Common sense and creativity are things you need to have a lot of when homesteading. Most often there isn’t a magic formula or set of rules for you to follow. You use your brain, hone your skills, and do what you can to keep moving forward. Learning to preserve your own food by canning is no different, except that it does come with its own set of rules.
Not following these rules can lead to botulism poisoning and land you in the hospital or even the morgue. To keep you out of both of these places, we’ve compiled this list of 7 canning mistakes that can make you sick or worse.
1. Using a water bath canner instead of a steam-pressure canner – Acidic foods can be safely preserved using a water bath canner. This includes fruits, pickles, preserves, and some tomatoes. Meats, some soups or stocks, and vegetables that are non-acidic and haven’t been pickled must be processed in a steam-pressure canner. The proper method for the food you’re preserving is the most critical thing to consider when canning.
2. Not following the exact recipe or making up your own – It is highly recommended that you get a good canning recipe book. The ones put out by the makers of the most popular canning jars are considered some of the best. Deviations from the recipe can affect acidity levels and processing times. Changing the amount or type of produce indicated on the recipe is one of these deviations. Canning food is not the time to let your creative juices flow – follow the tested recipe.
3. Using less than perfect or questionable ingredients – More than just taste or appearance are affected when you use inferior ingredients. You run the risk of introducing bacteria or mold into your jars before you’ve even started. Only use fresh, clean, and undamaged ingredients to keep this from happening.
4. Failure to adjust the processing time for your altitude – Water boils at different temperatures depending on the altitude. To ensure your food is properly preserved, you must make adjustments. For water bath canning, you adjust the processing time. When using the pressure canner, it is the pressure level you change.
5. Overfilling the jars or not leaving enough headspace – When a recipe tells you to leave a certain amount of headspace in the jar, do it. If a jar is overfilled, the odds are that the lid won’t make a good seal. That extra space is needed for expansion during processing. Another step that is not to be overlooked is wiping the rims of the jars once they are filled. This is important as any residue or “debris” on the rim can keep a good seal from forming.
6. Reusing the lids or using cracked/chipped jars – Never reuse the regular metal lids for processing. While the rubber seal may look intact, it will have unseen microscopic damage caused by heat from that first session. Tiny tears or imperfections can prevent the lid from fully sealing to the rim. The rings are reusable and the lids can be used for other storage purposes, just not canning. Reusable ceramic lids with rubber gaskets are available, but they have their own set of rules to follow.
Also be sure to inspect your jars for chips and cracks. Jars with any kind of damage should never be used for canning. It is difficult or impossible for a proper seal to form which could allow bacteria in. They can also be a danger if they break during processing or handling.
7. Improper storage methods – How you store your processed jars can make a difference in both appearance and longevity. One of the steps that are often overlooked actually occurs after the canning is finished. You should remove the rings and wash each sealed jar with soapy water. This removes any sticky residue that may have become trapped under the rings or on the jar. If left, it can encourage rust, mold, or even insects. Whether you replace the rings or not is your choice. They aren’t necessary for storage – only for processing and keeping the lid on after the jar is opened. It is always best to keep your jars in a dry place, out of direct sunlight which can break down and discolor your food.
Canning doesn’t have to be difficult if you follow the rules. One of the most important things to remember is to take your time and do it right. When you get in a rush, vital steps might be missed. It’s a good idea to use your recipe book every time, no matter how many times you’ve canned.
That being said, don’t let these words of warning scare you off. Canning is a rewarding skill to learn and practice. So use that common sense. Start preserving delicious and nutritious foods for your family today.