10 Tips for Perfect Preserves
Those of us lucky enough to live near rich berry grounds or u-picks probably have freezers and fridges full of strawberries, blueberries, bakeapples and partridgeberries. Then there are the home gardeners, the green thumbs with a winters worth of carrots, beets, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash in the backyard. The next natural step for the self-sufficient among us is home canning (or bottling) the method for preserving foods for up to a year without refrigeration. Good canning recipes should provide good step-by-step instruction, including how long to cook the food and to what temperature. Here are some basic tips to help the process go more smoothly.
1. Gather everything youll need for what you intend to preserve. Often the process is time sensitive (you dont want to let food overcook or cool off while youre trying to find a utensil). You should have ready:
a waterbath canner a large stainless-steel vat with a fitted rack for holding the bottles and a loose-fitting lid
or a pressure cooker/canner a large pot with a tight-fitting lid, pressure gauge and relief valve to cook food in shorter time under high pressure. (Check the recipe youre using for the method of canning preferred.)
proper canning jars and lids
large spoon for stirring, and for scooping froth off the top of boiling berries
knife for cutting fruits and vegetables
clean tea towels (for wiping any spills off the jars as you fill them)
cooling racks for bottles after the canning process
2. Check all jars carefully and discard any with even the slightest for nick or crack. Any imperfections could lead to a break during the canning process.
3. Clean all bottles, lids, pots and utensils in very hot, soapy water or on the hottest dishwasher setting and allow to dry thoroughly before use. This is to prevent bacteria from contaminating your preserves.
4. Put washed bottles in a warm oven to dry and keep them warm until they are filled.
5. Clean fruit or vegetables that you plan to can. Discard any that are overripe or rotten. They will ruin the batch. Fruits and vegetables that are not ripe may also affect the taste and quality of the preserve.
6. Stick to the recipe. The correct balance of ingredients is the only way to ensure the proper flavour and consistency. (For example, not enough pectin will make jam runny; too much will make it stiff.)
7. Always follow the exact time and temperature for cooking provided in the recipe. Failure to do so could result in unsafe food because bacteria are still present, or conditions are ripe for it to grow.
8. Check all the seals 24 hours after canning. The lids should be taut when you press down on them with your finger. If a lid makes a popping sound or isnt curved downward, the seal isnt tight enough for safe storage. Treat this jar as a perishable item and store it in the fridge. The contents should be eaten within two weeks.
9. Store bottled goods in a dark dry place (light and moisture can affect the quality of the food). Label each bottle with the date it was preserved. The contents should be eaten within one year.
10. If you open a bottle of your preserves and find mould growing on it, do NOT eat any of the contents. It used to be that we would just scrape off the top layer, assuming the rest was safe. But it is now known that mould on soft, moist foods such as jam can produce poisonous substances called mycotoxins, which infect all the food, not just the part where the mould is visible.
Canning/bottling is also a popular way to preserve meats and fish, but Health Canada warns people to be extremely careful about how such foods are canned and stored due to the risk of botulism a serious illness with a five to 10 per cent risk of fatality among those sickened by it. Botulism is caused by bacteria (Clostridium botulinum) that occur naturally in soil and water. The toxin produced by the bacteria is heat-resistant and can survive high temperatures. The bacteria can grow in a moist, oxygen-free environment, so, home canning and bottling of seafood provides the perfect conditions for the bacteria to multiply and produce the toxin, unless the food is properly canned or heat-processed, Health Canada states. The bacteria that causes botulism is colourless, odourless, tasteless and invisible to the naked eye. The bacteria are not necessarily destroyed by cooking, so preventing the toxin from forming is essential.
The best way to prevent botulism is to add acid (vinegar, lime or lemon juice) to low-acid foods such as meats and seafood (as well as tomatoes) or by using a pressure canner. Only pressure cookers/canners can reach the extreme temperature needed to kill the bacteria.