This week’s column in the Tri-City Weekly was about the pressure canning lesson in the Master Food Preserver course Mark and I are participating in.
As I entered the Community Kitchen at the Eureka Co-op on Saturday, Feb. 25, a wave of anxiety washed over me. We were going to be spending the entire day talking about the ins and outs of pressure canning. During the lab portion, we would all work together to can some local tuna.
Fruits, jams, jellies, pickles and other high-acid foods can all be preserved using a water bath process, where you place your jars of food in a large kettle and boil them for a specified amount of time. This is a safe method because one of the most deadly food poisons, botulism, cannot survive in a highly acidic environment. Other low-acid foods like vegetables, meat, soups and stews must be processed in a pressure canner. A pressure canner, which is very different from a pressure cooker, reaches temperatures greater than boiling water, and this will kill any botulism spores lurking within your future dinner.
I don’t know about you, but every time I’ve ever read anything instructional about pressure canning it has pretty much looked like this:
Blah blah blah BOTULISM blah blah blah KILL YOUR FRIENDS blah blah blah HORRIBLY PAINFUL DEATH blah blah blah.
Therefore, one part of me was a bit intimidated about the day. The other part of me, though, – the one who’s lived through many long-term Humboldt County power outages – was excited about being able to store protein-packed foods without a freezer.
It’s true, botulism is nothing to be taken lightly. A fun fact I learned at Saturday’s class was that one mere milligram of botulism can kill 655 tons of mice. I then had to spend the rest of the class trying not to visualize some crazed scientist holding a petri dish and laughing maniacally while standing atop a giant mountain of dead mice.
But what I also learned is that all you have to do is keep your pressure canner well-maintained (if you have a dial-gauge model, you should have it checked for accuracy once a year. Shafer’s Hardware will do this for free, just call ahead,) follow the instructions and recipe exactly, and you’ll be just fine, aka alive. Plus, if you’ve ever tried home-canned local albacore, you know it is about 500 times better tasting than the store bought variety. I recommend the Ball Blue Book or the National Center for Home Food Preservation website for detailed pressure canning instruction.
Another fun fact I learned on this day is that there is a part on some types of pressure canners that is called a petcock. I suppose I should have warned the instructors that if words like petcock are used more than once in a lesson, I will break into uncontrollable giggling. Because I’m twelve.
For our canning adventure, we were fortunate that the tuna, which had been bought in September and frozen, was already cleaned and filleted. We just had to slice it into chunks, place a little olive oil and salt in the jar, and pack it in tight. Joyce Huston, one of our well-qualified instructors, explained that she always puts a small piece of the tuna’s belly into each jar because the taste is so delicious, and the belly is the highest source of Omega 3 fatty acid.
Once the lids were on the jars, we placed them in the canner with a few inches of water, put the lid on and turned up the heat. We waited as steam poured from the vent for 10 minutes to make sure all of the air was out, then we placed a cover over the vent and watched the dial on the canner until it reached a steady 10 pounds of pressure. We processed the jars of tuna at 10 pounds of pressure for 110 minutes then let the canner gradually cool and depressurize.
After the cooling process, we removed the lids, and clouds of tuna-scented steam floated through the room as we placed the jars on towels to finish cooling overnight. Not nearly as complicated or as scary as I had thought, I left the class eager to preserve more food under pressure.