Yes, you can!
There’s something about a row of homemade jars of jelly, gleaming like a stained glass window, that make me smile.
A feeling of peace washes over me when I open the pantry and see stacks of jars filled with roasted corn salsa, gently bobbing fruits, jewel-like beets and pickled dilly beans, waiting for the winter.
Canning has become a true passion of mine, born out of a nearly-manic desire to control my food quality and waste nothing.
When I started, I was the youngun. People would stare at me, with my beet-stained shirt, jugs of vinegar and boxes of pickling salt at the grocery store, and ask if I was shopping for my grandma.
Now, canning is experiencing a revival, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
Professor Elizabeth Andress, a food safety specialist at the University of Georgia’s National Center for Home Food Preservation, said a national canning movement is quickly gaining momentum, which has food safety experts scrambling to stay on top of educating new canners.
“To me the increase in interest kind of falls into three areas,” she said. Andress started noticing an increase in demand for information on home canning about three years ago, when the economy was especially poor.
“The predominant interest then was probably economic to help people with the cost of food at home,” she said. With more people gardening, they needed information on how to preserve their harvest.
“I think it kind of segued fairly soon into a food safety and security issue,” she said.
Food safety scares involving E. coli bacteria and imported foods led people to take an interest in local produce and knowing the origin of their food, she said.
“And from a more philosophical standpoint, people wanted to support local farms,” she said, referring to the “slow food” movement, which focuses on mindfully purchasing foods within a community.
To a lesser extent, she also sees people resurrecting the tradition of canning for sentimental reasons. “Maybe their parents didn’t can, but their grandparents did and they want to revive that,” she said.
Some others are interested in safeguarding a long-term food supply for their families, in case of emergency. “Some people will call and say they want to preserve years worth of food,” she said.
Andress couldn’t predict how long the home-canning trend will last, “I’m pretty sure it’s going to last at least another few years because the growth has been so strong,” she said.
Sales of home-preserving products have been strong, and don’t show signs of slowing. Jarden Home Brands, the manufacturer of Ball jars, reported a 31 percent increase in glass canning jar sales since last year.
And more than 60 percent of the folks on Ball’s 50,000-member Facebook page are younger than 44.
The increased interest in home preserving of foods raises a heightened concern about food safety for Andress. Home canners motivated to learn the craft by worries of other food safety problems may be introducing danger into their own homes, if they don’t follow the necessary processes themselves. The main culprit is botulism, a naturally occurring bacteria that is largely benign until it is placed in a low-oxygen environment, like a sealed jar.
According to the Center for Disease Control, an average 145 cases of botulism poisoning are reported annually in the U.S., with 15 percent of those caused by food (there are other types of botulism involving infants and infected wounds). The sickness occurs rapidly, typically within 18–36 hours of eating the contaminated food, and causes paralysis and death.
Andress recommends only canning with research-based recipes, and using caution in accepting random advice.
“We are having to spend a lot of time here trying to explain why everything people can find on the Internet isn’t necessarily OK,” she said.
Increased interest in canning specialty products, such as untested personal recipes like meatloaf, also causes frustration for experts, who cannot recommend canning recipes that haven’t been researched. Other issues arise from even experienced canners taking advice from others who use unsafe practices, or take shortcuts.
“People are willing to forgo years and years of experience to try something that isn’t safe,” she said, citing a recent call from a home canner who prepared 400 quarts of tomatoes and just put lids on them, without processing them in a water bath or pressure canner, because her neighbor said it was safe. “People are influencing others to a great deal instead of trusting the science, and that worries me.”