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Exercise Care When it Comes to Canning Safety

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Fresh chili peppers spice up homemade salsa.
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Hank Will in his International Harvester pickup.
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A variety of homemade preserves grace the picnic table.

In our May/June issue, we printed a recipe for home-canned salsa that included using starch as a thickener. Shortly after that issue hit the newsstand, I received a helpful letter about canning safety noting that the USDA no longer approves of canning salsas that use starch as a thickener because its presence could lead to uneven heating of the jars in the water bath, and since salsa contains non-acidic ingredients such as onions and peppers, the threat of botulism is real. Yikes!

I chewed on this information, while considering that my Ball Blue Book was more than a decade old and the recipe we published (and its untold variations) has been in use for scores of years by mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and even a few of their male counterparts.

So, I investigated the National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) website to see what I might learn about safe canning in the modern world.

Upon its inception in 2000, the NCHFP immediately conducted a national survey and concluded that “a high percentage of home food processors are using practices that put them at high risk for foodborne illness and economic losses due to food spoilage,” and set about the task of developing scientifically approved and tested recipes and canning protocols that would ensure the safety of home-canned foods.

Further research into home-canning safety led me to the Pick Your Own website’s botulism page where I learned, among many other useful facts, that there are about 145 botulism cases a year in the United States – approximately 15 percent (roughly 22) of those are foodborne poisonings (not necessarily from home-canned food). This might be why botulism wasn’t on my radar screen when a reader offered that venerable old salsa recipe – I can’t recall the last time the national news picked up on botulism poisoning from home-canned foods.

Pick Your Own also discourages folks from using any personal recipes for canning because “the establishment of a correct, safe process
requires laboratory research by trained scientists.” Bummer, eh? Do we just throw out all that tried, but not scientifically true, food knowledge?

I probably won’t can much from the garden this year, as freezing preserves more flavor and nutrients and is less trouble, but I will check the NCHFP and Pick Your Own websites for recipes and recommendations on canning those crops that just beg to be stored in glass jars on the pantry shelf. I don’t plan to throw away every old-time recipe for home canning that I’ve used over the years; however, I will be more diligent with following tested recipes and processing protocols.

Whether you’re canning your first tomato crop or freezing creamed corn, we’d love to know what you’re up to this season. We’d especially like to know how you plan to provide safe food for your family this winter. If you keep a country journal and would like to share it through a blog at www.Grit.com, just let me know (hwill@Grit.com).

See you in September. 


Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper’s Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.

Published on Jun 14, 2010

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