5@5 - Five myths about canning
July 27th, 2011
05:00 PM ET
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5@5 is a daily, food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe.

You say you want a can-volution? Well, you need to know Sean Timberlake.

Timberlake is a professional writer and author of the blog Hedonia. He's also the founder of Punk Domestics, a Web site devoted to all things do-it-yourself food - from pickles and jams to goodies in cans.

When it comes to preservation, Timberlake admits even learned people and accomplished home cooks are oftentimes stymied by the fear of poisoning their loved ones with a tainted jar of fig jam (Mmm...botulism!).

While there are real risks, follow a few rules and Sean assures you'll be safely jamming in no time.

Five Myths About Canning: Sean Timberlake

1. My home-canned foods will poison me and my loved ones.
"You will absolutely, positively not bring disease and death into your home by canning - so long as you follow the rules. Modern food preservation techniques are designed to eradicate the pathogens that can cause illness, thereby rendering your foods shelf-stable.

In fact, properly canned foods are about the safest things you can eat. But a modicum of attention must be paid to a few fundamentals to ensure that all the bugaboos that can get you are tamed."

2. My grandmother canned in the oven/used paraffin wax/turned jars upside-down while canning, and no one died, so it’s safe.
"There are a myriad of tools and practices that have been employed throughout the last couple centuries to can food.  However, the USDA has established a recommended practice using mason jars with two-part lids, canned upright in a water bath or pressure canner. This recommendation is unimpeachable, and should be adhered to to ensure safety."

3. The lids on my jars sealed, so the contents are safely canned.
"It’s so enormously satisfying to hear the high-pitched pings of lids sealing as they come out of the canner, but that doesn’t mean what’s inside is safe to eat. In order to kill off the bacteria that causes botulism, the contents must be sufficiently acidic, having a pH 4.6 or lower.

Most fruits are high in acid, which makes them excellent candidates for preserves that can be canned using the water bath method. But unpickled vegetables, meats and many soups and sauces are not, and require pressure canning to destroy the botulinum bacteria.

How can you tell the pH of your recipe? Unless you’re a chemist, you can’t, so make sure you’re using a tested recipe from a reliable source. If you don’t know your recipe is safe for water bath canning, store it in the refrigerator or freezer (or in your belly) instead."

4. Canning is for people in big houses in the country, not me in my tiny urban kitchen.
"We are blessed to live in an age when gorgeous, ripe fruits and vegetables can be harvested at local farms and transported to markets in the very heart of even the densest cities on the very same day. If you want to hang on to that bounty well after the season’s over, canning is probably your best bet.

Other than a pot large enough to submerge your jars in boiling water, the other equipment required will fit in a drawer. Working in small batches ensures you don’t end up with mountains of jars all over your house."

5.  Canning is hard.
"Do you find cooking hard? If so, then maybe this is true for you. Like cooking, though, canning is a process, so take the time to set up your space and develop a workflow. Have everything ready in its place for each step of the process and you’ll find that it goes quickly, is easier than you imagined and even fun.

It’s also an excellent activity to do with friends and family; after all, many hands make light work. And when you hear those lids popping as they cool, your heart will swell with pride and you’ll already start planning your next trip to the farmers market for another round of canning."

Is there someone you'd like to see in the hot seat? Let us know in the comments below and if we agree, we'll do our best to chase 'em down.

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Filed under: 5@5 • Cooking • Make • Techniques & Tips • Think

soundoff (56 Responses)
  1. John1518

    Very nice site!

    November 3, 2011 at 8:34 am |
  2. AnnieK

    I make strawberry/rhubarb jam every spring. I don't even use jars; I use ziptop bags and lay them flat in the freezer – and give them away to friends just like that. Just pickled hot banana peppers and heard the ping sound but still keep it in the fridge until I give them away – with recommendation to keep in the fridge. Taking sweet corn and cutting it off the cob on a flexible cutting board and putting in zip top bags, squeezing the air out is incredibly easy; and tastes just as good in the dead of winter.

    July 30, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  3. Mare

    I grew up on home canned veggies and pickles, and refuse to eat anything else. I got lucky, and my husband was raised the same way. I have my grandmother's pressure canner, his grandmother's "bell" book and tools, both my mother and mother in law have given me jars and rings, and as a gift, hubby got me another pressure canner.

    No, I'm not an old lady. I've been canning for years with my parents and grandparents.

    July 29, 2011 at 9:30 am |
  4. ed353

    I remember this growing up too. Don't be decieved, this hard, hot work. We were very organized (after many years of practice), but you will sweat, your muscles will ache and your kitchen will be a mess after you are done, I don't care how much you prepared in advance. So after you're done working to get everything canned, be prepared to work just as hard to clean everything up.

    July 29, 2011 at 8:23 am |
  5. Skottikins

    I once canned something like 100 jars of plum jelly with my mother once( she was on a canning kick). it was so much fun. BUT... i never want to see another mason jar for the rest of my life.

    July 28, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  6. Mary

    I got the big pressure canner so I could can tomatoes without having to add extra acid but I can't find any recipes for pressure canning salsas, sauces and such that don't still call for adding a bunch of vinegar or whatever. Doesn't pressure canning negate the need for the extra acid?

    July 28, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • Sean

      True, pressure canning obviates the need for adding acid to destroy pathogens. For the salsas and sauces, the vinegar may be in there for flavor as much as anything. The intense heat from pressure canning can dampen the brightness of naturally acidic ingredients.

      July 28, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Mare

      Try this site – http://www.freshpreserving.com/home.aspx It's the Ball Jar site, has recipes, instructions, etc.

      July 29, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  7. HoneyFernDotOrg

    Have been canning like a maniac. Question, though – if you do can a jar full of botulism, won't cooking kill it off (I am thinking of tomatoes specifically)? I also used citric acid instead of lemon juice because I had it for cheesemaking.

    As for jellies not setting, I just had a whole batch not set and am trying to get it to re-set following directions. If not, I am unhappy about the waste but will try again with grapes in a couple weeks. Love to can!!

    July 28, 2011 at 8:19 am |
    • Sean

      The botulinum toxin can be denatured by cooking at 140ºF for 15 minutes, but you need to be extremely careful handling the product so as not to get exposed to the toxin beforehand. The NCFHFP's instructions for destroying tainted food are extreme and make it sound like you practically need a Hazmat suit. When in doubt, dispose of it promptly and safely.

      July 28, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • Student

      If you get a can full of botulism, then you will expose yourself to the botulism when you open the can. It can potentially get into any cuts on your hands at that point (not to mention the risk of getting it on your hands, then touching all sorts of things that you'll forget to wash, and then ingesting the bacteria later).

      If you are stupid enough to try to cook food with evidence of botulism, then you need to boil it for several minutes (around 10 or 20 minutes). If you aren't a complete moron, you'll throw out the can immediately upon finding evidence of botulism (like bulging).

      July 28, 2011 at 10:41 am |
      • What?

        Student – pay more attention in class next time. IT IS NOT THE BACTERIA THAT CAUSE BOTULISM, it is the toxin they produce. Ingesting the bacteria will not give you botulism unless they colonize the gut and start to actively grow inside you. This can happen in infants (infant botulism) due to their immature digestive system – that's why you are never supposed to give honey to an infant. The stomach acid in an adult would be more than sufficient to prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum.

        July 28, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  8. anna

    And you can can outdoors! Lots of people do it on their back porch, cooler, and less mess. Lots of good books out there, and a small investment in equipment you can use for years. I'm starting this summer with homegrown berries, apples and nectarines. Yum! And remember- food security!

    July 28, 2011 at 2:08 am |
  9. Leslie

    The Agricultural Dept. no longer recommends water bathing – only pressure canning.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:09 pm |
    • Sean

      Absolutely not true.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
    • Jimmy Cracked-Corn

      Please stop spreading misinformation.

      July 28, 2011 at 9:14 am |
    • Jimmy Cracked-Corn


      Here is a link to a 2009 booklet written by "The Agriculture Department" (USDA) that has many, many boiling-water bath recipes:


      July 28, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • What?

      You are making a sweeping, all-inclusive statement that is simply not true for all "canned" foods. Case in point – pressure canning is absolutely not needed, and to my knowledge has never been 'recommended', for jams and jellies. The acidity of the fruit together with the lowered water activity (because of sugar content) negate the need for "pressure".

      July 28, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • Professor Erectile Dsyfunction@Leslie

      100,000 sperm and you were the fastest?

      July 29, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  10. Bazoing

    It is probably safe for him. However, home canning is not that safe for everyone. A little forgetfulness a start of senility, and whole families are dead! Unless what you are canning has lots of salt or sugar in it or you always add vinegar botulism can grow unless you get it hot enough and make sure the lids are sealed hot before cooling and then pop in. Beware of reporters, bloggers, and hobbyists, they do not necessarily know what they are writing about. There are lots of folks out there who would poison themselves and their families horribly and painfully rather than face the potential slow harm of commercial junk.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
  11. Dana

    Articles like this are going to become more and more popular and necessary when the Republicans cause the economy to crash.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
  12. Fuyuko

    Canning isn't hard, but it is time consuming, and frustrating if something doesn't set. Even if you follow the recipes jams can sometimes be difficult if they do not jell like you want. I love to can, but its not really a newbie adventure. IT takes time to prepare all the fruits and vegetables and then process them correctly. I do jams and jellies and pie fillings and most of the time they turn out well. when they do not set though I hate the world! (Heh), At least for a little while.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
    • Sean

      I suppose I'm wired a little geeky, but when I have a fail like that it compels me to do more research to find out why, and how to do better the next time (or fix it if possible). That's part of the fun of the process!

      July 27, 2011 at 11:01 pm |
  13. thirdlhc

    If you need help, don't forget to contact your local Extension office. They have food safety specialists who can provide scientific support and guidance with canning. For additonal information on food preservation (canning, dehydration, freezing, etc.) , go to UGA National Center for Home Preservation at: http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/

    July 27, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
    • Sean

      Exactly. The NCFHFP site is the absolute bible to refer to.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:00 pm |
  14. Ginger315

    I canned for years; it was satisfying. However, except for jams, I know prefer to freeze. Lots less work, I haven't found a difference in taste and I know there is no chance of spoiling. (But we won't talk about the big tomato worm that went into my tomato sauce whole and was there when I was making chili!)

    July 27, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
    • Sean

      One of the major reasons I can is that our freezer is eeeeeety beeeeeety, and we have a lot more shelf space (including a basement). But yes, it's always about what works best for you.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
    • Kitty

      Ewwww, hornworm! How did it taste?

      July 27, 2011 at 11:30 pm |
  15. Diana B

    Love number 4 – you wouldn't believe the production that comes out of my my "tiny urban kitchen" and I know lots of folks who produce even more.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
  16. Kim

    My mom canned when I was a kid and I remember her grape jelly, tomato sauce, rhubarb jelly, and etc. I just started canning myself with my mom's help because all her receipes are in her head :)

    July 27, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
  17. Trish

    Hey guys, will you visit helpfaye.ORG a friend of mine is fighting for her life.... thanks....

    July 27, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
    • Bazoing

      Spam! Would you also like to offer me a wonderful business deal?

      July 27, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
  18. Software_Goddess

    I love canning cherries and blackberries. It’s the best way to keep summer with you all year long.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  19. ChicagoRich

    I bought a big aluminum pressure canner a few years back, along with all of the mason jars, lids, and such. I have been canning spaghetti sauce and a few other vegetables from my garden. It has worked out pretty well over the past few years. My roma tomatoes, basil, garlic peppers and onions are growing for this years big batch of sauce as I type this.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  20. Susan

    Great tips, Sean! I am inspired to can – tomatoes in Napa Valley are just coming around.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
    • Sean

      I almost called out tomatoes specifically. Make sure to acidify them with lemon juice, or pressure can. They're just at the threshhold of safety. We pressure can a hundred pounds or more of tomatoes every year, and use them all year long.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:28 pm |
  21. Humor

    I remember canning with my mom and sisters. We would hit up the u-pick farms and our grandparents gardens, and then we canned tomatoes, pickles, green beens, apples sauce and butter, and of course black berry jam. I have started getting back into the canning thing by canning apple and pear butter. I forgot how much fruit it took to make a little butter, but the taste is so good on bread and pork.

    July 27, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
  22. Robin

    'IMy kid's babysitter taught me to can 20 years ago, and I love to can, nothing more satisfying than having shelves full of jams, green beans, tomatoes, peaches, plums and whatever else we can find to put up. It's also great to be able to control the sodium and sugar in the food we eat. I have so many people that want to learn the process, I feel really privledged to pass along what I've learned. Give it a try and enjoy!!!!

    July 27, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
  23. Gretchen

    My grandmother taught me to can produce from her large garden which she grew every year. This year my daughter and I put up sweet pickle relish, pickles, peppers, jams and some delicious peaches. All my friends and family save their jars so I can send them back with more goodies. Great Christmas gifts, too!

    July 27, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
  24. Can Fan

    I like a nice set of cans.

    July 27, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • JesusRodeDinosaursLOL

      Oh can it! We don't need jarring comments like that. Now you're in a pickle but I can help get you out of this jam, I'm Cheney Mason!

      Thanks, I'll be here all week.

      July 27, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
      • Mr. Bones

        You're here all week?

        Eh, they never get any decent acts in this joint anymore.

        July 27, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
  25. Lee

    Another myth - not all food needs to be canned to be safely preserved. Fermenting and pickling are great ways to preserve food without needing to sterilizing it and kill nutrients. I've been hooked since reading the book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz.

    July 27, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
    • ianysia

      I love that book-wild fermentation. I think pickling is much healthier than canning because like you said, you don't kill nutrients, there's less sugar, and you can have live cultures in your food.

      July 27, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
    • Sean

      Excellent point! And of course there's freezing, dehydrating, and more. Sandor is a total force of nature.

      July 27, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
    • Kitty

      I have all the equipment to can, but have yet to attempt it. I do a LOT of lactofermentation, ala Sandor, not Sally (salt, not whey). Frankly the botulism thing scares the bejeezers out of me, but I probably should at least try it, not that I have health insurance.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:28 pm |
  26. Dina

    I grew up on a farm, and its absolutely wonderful to jar or can items. it saves money and its good for you, you know what your putting in their, no sugar fats or sodium. I can tomatoes and make marinara sauce. used for all different purposes

    July 27, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  27. Jonnie

    I just started canning, and have tried my first batch of Bread-n-Butter pickles. They turned out great. I just wish I paid better attention when they old folks were canning when I was little. I remember the taste of homemade grape jelly and blackberry jams. That's next on my list.

    July 27, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
  28. Robert

    My wife and I can all sorts of goodies. The best thing in our region is blackberry jam. Canned produce makes for a very personalized and cheap christmas gift. Now go can some stuff!!!!!!

    July 27, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
  29. willie

    You forgot the biggest myth of all. You don't need cans for canning! Mason jars work great...

    July 27, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
  30. Jo Anne Lines

    Amen to the canvolution. I've been canning for decades and I'm happy to see it's back in vogue. You ought to corner SaltySeattle on her Nudie Foodies project, since it is for charity.

    July 27, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • Sean

      Linda's great! But I'm not ready to go nude just yet ...

      July 27, 2011 at 10:26 pm |
    • Leslie

      Ahome economist told me about 10 years ago that the gov't only recommends pressure canning now. Water bathing is out.

      July 27, 2011 at 11:06 pm |
      • Jimmy Cracked-Corn

        Well they were wrong. That is not true.

        If they were specifically talking about low acid foods, such as corn or green beans canned in water, then yes, pressure can them. Otherwise, if you use a modern, approved recipe, with enough acid content, the water bath is safe.

        July 28, 2011 at 9:11 am |
      • Superplexa

        I had heard the same thing at some point, but a few days ago I looked at the USDA canning guide from 2009 (available from the USDA's webpage in PDF format) and it specifically recommends a water bath canner, NOT a pressure canner for tomatoes on the grounds that it is perfectly safe and takes significantly less time. Of course, it's possible they've changed their recommendation in the last two years.

        July 28, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
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