Now is a great time to learn how to preserve your food at home because canning is making a comeback, says Dr. Janie Burney, a professor and food preservation specialist with the University of Tennessee Extension Department of Family and Consumer Sciences.
"If you need some way to preserve food that you have grown yourself or purchased at a grocery or farmers market, canning may be the thing to do," said Burney. She adds that home canning equipment has never been safer or easier to use.
"The best way to start is by using the right equipment, proper techniques and up-to-date home canning recipes from your local University of Tennessee/Tennessee State University Extension Office," Burney recommended. The food preservation expert explained that extension agents trained in the field of family and consumer sciences, formerly called home economics, offer a variety of educational programs in home food preservation in counties across the state.
"Don't hesitate to call your local county extension office for detailed information," she said. "Extension agents have a long history of providing advice on how to preserve foods safely at home. Extension agents are part of the national Cooperative Extension System, which is a partnership between the USDA, the University of Tennessee or Tennessee State University, and your county. USDA published instructions for canning as early as 1909 in pamphlets known as farmer's bulletins."
As the spring and summer canning season approaches, Burney is often asked to review some of the basics of canning. Here's a set of answers to many questions that beginners and those experienced in food preservation often ask.
Question: How do I need to prepare for prepare for canning season?
Burney: It's never too early to start thinking about what supplies and materials you will need. Don't wait until the food is ready to be harvested. Start by checking your equipment and supplies. Proper equipment in good condition is required for safe, high-quality, home-canned food.
A pressure canner is a must for canning low-acid vegetables, meats, fish and poultry. Two basic types are available. One has a dial gauge to indicate the pressure inside the canner; the other has a metal weighted gauge. Dial gauges must be tested for accuracy before each canning season. For information on testing a dial gauge, call your county extension agent. Check the rubber gasket if your canner has one. It should be flexible and soft, not brittle, sticky or cracked. Also make sure any small pipes or vent ports with openings are clean and open all the way through.
A boiling water canner is needed for canning fruits, pickles, jellies and jams. The canner should be deep enough to allow at least one to two inches of water to boil over the tops of the jars. Both pressure and boiling water canners should have a rack in the bottom to keep jars off the bottom of the canner.
If you have canned before, inspect old jars for nicks, cracks or chips, especially around the top sealing edge. Nicks can prevent lids from sealing. Very old jars can weaken with age and repeated use. They break under pressure and heat. Consider investing in new jars and watch for specials in stores. New jars are a better investment over time than buying used jars at yard sales or flea markets.
Mason-type jars specifically designed for home canning are best. Jars that use two-piece self-sealing metal lids are recommended by USDA. These have been tested in many canning processes and form good seals. Used lids should be thrown away. The screw bands are reusable if they are not bent, dented or rusted.
Question: Where can I find instructions for canning specific foods?
Burney: Your local Extension Office is one source for instructions. You also can find safe recipes from USDA and from other Extension offices across the country. If you use the Internet, bookmark the site for the National Center for Home Food Preservation (http://nchfp.uga.edu/) . Look for instructions on web sites that end in "edu" or "gov." Recipes on web sites that end in "com" may not be safe. One exception is the national extension website: http://www.extension.org. Just search the term "canning."
Question: Why can't I use my grandmother's old canning recipes? I can't recall anyone getting sick.
Burney: Through the years, home canning methods and techniques are constantly tested and improved to assure the safest, most effective way of processing food due to the changes in variety of foods, soil conditions and bacteria living in soil and water. The food you grow today may be very different from the food your grandmother grew. Tomatoes are a good example. Your tomatoes may be less acidic than those in your grandmother's garden, which makes a difference in how they are canned.
Question: How can I determine how much food to preserve for my family?
Burney: Preserve enough for your family for about a year. It may be tempting to can all those green beans you grow. However, the longer they are stored, the more quality they will lose. There may also be changes in texture, changes in color and loss of flavor. Call the Extension office for information on yields for canned or frozen fruits and vegetables.
Burney's bottom line is that even if you have never tried home canning, you can be successful with proper equipment and proper instructions, and the best source for those instructions is your local extension office. Telephone directories list the phone numbers for county extension offices under government lists. You may also look for county office numbers online at https://utextension.tennessee.edu
"No matter what reason you have for preserving food at home, do it safely," she advises. "Successful home canning requires only that you observe simple guidelines."
UT Extension provides a gateway to the University of Tennessee as the outreach unit of the Institute of Agriculture. With an office in every Tennessee county, UT Extension delivers educational programs and research-based information to citizens throughout the state. In cooperation with Tennessee State University, UT Extension works with farmers, families, youth and communities to improve lives by addressing problems and issues at the local, state and national levels.