Are Granny’s Skills Long Lost?

By Cassidy Hall
Area Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences
Johnston County Cooperative Extension

I catch a lot of slack from older populations. Apparently, I am “too young” to know how to do many of things my job requires of me – so they say. Many are surprised that someone as young as I am is interested in canning and leads food preservation classes.

One of the greatest things about N.C. Cooperative Extension is the incredibly close relationship county agents have with North Carolina State University.  As a result, I have learned proper ways to preserve foods through home-canning, fermenting, and pickling. I enjoy the science behind why these methods work and where to find information that has been tested and researched. I also enjoy the satisfaction of creating art that I can eat.

Food preservation is truly an art – it takes skill, patience, and time. At the end result you have beautiful glass jars containing high quality foods enabling its curator to eat healthy year round.

Some would say this skill isn’t necessary because of modern transportation, refrigeration and storage, and the food availability we have due to grocery stores. These aspects are certainly worth considering, but what if a natural disaster happens? Your frozen food supply is lost and your hard work and efforts are wasted. Additionally, you have lots of money lost and food to throw away. We certainly live in a time where healthy foods are available commercially canned, but there is something about the taste of home-canned vegetables compared to the store bought. Either way, keeping canned foods on hand in the case of an emergency is always a good idea.

Have you ever wondered why canning works? Recipes are crafted and tested for safety using ratios of food acidity, salt, and sugar combined with heat processing to prevent the growth of pathogens and food spoilage such as bacteria, yeast and mold in sealed jars. A set length of time in the canner (also referred to as “processing time”) is recommended to ensure the oxygen is driven out of the jar and the jar seals. A processing time that is too short will fail to drive all of the oxygen out of the jar and can lead to spoilage. A processing time that is too long results in over-processed, low quality products.

Keep in mind that just because you hear the lid “pop,” doesn’t necessarily mean that it sealed properly. Recipes from the 100th edition of the Ball Blue Book, So Easy to Preserve, and the National Center for Home Food Preservation website have all been studied to determine the exact amount of acidity, salt, sugar, and processing time required to keep foods safe from foodborne illness, pathogens, and food spoilage (in case you are curious. If home-canned food isn’t canned correctly, you could potentially get Botulism, and in severe cases, it could kill you – or put you in a situation where an $80,000 antitoxin has to be flown in from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to save you (there is your not-so-fun fact of the day!).

Because the approved recipes have been researched, we call them “tested recipes.” These tested recipes also tell you which canner method to use to process your product.

High acid foods, such as food that has been acidified, jams/jellies or other fruit products, may be canned in a boiling-water bath canner. Low acid foods, such as vegetables, tomatoes without the addition of an acid, meats, soups, and stocks must be canned in a pressure canner.

If you have canned for years or someone taught you years ago, the last statement may have you thinking, “I don’t do it that way and nobody has died or gotten sick.” I hear that rebuttal quite a bit.

Just like with medical information, as more research is available and we learn more, we improve our practices. If you can low acid foods in a water bath canner, the temperature inside of your jars does not reach the level of heat required to kill Clostridium botulinum– the pathogen responsible for Botulism.

Clostridium botulinum occurs naturally in the soil where the food grows. When this pathogen gets to live inside of an oxygen-free environment, such as a sealed canning jar, it creates an optimal environment for toxins to grow that can’t be killed by heat. If you ingest these neurotoxins, they begin to attack your Central Nervous System resulting in facial paralysis, drooping eyelids, drooling, and in severe cases can paralyze your diaphragm – pretty scary stuff.

Botulism is rare, but it can happen and it is the most costly and fatal of all foodborne illnesses. In most cases of home canning, the consequences may be less severe and the result is food spoilage; but after all of that hard work, do you really want your food to spoil?

If you are interested in home food preservation, please visit www.johnston.ces.ncsu or call the Extension office at 919-989-5380. We will be offering hands-on workshops over the summer. Each workshop is $10 and will teach you the science behind canning, skills to preserve at home, as well as information about tested recipe resources.