ins and outs of meat preservation at home.
Whether you raise your own meat, hunt wild game, or track down bargains at the store, the list of reasons to add home meat preservation to your skill set starts with money and ends with time. When properly done, putting up meat with a pressure canner is safe and economical — and yields excellent results.
Yes, canning does take time, but the commitment will be less than you think if your canning project includes reserving some of the results for dinner that night. And picture yourself weeks or months later, popping open a jar of home-canned chili for your hungry family. Two minutes sounds mighty good for prep time!
My advice is to can meat simply, without veggies and sauces (with a few exceptions) in the canning jar.
Most vegetables, such as zucchini and green beans, overcook in the time it takes to safely process meat. All the brassicas (cabbages, turnips, rutabagas, broccoli, kale, and collards) contain sulfurous compounds that will leach into the meat and broth, rendering it unpalatable. That leaves celery, carrots, and potatoes for your stew mixture; you’ll notice that most pressure canning recipes approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) contain them. These mixtures work very well for the occasional stew or potpie, especially if reheated with frozen peas, green beans, or corn for more flavor and texture. But as a steady diet? Not for my family — and maybe not for yours. We’re used to a more varied cuisine than our grandparents enjoyed — Italian one night, Thai the next, and Mexican after that. By canning meat with pared-down preparations, you can later transform them into a diversity of dishes to suit your tastes.
Meats can be canned on or off the bone, either raw (a method known as “raw pack canning”) or partially cooked and canned with hot broth or water (“hot pack canning”). There’s virtually no difference in taste or texture between meats canned raw and those submersed in boiling liquid and canned. The advantage to raw packing is that it’s faster because you can skip browning the meat. Raw-packed meat will generate its own broth, although not enough to cover the meat.
Consider what your family likes to eat, and then plan your meat preservation projects accordingly. My family loves chicken salad, so pressure canning chicken is something I do a lot. Raw-packed chicken is perfect for chicken salad; you can use a little of the broth that’s produced during canning to moisten the salad, or set it aside for another purpose. One of my kids says all industrial canned chicken “tastes like tuna fish,” but mine “tastes like real chicken.”
I also add home-canned chicken to soups and curries, broth and all. Pressure-canned chicken is slightly drier than chicken that has been gently poached, but that’s a trade-off I can live with.
Hot-packed beef or chicken canned with potatoes, onions, carrots, and celery makes an instant stew, which you can reheat and eat unaltered. Or, you can pop open the jar and jazz up your meal by adding a thickener, a bit of cream, and some fresh or frozen green vegetables. Toss in herbs and spices at this time, too, rather than risk having their flavors become overpowering in the canning process. Ground or cubed meat hot-packed in a tomato-based sauce produces a great pasta sauce. And in a tomato-based sauce (as opposed to a broth), herbs are less likely to dominate and become unpleasant. Does canned ground meat have the same texture as never-canned meat? No, because the canning process forces all the fat from the meat and breaks the meat into very fine pieces — but that won’t be a big deal when you use it in home-canned chili (check out our Beef Chili Recipe) or pasta sauce recipes.
Avoid fatty meats. Although pork can be canned just like beef, the pasture-raised pork I purchase tends to run fatty. I’ve successfully canned barbecued pulled pork, but I consider myself lucky that the fat didn’t interfere with the seal, and I won’t can it again. When you can under pressure, the mixture within boils very hard, and some liquid always leaks out. You’ll want to avoid canning greasy meats that will leave fat on the lid because a seal might not form and the food won’t store or be safe to eat.
Don’t use thickeners. The USDA frowns on using flour, cornstarch, or other starches to thicken stews and sauces you intend to pressure can, because they can interfere with the even transfer of heat to the interior of the jar. (The USDA also frowns on adding rice or noodles because their textures are too inconsistent for the necessary heat transfer — and I frown on canning rice or noodles because they overcook and become gummy.)
To turn any meat and vegetable mixture into a pleasing stew or savory pie filling, it’s handy to know a little trick the French call beurre manié, which means “kneaded butter.” Simply knead together equal amounts of butter and all-purpose flour and store the mixture in the fridge. When you want to thicken a soup or stew, pry open the lid on your home-canned jar, dump the contents into a saucepan, and bring it to a boil. As the mixture boils, add some grape-sized pieces of the beurre manié. Keep adding pieces until the stew reaches the desired thickness — without any of the usual nasty lumps of flour.
As you dive into new canning territory, be aware that the web serves up a lot of misinformation and flawed pressure canning recipes. Botulism can result from faulty recipes, instructions, or techniques. However, if you know your meat has been properly handled from slaughterhouse to countertop, and you follow the canning procedures from the manufacturer of your pressure canner or from the National Center for Home Food Preservation, you have nothing to lose — and a lot to gain.
1. Always can in a clean kitchen. Sanitize by wiping down all surfaces and utensils with a diluted vinegar solution of 1⁄4 cup white vinegar to 1 cup water.
2. Have your pressure canner’s gauge tested by your local extension office. Use new lids and glass jars in good condition. Ball is a great resource.
3. Know where your meat comes from and how it’s been handled. Choose lean cuts, and trim off all visible fat.
4. Start with small batches. You can increase the batch size after you know which type of pressure-canned meat your family likes, and whether you prefer the results of hot pack canning or raw pack canning.
5. Stay in the kitchen while you process. Sometimes it takes a while to find the sweet spot to maintain pressure at the proper level. If the pressure rises too high, the liquid will leak out and the jars won’t seal. If the pressure drops too low, you’ll have to start the timing all over again, for proper canning safety guidelines.
6. Know your elevation! The pounds of pressure required to safely process home-canned foods increases with elevation. Trustworthy pressure canning recipes will include adjustments for altitude.
Andrea Chesman’s kitchen rarely cools down during the growing season on her 1-acre Vermont homestead. Chesman’s books include The Backyard Homestead Book of Kitchen Know-How and Back to Basics: Traditional Kitchen Wisdom.