When we imagine our summer harvests, the mind goes right to a pantry lined with jars of salmon, caribou or vegetables. The steps to getting there are often missing from the musing. Whether you are a novice or an experienced food preserver, reviewing canning methods and equipment before your harvests are waiting in a cooler or refrigerator will help assure that your jarred foods are the highest quality possible and safe to eat. I speak from experience with my own uneducated mistakes leading to some of disappointing losses of precious, nutritious wild harvests.
The necessary equipment for safe preservation of low acid food (meat, fish, poultry, vegetables) are a pressure canner, canning jars in good condition, new flat lids and clean unblemished rings. Jars should be free of any nicks or scratches and manufactured specifically for home canning.
A pressure cooker is not necessarily the same thing as a pressure canner although when purchased the box may say “pressure cooker/canner.” Pressure canners must be large enough to hold at least four quart-sized jars on a rack in the bottom of the canner. The canner also must have a vent for steam to escape and a dial or weighted gauge that allows monitoring the pressure during processing. Electric multi-cookers cannot be used for canning low acid foods.
Some canners have only a dial gauge while some have both dial and weighted gauges. One step in your preparation for jarring is to have your dial gauge checked. Extension recommends checking dial gauges each year and before first use for accuracy. Contact your local Extension office to make an appointment to check your gauge. If your canner only has a dial gauge, you may be able to purchase a weighted gauge or a new vent with a weighted gauge to use in tandem with your dial gauge.
Weighted gauges vary in design and provide options of using 5 pounds, 10 pounds, or 15 pounds of pressure. These do not need to be checked but you should make sure that you know how to use the dial gauge — know how the gauge should sound or behave when your canner is at the right pressure. This information should be in the manual that came with the canner. If you do not have the manual, you may be able to find it online.
In addition to getting your gauge checked, if necessary, give your pressure canner a good visual inspection. Check the vent and make sure it isn’t blocked. If your canner has a rubber gasket or other rubber parts, make sure they aren’t dried out or cracked.
As a final step, put a few inches of water in your canner, close the lid and heat until there is steam flowing from the vent and then close the vent (a petcock on older canners). During this heating process, observe for any unusual leaking. If the lid allows too much steam to escape during processing, it will be difficult to keep your canner up to pressure and your canner may run dry before your processing time is complete.
If your equipment all appears to be in good shape, your next step in preparation is making sure that you have up-to-date canning instructions. These will include researched, safe processing times and techniques for your home jarred products. You may find these through UAF Cooperative Extension (http://cespubs.uaf.edu) or at the National Center for Home Food Preservation (https://nchfp.uga.edu).
Successful, safe canning will rely on filling jars as instructed with proper headspace, tightening the lids properly, venting the canner for 10 minutes, maintaining sufficient pressure for the entire instructed duration and allowing the canner to cool down entirely by itself. These last steps will make sure that the contents of the jars are heated sufficiently to destroy botulism.
Sometimes I get calls after foods have been processed to check on proper processing time and I have to give an enthusiastic food preserver the sad news that their 40 jars of salmon are not safe to eat!
One of my own mistakes has been a failure to check my canner before starting for leaks. This has led to the canner going dry before the full processing time with some broken jars and necessitating reprocessing the rest of the batch.
Planning ahead can save you time and money and assure that your fished, hunted or grown harvest does not end up in compost instead of on your pantry shelf. Call or email Cooperative Extension to answer your questions about canning.
Leslie Shallcross is a registered dietitian and the Tanana District health, home and family development agent for Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She can be reached at 907-474-2426 or firstname.lastname@example.org.