Learning how to preserve your own food is pretty empowering, and there's a real sense of accomplishment that comes from spending the day working on a project that can help insure your family's security. There are so many great things about it. It's been a really great learning experience, and has become one of my favorite hobbies. But in spite of all the great things about it, I confess that since I started on all of this, I've had this little, nagging fear in the back of my head that somehow I could open a jar of fruit or other canned item, that looks, smells and in all other respects seems normal, and inadvertently kill my whole family by serving it up to them. I'm here to tell you that this MYTH is simply NOT true.
That's not to say that it's never happened - people do die from food poisoning, and particularly from botulism - but it's an extremely rare occurrence. There are many safeguards in place to help avoid food poisoning, both with commercially and home canned foods. As I've read and researched more on the subject, I've gained confidence in my ability to preserve my own food, and do it safely. It's important to educate yourself about safe practices with commercially canned items, too, since many incidences of food poisoning in this country come from foods people have purchased from the grocery store. Educate yourself about safe practices, and follow them meticulously, and you'll be fine. I've collected a few videos from YouTube that help me to illustrate my point, and also compiled a "peace of mind" list to help those of you that want to can, but are still nervous about it, feel a little better about the process.
Case in point: If your jars are stored with the rings on them, and you have trouble getting the lid off, or if the lid (also in the case of commercially canned items) is bulging at all, THIS IS A SIGN THAT SOMETHING IS GROWING IN YOUR FOOD. THROW IT AWAY. The following video is a good, albeit extreme, example:
I wouldn't recommend setting it all over the place, as they did in the video. I would have worn gloves and dumped it down the disposal, followed by giving my sink a good scrubbing with bleach. I'm too cheap to throw away our precious canning jars. If you want some fun, read through the comments on this video...some people got really freaked out by this. We were trying to figure out what they might have possibly done wrong in this process to create this situation. They state in the video description that it's some kind of vegetable spread. We think they may have water bath canned it instead of pressure canning it. But that's just our theory. Anyway, moving on...
Another example is this video, where the lady belabors the point for quite awhile, and doesn't seem sure what to do as she notices problems with canned mandarin oranges that she's had stored in her garage. DO NOT FOLLOW HER EXAMPLE, but DO look at the cans that she's displaying. They show all the signs of canned food gone bad. If you EVER see ANYTHING like this in your pantry. THROW IT AWAY.
One more video, by one of my favorite YouTube canners:
- Follow accepted USDA canning guidelines as published, meticulously and to the letter. The Ball Blue Book of Preserving is considered the gold standard in accepted practices. Additional information is available from the USDA and County Extension Services in every state. A quick internet search will give you loads of resources. Just be sure that you are getting your information from reputable sources.
- Always sterilize (by boiling in water) all implements and tools used in your canning process. Also sterilize jars, lids, and rings prior to canning. Sterilize counter tops and any other surfaces you will be using to prepare your food.
- ALWAYS use a pressure canner to can low-acid foods, which include vegetables, meats, and seafood. Pressure canning is the ONLY safe method for canning low-acid foods.
- Water Bath (traditional "canning" using boiling water) is ONLY safe for fruits and tomatoes. These items have a high enough acid content to kill the bacteria on their own, using only boiling water.
- Store your home and commercially canned items inside your home, (not in your garage) and preferably in a cool, dark place. NEVER store any food items in direct sunlight, such as in front of a window.
- Store home canned items without the rings. If there is a problem with botulism, the pressure that builds up in the jar will be able to undo the seal on its own. This might make a mess, but it helps you to avoid any guesswork.
- Take inventory of your stores periodically and inspect your cans and jars for damage. Dented, rusted, weeping, leaking or bulging cans should be thrown away. These are all signs that the seal or can is no longer intact.
- Home canned items should still be sealed tightly, (so that the lid can not be "popped" up or down when you press on it. If the lid moves up or down and makes noise when pressed, the seal is no longer good, and the food needs to be thrown away.
- If you observe mold or other questionable appearance of your food, err on the side of caution by disposing of it. Your family's health is not worth a couple of dollars worth of possibly spoiled food.
- When opening home or commercially canned food items, beware of any can or jar that "spurts" food or liquid when it is opened. Also beware of jars that are difficult to open, suggesting inside pressure - which is created when botulism grows. This is another reason that bulging is a bad sign.
- Always rinse the tops of your cans prior to opening them. During storage, (including storage prior to your purchasing commercially canned items) cans could have come into contact with rodents - including their waste - which could introduce things like hanta virus and other nastiness you don't want to expose your family to. This includes soda cans as well.
- Do not store pineapple or mandarin oranges in cans for longer than a year. The high acid/enzyme content in these fruits will corrode your cans over time, leading to food waste. These items should be rotated frequently.
- Do not use "pop-top" cans for long term storage. These are convenient, and we've got them in our pantry, but they should be rotated frequently to avoid spoilage.
- Be particularly careful with Asparagus, Green Beans, Beets & Corn. These foods are particularly susceptible to botulism. Follow accepted guidelines meticulously.
- As an added precaution if you're still feeling uneasy, don't eat foods directly from the can or jars. Cook them prior to eating. If you're particularly concerned about botulism, boil the food for 15 minutes prior to eating.