Canning: An old/new tradition

Published 7:00 pm Friday, July 9, 2010

Deb Pitts has been canning vegetables and fruits for as long as she’s been married — for about 33 years.

“I do it because my mother did it, and it’s all I’ve ever known, really,” said Pitts, the wife of Jim Pitts, superintendent of the Chilton Research and Extension Center. “Mother canned everything — peas, butterbeans, kraut, fruit, fruit juices, snap beans and soup.”

Pitts, like many others, has found that home canning has its advantages from both a dietary and an economic standpoint. And, it can make your food taste better.

She regularly cans green beans, tomatoes, soup mixes, pears, kraut, tomato juice, grape juice, blackberry juice, blackberries, squash and more. But she also freezes certain items, like peas, peaches and berries, according to her preference.

“It’s not as hard of a process. Some things, I think, are better frozen than canned. I think maybe they have a fresher taste,’ Pitts said.

Other items, she says, like green beans, taste fresher when canned.

The key to canning, Pitts indicated, is learning from those who do it right and following the rules. Aside from her mother, Pitts learned from a former neighbor, the late Bessie Mims. She also credits Jewell Robinson, Dawn Waters, Ruby Thigpen and Mae Britt, whom she calls “the mad scientist.”

“She stays in the kitchen in the summer all the time doing this,” she said of Britt.

The old, and also new, tradition has also been passed down to Pitts’ daughter, Anna. But just because younger people are getting interested in canning doesn’t mean the rules have changed. And Pitts follows them to a tee.

“I go exactly by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System recommendations because I feel like that’s the standard,” she said, noting that resources are available from the local extension office.

Not following the guidelines can be more dangerous than you might think. Janice Hall, regional extension agent for food safety, food preservation and food preparation, warns that using a boiling water canner instead of a tested pressure canning process can be risky. Not only can it cause food loss; it can lead to potentially fatal poisoning from botulism toxin.

“Spores of Clostridium botulinum bacteria, as found naturally in soils, are very, very heat resistant. Even hours in the boiling water canner will not kill them if they are inside your jars of beans,” Hall writes. “Left alive after canning, they will eventually germinate into actively growing bacterial cells that will produce a deadly human toxin when consumed.”

In addition to using a pressure canner to can low-acid vegetables, Hall added it is essential to wash all fruits and vegetables before canning.

Local Extension Coordinator Gay West said canning is growing in popularity for several different reasons.

“Home food preservation, including canning and freezing, has experienced a resurgence partly to adapt to a tighter economy but also to have fruits and vegetables prepared just to suit health and lifestyle,” West said. “Cooperative Extension continues to be a reputable source of information for home canners to ensure they have a safe, nutritious product.”

Here are a few more canning tips for the beginner:

Use standard canning jars (never mayonnaise or jelly jars)

Never re-use caps

Get a food preservation book from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System

Grow or buy fresh produce

Have the gauge on your canner regularly tested at your local extension office

See that your equipment is in proper working order (seals are intact, etc.)

A workshop will be held at the Autauga County Extension Office in Autaugaville on Tuesday, July 13 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The office may be reached at (334) 361-7273.

For more tips on food safety, food preservation, food preparation and recipes, contact your local extension office at 280-6268 or contact Hall at (334) 415-8658.