Whether it's Y2K worries or just planning for the winter, more people have returned to the art of home canning this summer. But University of Georgia experts urge canners to take great care before pulling out the Mason jars.
"People don't realize that when home canning equipment sits in storage for years, it needs to be inspected before it's used again," said Elizabeth Andress, an Extension Service food safety specialist with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences. "Rubber gaskets can become dry and brittle, and pressure gauges can lose their accuracy."
Check Equipment Thoroughly
Andress said water continually dripping from under the pressure canner lid, for instance, is a sure sign of a faulty gasket.
Three U.S. companies make pressure canners for the home and offer replacement canner parts. Be sure you replace parts not in working order.
If you haven't had the accuracy of your canner's pressure gauge tested, call your county extension office.
"Many county extension offices have workshops for checking gauge accuracy," Andress said. "If they haven't set up a workshop, your county agent can usually get the testing equipment in a matter of days." Hardware stores and farm supply stores also sometimes offer to check gauges, she said.
Whatever you do, don't just plunge into canning.
"Inspect your equipment," Andress said. "Get your clean jars and new lids ready. Make sure you have all the ingredients you need for a recipe. And then select your fresh food. You'd hate to have a bushel of ripe peaches ready to can and then discover your canner isn't working."
Select the Proper Foods
Getting your equipment in order is just half the canning battle. Selecting the proper foods is vital.
"Foods used for canning should always be high quality," Andress said. "It's not wise to can food that's overripe or starting to decay. People tend to eat the good-looking peaches and can the ones that were on the ground. That's not the best thing to do."
Andress said using low-quality foods not only results in low-quality canned foods, it can produce unsafe foods. "If you use food that was too ripe and near spoiling, you may create a contamination problem," she said.
County agents often hear, "How long do I can this or that?" What concerns Andress most about questions like that is that some foods should never be canned.
The Peril of Not Knowing
"If you don't have tested canning directions so you know how long to can a food item and you don't heat it long enough or hot enough, you could be cooking up food safety trouble," she said.
"It's not as big an issue in high-acid foods like fruit jams, jellies and pickles," she said. "But it's a very big issue with low-acid foods. Mixing low-acid foods like meat and vegetables can result in botulism if not canned properly."
You can't always can any mixture you come up with.
"We can't recommend canning procedures for foods like Brunswick Stew and beef stew, because these food blends haven't been researched for home canning," Andress said.
'So Easy to Preserve'
"The canning time has to be long enough to kill any harmful bacteria, and we don't know the proper times for some foods," she said. "It would be extremely dangerous to guess for these low-acid foods. So we can't make recommendations."
Older recommendations have changed as scientists have learned more about food safety and spoilage. "Always use up-to-date, tested information," she said. "And be very careful about adding creativity to many types of foods. Your family's health is much too important to take chances in canning."
Your county Extension Service office has several fact sheets on canning. You can also order an excellent manual, "So Easy to Preserve," through your county extension office. Or check out the FACS Food Safety and Preservation section.
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)