Preserving food in jars is something of a mystery to many people but bottling/canning is one of the skills of simple living that will allow you to extend the life of some of your seasonal produce, to eat good quality food with no chemical preservatives and to save money.
It's an old skill that our grannies took for granted and we forgot about because we could buy all our goods in jars already processed for us. The problem with those commercially processed goods is that we don't know what's in them and often they contain artificial colourings, flavour enhancers and preservatives that are not good for our health. Home grown and home preserved food, withus adding what we want to suit our own taste, is the way bottled food should be. Pure and simple.
I have never used a pressure canner and when I talk about bottling/canning here, I am only writing about water bath preserving. It is suitable for high acid foods like fruit, or foods that vinegar or lemon juice have been added to. It is not suitable for preserving meat, vegetables, fish, soups or any non-acid food. They must be processed in a pressure canner.
Some will come to this type of preserving as a step towards self sufficiency, others will do it for its economy and others still for the quality and wide variety of jams, chutneys, sauces and pickles that water bath preserving will help you add to your stockpiling cupboard. Last night I used the last of my tomato relish - bottled in November 2006. That one bottling session of about 3 hours last November allowed me to keep my home grown tomato relish in the cupboard for almost a full year. The relish is a recipe I've developed over time, has no chemical preservatives, colourings or flavours enhancers. I use it for pizza bases, on sandwiches, with salads and eggs. It's delicious and it's something I would never be able to buy at a supermarket. But I can make it myself and I make enough for a year and to give as gifts. These treasures should be part of your kitchen tradition. You can start your own tradition and teach it to your children so that these simple skills, even if they are forgotten in the general community, are never forgotten in your family.
I am going to warn you that you need to know what you're doing, and the reasons for doing it, if you are to safely preserve food in jars. This way of preserving uses heat to kill bacteria and to seal jars so that new bacteria can't enter while the food is being stored. On the other hand, storing food in a freezer stops most bacteria growing and frozen food can be kept for months. Food stored in a fridge is a kind of short term preserving. It does not kill bacteria, it just slows down the rate at which bacteria multiply. This is why if you keep meat of milk etc in the fridge, it will start to go off after a couple of weeks - the bacteria have multiplied enough to spoil the food. When you process high acid foods in a water bath, it kills the bacteria and the sealed jar stops further contamination - you've sterilised the food. This food doesn't have to be frozen or refrigerated, it can be kept in a cupboard because there is no bacteria present.
Vegetables are low in natural acid and may contain bacteria that is not killed by the heat generated in a water bath. If these foods are stored in a cupboard in a sealed container, the botulism toxin can develop. These foods need to be processed in a pressure canner which can reach the high temperatures necessary to kill this bacteria. In the US, there are about ninecases of botulism poisoning every year. That not a high incidence but botulism poisoning can be fatal.
If you are new to bottling/canning I urge you to buy a NEW copy of Secrets of Successful Preserving - Fowlers Vacola Instruction & Recipe Book if you're in Australia or New Zealand. If you're in North America a NEW copy of Ball Blue Book of Preserving and if you're in the UK or Europe a NEW copy of The Basic Basics Jams, Preserves and Chutneys. Or the 9th edition, or later, or Carla Emery's Encyclopedia of Country Living. The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest: 150 Recipes for Freezing, Canning, Drying and Pickling Fruits and Vegetables is also very good. The reason I emphasise a NEW copy, is that all these books have been published for many years and the old versions may contain instructions for the old ways of preserving which are unsafe. If you have preserving books from before the 1990s, the recipes in them probably aren't safe to use. All these preserving/canning processes - worldwide - were updated in the 1980s after many cases of botulism in the US. You must use a NEW book with the updated procedures and processing times.
I hope I haven't scared too many of you off. I would understand that many people would read the information above and decide this is too dangerous and not for you. Please be assured that if you bottle the recommended foods according to the instructions given here or in the new preserving books, you will produce good quality safe food. Following the instructions will protect you, they are there for a reason. One or two preserving/canning sessions will stand you in good stead and set you on the way to safe and delicious preserved food in jars.
- A large pot, water bath canner or Fowlers Vacola (FV). If you're using a large pot, you'll also need some newspaper or a tea towel on the bottom of the pan to stop the jars having direct contact with the bottom of the pot.
- Jars - either clip sealed or screw on lids. I use store bought jars for large jars and undamaged recycled jars or good quality for jams and chutneys. You will need to check the lids thoroughly for damage, rust, dents etc. Only use perfect lids.
- Rubber seals and clips, if you're using FV jars.
- Canning tongs and wide-mouthed funnel.
If I knew then what I know now I would not have bought FV jars, I would have used all screw top jars. These are freely available on ebay or in supermarkets.
New lids and other preserving accessories are available here.
Further reading here.
There will be another post soon. I'll write about how to process in a water bath and give you some recipes to get you started.