The Very Basics About Canning Safety Everyone Should Know!

Canning basicsCanning your own food, once a dying skill, is growing rapidly in popularity.  In Vancouver BC last year, the most popular course around was a canning course.  With the growing locavore movement, the higher cost of food, and concern about our food safety and health, a growing number of people want to know how to grow and/or preserve their own food.  It isn’t hard to do, and this skill can make a huge difference in your food bill and quality of life.  But there are some very basic rules that you MUST follow to prevent a very serious illness called botulism

“And just because our grandmothers did it a certain way and never got sick doesn’t mean it is safe.”

I know someone who, very new to canning, cooked and cut the corn off some cobs, stuck it into hot jars and put the lids on.  They sealed and she believed they were safe.  They were not.  Not only were they not canned at all, but being a low acid food they required pressure canning at the right amount of pounds for the right amount of time to be safe to eat.  Without doing this you are risking a rare but very real and deadly bacteria called botulism.  By following certain guidelines, however, you can safely can food without being afraid of botulism.   It is, after all, simply a science.

What is botulism?  Botulism is a rare but potentially deadly illness caused by a toxin produced by the bacteria called clostridium botulinum.  The bacteria may be present while you are canning.  You can’t smell, taste or see it, and the food product will not look spoiled even if it is.  It is serious enough to cause nerve damage, paralysis, and even death.  Even a small taste of it can kill you.

There are two types of canning: water bath canning and pressure canning.  Water bath canning simply means placing the filled jars into a large pot, covering the jars to an inch over the tops, and boiling for a specified amount of time. All you need to know is how long to boil for to kill mold spores in the jars, as well as how to pack the jars (hot or cold).  Pressure canning means canning food in a pressurized canner that has a pressure guage on the top.  When you pressure can you need to be familiar with the safety guidelines for pressure canning, and you need to know the required pressure and time for whatever product you want to can.

Here are the basic rules that you should follow.  Please also check the links below for reliable canning information.

  1. Water bath canning is safe only for high acid and high sugar products, which means it is safe for most fruits, pickles and jams. Water bath canning only gets the product as high as boiling temperature which is hot enough to kill mold spores (all that would grow in a high acid environment) but not hot enough to kill bacteria like botulism, which grows in low acid environments that are sealed.
  2. Pressure canning is safe for canning low acid products like meat, vegetables, sauces, etc. It brings the product to a high enough temperature to kill bacteria spores that may be present, such as the dreaded botulism.
  3. Some things you cannot ever safely pressure can, such as dairy, pureed squash or pumpkin, pureed potatoes, zucchini, rice, corn starch, flour, pasta noodles, olives etc. mostly due to the fact that the product could break down at that high of a temperature and create an uneven consistency, and therefore uneven temperatures. Some of these products can be safely pressure canned if they are in cube form, such as squash, pumpkin and potatoes.
  4. Store you canned goods in a cool environment, not exposed to direct sunlight, with the rings off and not stacked. Keeping the rings off and not stacking means that if a seal breaks it won’t be held down by weight or by the ring, and you will notice that the seal is broken and dispose of the product.
  5. Don’t eat a product that has a broken seal.
  6. Follow guidelines from safe canning sites to know which products are safe to can and which aren’t.  Just because it is on the internet, though, doesn’t mean a recipe is safe.  Use caution and follow these rules.  If you are uncertain, check some of the sites listed below, or just freeze your product instead.
  7. Invest in a good quality pH meter or litmus paper to test your products to see if they are acidic enough. Some products like pasta sauce that include some low acid foods may not be acidic enough to water bath can and must be pressure canned. If they are lower than 4.6 on the ph scale they are safe to water bath can. Buy a pH meter here.
  8. How to choose a pressure canner: Pressure canners can range from about $85 on sale new, to over $300. A good affordable pressure canner is a Presto 23 quart canner. Make sure you get a rack with it, and the extra weights can be helpful. Always make sure you read the manual first. Pressure canning is a lot different than water bath canning.
  9. Botulism isn’t only a risk in canned foods. It can also be a concern in dehydrated foods that aren’t dry enough and are stored in an anaerobic environment (ex. vacuum packed or sealed jars). If you are unsure if your food is dry enough to store, then just store it in the freezer. 

    Some of you have found good canning safety sites. Please share your links, tips and information in the comments!  And remember that just because your grandma did it, or a blogger does it doesn’t mean it is safe…

Safe canning sites:

National Center for Home Food Preservation

Home Canning Safety

Home Canning: Keep Your Family Safe!



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