Home Canning and Storing Foods Safely

Here's the lowdown on how to can and the safest food-storage techniques for keeping food-borne bacteria at bay.

| August/September 1999

In an earlier issue, we covered "common" food storage—age-old, low-tech, nonelectric ways of holding easy to keep foods over winter or longer. You may recall that such traditional techniques rely on the the sun or woodstove to dry perishable items like fresh fruit, while inherently more resilient foods like root vegetables go into naturally cold, below-ground storage. In this article, we'll discuss 21st-century adaptations of a slightly more technical off-grid food storage technique: home canning in glass and metal containers. We'll also take a peek at some of the more modern, electricity-dependent methods of freezing foods, vacuum packing and inert-gas packing. 

Keep in mind, however, that whether our means are traditional or high-tech, in trying to preserve food much after harvest, we're picking a family feud with Mother Nature. We're meddling in her marvelous life-giving process, frustrating the role of her recycling agents—the myriad of hungry beasts, bugs, bacteria, yeast and molds—that have evolved to churn the no-longer-living back into elemental plant nutrients so that they (we) may complete the circle of life by helping to nurture succeeding generations.

Safe Food Storage Starts With Cleanliness

Your processing and storing facility should be as close to operating-room sterile as you can get it. First, sterilize your apparatus (including your own hands) as thoroughly as possible. We keep a pump bottle of antibacterial soap at the kitchen sink and wash hands and arms well.

All work surfaces—sinks and the cutting board included—are scrubbed with a chlorine-containing scouring powder and rinsed well with boiling water (drawn from the big black-and-white-speckled enamel canner that's kept filled with water and at a high boil). All plastic and stainless steel implements are boiled in the canner for a half hour or so, then wrapped in a clean towel. (If the water shows an oil slick on top, replace it and vow to clean the tools better in the future.)

Our finer-edged-than-stainless carbon steel butchering knives must be oiled to prevent rust, and most have oiled-wood handles that would be ruined in a sterilizing bath. So along with a whet stone, we dip each blade in boiling water after a final sharpening. Canning jars or freezer containers are washed if needed and sterilized for at least ten minutes in a fresh charge of simmering (180°F) water, then either placed upside down on a sterile air-dryer or left in the hot water till pulled out for filling. Canning lids should be heated in hot water, but not boiled.

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