Traditional, old fashioned canning methods like open kettle canning (for jam and pickles) or water bath canning meat and vegetables are … in a word, unsafe.
Grandma’s Canning Methods were and are Unsafe
I’m aware that many of my readers will find this assertion completely disagreeable, as you cherish the memory of your grandmother’s canning practices and their delicious results.
Please, I beg you, take a deep breath and keep reading. Grant me your indulgence and attention for a few moments while I plead my case.
It is often argued, and I have heard it frequently myself, that these methods of food preservation have been tried and tested for generations, that our ancestors have thrived on them without any ill consequences, and that we have no reason to distrust or abandon them. “If it was good enough for Grandma, it is good enough for me,” or so goes the argument.
To this I reply, with all due respect, that they are entirely mistaken.
Let me put this bluntly, my friends – the entire argument is wrong.
It is very easy to scoff at the necessity of modern methods of food preservation and instead embrace the simplicity of “old fashioned canning and preservation”. Why should one bother with all of the expense and precision of modern methods when they are simply unnecessary?
Our grandparents or at least great-grandparents, after all, potted meat and stored it in the cellar, used open kettle canning for pickles and fruit and even meat and vegetables, covered jams and jellies with paraffin wax, and engaged in many practices that modern food storage experts decry as unsafe and very dangerous.
If canning in the old days – not to mention the other preservation methods – were so dangerous, why does the human race continue? Obviously it’s safe and some people just want to live in a bubble wrapped world.
I have lost count of the times I have heard these arguments.
Many of us have stories of mothers and grandmothers who did these things, raising large and healthy families on this “unsafe” food, and home canning (using old methods) fits in the same category.
Are you still with me, dear reader? I realize that this is a difficult topic. You may have landed on this page because you wished to know how to preserve food using Grandma’s method, and I am clearly not about to do that.
My Mother’s Pickles
Various factors contribute to my very strong assertion – open kettle canning, and water bath canning meat and vegetables, is exceedingly unsafe. But I believe that it’s best illustrated by my mother and her pickles.
I confess to a strong fondness for my mother’s pickles, perhaps not an unusual thing for a daughter to say.
No meal was complete without a jar of green tomato chow chow or bread and butter pickles on the table.
My mother began making pickles and jam in 1971 as a young and inexperienced teenaged housewife, seeking advice from older women, experimenting, and essentially instructing herself.
I have nothing but admiration for her – she’s a remarkable lady.
I remember one year that she experimented with paraffin wax for jam making – she said almost all of her jam went moldy and she never attempted that again. When I questioned her, she said that she did indeed follow all of the rules she was given. That, she decided, was a waste of time and money.
Food preservation and bulk foods were common at our house.
We had buckets of flour in the kitchen, bushels of apples in the back porch, massive bins of carrots and potatoes in the cellar, a chest freezer big enough to hide an army, and the ever present pickles and jams. I grew up with the idea of food storage, thanks to my thrifty mother.
Mom taught me about the importance of storing food, purely by example. When I moved out of my parents’ home in 1992 and began buying my own groceries, I discovered that most people bought small bags of flour, not the 50-pound bags my mother used.
In 2010, she gazed around my growing stockpile of home canned foods and made this pronouncement (a whole afternoon summed up):
“Your apartment is too warm. If you store home canned food in this apartment, your jars will be exploding within a month. You really need to have a cold cellar where the jars can sit, undisturbed. You shouldn’t be taking off the rings, either, or the lids will come off. And meat? Are you sure it’s safe to can meat? I’m pretty sure you’re all going to get sick from that. Marie, you really can’t safely can meat. And besides, even if it’s safe, you’re putting up too much food. Only put up enough to get you through the winter. Not a year’s worth, just the winter. Home canned food doesn’t last through the summer, not even in a cold cellar.”
At Christmastime, she looked in horror at a jar of pickles she had given me.
She had left the ring on, of course, and, when she gave it to me, she said, “Put it in the fridge. Your place is too warm for pickles.”
Curious as to what would actually happen, I placed it in the cupboard next to my home-canned meat.
I had information that Mom did not, and like her, I was determined to experiment to find out the truth.
I knew that Mom had open kettle canned that jar of pickles, and I wanted to see who was correct. Could her old fashioned canning ways actually be as safe as up-to-date methods?
My boiling water bath canned pickles stayed safe for years, even if the quality decreased with time. But open kettle pickles – how long would those last in similar circumstances?
Before I go any further, I must define open kettle canning.
Open kettle “canning” is when you put HOT food into HOT jars, cover the filled jar with a HOT lid …. and then trust that that seal from the cooling food protects your food.
It’s not really canning.
After about two weeks, the difference was clear. Mom’s pickles, which had been left at room temperature beside my own, had swelled noticeably inside the jar, and the lid was bulging.
My mother was shocked and angry, demanding to know what I had done, and of course I told her the exact truth. To be fair, I was shaking in my boots. No good daughter wants to prove her mother completely wrong about something, but I felt that this was important.
She said, “You put that right next to the stuff you canned? And yours is fine?” We parted, with me nervously wondering if there would be any fallout. I had, after all, just told her that she had been gambling with our health for the past thirty years.
A week afterwards, my mother arrived at my apartment with a cardboard box containing all of her jars and rings. If I want to can,” she declared, “I’ll come to your place and you’ll show me how to put up stuff that can sit in the cupboard.”
A few months later, I heard Mom telling friends “Marie puts up meat and vegetables and they’re safe in the cupboard and very tasty!”
On her birthday, I bought her a boiling water bath canner and later she bought her own pressure canner. She’s now very quick to explain to people why we don’t use the old-fashioned methods.
Since then I must admit that gifts of home-canned food are all put through that same test at my house. I place them in the kitchen cupboard for a few weeks to see if the lid pops off.
I think that this highlights some very important information about traditional food preservation. Like modern food preservation, it required very specific, controlled circumstances.
The Crazy, Russian Roulette Rules of “Safe” Open Kettle Canning
My mother was very clear on The Rules of Safe Open Kettle Canning. (Please don’t do this – there’s an easier way!)
- Maintain perfect cleanliness while putting up food, boil all tools, and work fast
- Remove ONE jar from the hot water at time, fill and seal it before getting another jar
- Keep home-canned food in a dark cold cellar
- Leave the RINGS on, although some people do take them off, as removing rings may cause the seal to break
- Do not touch or disturb jars in any way until ready to eat or the seal might break
- Plan to can enough to get through the winter only (some might last longer, but don’t count on them)
- Stick to pickles, jellies and jams
- Watch carefully for any signs of spoilage, dispose and boil everything
Clearly I am lazy because that is TOO MUCH WORK for me,
TOO MUCH WORRY
TOO MUCH UNCERTAINTY
Another example I will give is my friend Leona, an Old Order Mennonite farmer in southern Ontario.
She graced me with a visit to the stone cold cellar under her old farmhouse. Before going down the ladder, she warned me to put on my coat and boots, as the cellar was as cold as outdoors. I looked in wonder at the many rows of food, all safely tucked away for winter meals. However, one of the jars appeared odd – the green and yellow colors were nothing I expected to see on meat – and I cautiously mentioned it.
“Oh, I guess that one’s gone bad,” she said, clearly not at all surprised. When I stared, she added, “There are always some that go bad.” The truth is, though, properly canned food does not do that. Once I have processed and sealed jars, I know that they’ll be safe until opened.
Later, when I asked about their ways of preserving, she stressed that they learn at the knees of their mothers, aunts and grandmothers.
They have very, very strict rules about what can and can’t be done (never, ever, ever boiling water bath can beans or corn, for example) and what to look for in a jar that has spoiled.
Although they will preserve applesauce or tomato sauce in quantities to keep two years, mostly everything is to be used up by spring, since jarred food, as my mother said, “only keeps over the winter”.
A cold cellar maintains a temperature just above freezing during the winter months.
It is about the same temperature as the inside of a refrigerator.
Today, we know that food that is improperly processed should go into the refrigerator, where it can stay good for a while.
In other words, all of these old methods are making ‘refrigerator jam/pickles’, etc.
This is something to consider when looking at traditional food preservation methods.
They relied on circumstances that many of us lack – like an icy cold well in which to keep butter, or a cold cellar where barely-processed jars of fruits and pickles would usually keep through the winter.
That’s the important word there.
Whenever you see a historical recipe – like potted or confited meat – which says that it will keep for “six months”, consider that our forebears would have kept it in a cold cellar and would have planned to use it up by Lent.
And winters were colder than they are now – my grandfather would wrap meat in burlap and hang it in the barn during the winter, secure in the knowledge that it would stay frozen until close to Lent.
There’s no way I can guarantee freezing temperatures, especially not consistently freezing temperatures, from November until April!
Food storage (with some exceptions) was intended to get the family through the winter, not through the next thirty years.
Wisdom from my Grandfather
In addition, I want to consider some things that my grandfather used to say.
He was born in the middle of World War II, in rural Canada, and has long ago passed on. He had very little fondness for “the good old days”, which he said were brutal and hard. He would say “The only thing good about ‘the good old days’ is that we were younger’.
People died of things which are rare today, and everyone simply accepted it as normal.
One thing I always remember is a conversation I overheard between him and my father.
My grandfather said that the spring time “stomach flu“, which used to kill so many people every year, all but disappeared with the introduction of electricity and refrigerators to rural homes.
Even with cold cellars and a lifetime familiarity with traditional food storage methods, people often died of food poisoning in that period just before Lent, when young animals were not yet ready for slaughter (veal, spring chickens, lamb, kids) and the remaining meat had frozen and thawed in the barn a few times too many.
How many people have you known who got sick from food poisoning? Okay, you probably know someone (or you’ve had it yourself) but I’ll bet everyone you know survived it. According to my grandfather, this “stomach flu” used to be common and very frequently it proved fatal.
This is why my grandparents, as soon as home pressure canners were available after World War II, bought one. In late winter, when meat would soon be in danger of thawing and spoiling, they brought it inside, cut it up and canned it.
Traditional canning methods – that is, boiling bath canning meat or open kettle canning pickles and jams – “worked”, but only under very strict circumstances, with a short shelf life, and with an unacceptably high mortality rate.
The crazy thing is that the United States Department of Agriculture announced in 1917 that canned meat had to be pressure canned in order to preserve it properly.
This is not new technology.
Although home pressure canners were scarce for a while because of the wars, they became available again the 1940s. This is why my grandparents, dirt poor farmers from rural Nova Scotia, Canada, owned and used one after the war.
All food storage has its limits, including pressure canning. Whatever methods you use, please know the limits, the risks, and the proper way to do them.
However, please always choose the safest, most current method of preserving your food, including canning recipes that use up to date knowledge.
I can think of no reason why any of us should use food storage methods which were proven unsafe in 1917 and which have been repeatedly tested and proven unsafe ever since.