To can or not to can

Canning is a method of preserving food in which the food contents are processed and sealed in an airtight container. Canning provides a typical shelf life ranging from one to five years, although under specific circumstances a freeze-dried canned product, such as canned, dried lentils, can last as long as 30 years in an edible state.

How Canning Preserves Foods

The high percentage of water in most fresh foods makes them very perishable. They spoil or lose their quality for several reasons:

growth of undesirable microorganisms

activity of food enzymes

reactions with oxygen

moisture loss.

Microorganisms live and multiply quickly on the surfaces of fresh food and on the inside of bruised, insect-damaged, and diseased food. Oxygen and enzymes are present throughout fresh food tissues.


Proper canning practices include

Carefully selecting and washing fresh food, peeling some fresh foods, hot packing many foods, adding acids (lemon juice or vinegar) to some foods, using acceptable jars and self-sealing lids, processing jars in a boiling-water or pressure canner for the correct period of time.

Collectively, these practices remove oxygen; destroy enzymes; prevent the growth of undesirable bacteria, yeasts, and molds; and help form a high vacuum in jars. Good vacuums form tight seals which keep liquid in and air and microorganisms out.

To prevent the food from being spoiled before and during containment, a number of methods are used: pasteurization  boiling (and other applications of high temperature over a period of time), refrigeration, freezing, drying, vacuum treatment, antimicrobial agents that are natural to the recipe of the foods being preserved, a sufficient dose of ionizing radiation, submersion in a strong saline solution, acid, base, osmotic extreme (for example very sugary) or other microbial-challenging environments.

Other than sterilization, no method is perfectly dependable as a preservative. For example, the microorganism Clostridiumbotulinum (which causes botulism), can only be eliminated at temperatures above the boiling point.

From a public safety point of view, foods with low acidity (a pH more than 4.6) need sterilization under high temperature (116-130 °C). To achieve temperatures above the boiling point requires the use of a pressure canner. Foods that must be pressure canned include most vegetables, meat, seafood, poultry, and dairy products. The only foods that may be safely canned in an ordinary boiling water bath are highly acidic ones with a pH below 4.6, such as fruits, pickled vegetables, or other foods to which acidic additives have been added.

Equipment and Methods Not Recommended

Open-kettle canning and the processing of freshly filled jars in conventional ovens, microwave ovens, and dishwashers are not recommended, because these practices do not prevent all risks of spoilage. Steam canners are not recommended because processing times for use with current models have not been adequately researched. Because steam canners do not heat foods in the same manner as boiling-water canners, their use with boiling-water process times may result in spoilage.

It is not recommended that pressure processes in excess of 15 PSI be applied when using new pressure canning equipment. So-called canning powders are useless as preservatives and do not replace the need for proper heat processing. Jars with wire bails and glass caps make attractive antiques or storage containers for dry food ingredients but are not recommended for use in canning. One-piece zinc porcelain-lined caps are also no longer recommended. Both glass and zinc caps use flat rubber rings for sealing jars, but too often fail to seal properly.

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