- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 7, 2002

Jeannie Raines wants to waste nothing from her garden.

Mrs. Raines, who lives in Clarksburg, says she enjoys canning the squash, cucumbers and pumpkins she grows. She preserves other seasonal foods by canning jellies, jams and relishes. Through the years, she has preserved such items as corn, tomatoes, beets, pickles, peaches and pears. She often gives home-canned items as gifts during the holidays. She learned the method from watching her mother and grandmother, who taught her to can tomatoes and green beans.

"It's something that's a dying art," Mrs. Raines says. "Fifty or sixty years ago, people did it all the time. It's a lot of work. It's easier to go to the store and take it off the shelf, but it gives you a sense of satisfaction in the wintertime to go downstairs and pull a jar of tomatoes off the shelf and make your spaghetti sauce with them."

Home canning is a simple process of heating the food in a sealed jar in order to stop the decay that would usually occur. This ensures that the food in the jars will not spoil when stored and sealed properly. Before the invention of modern refrigerators and freezers, the procedure was essential for preserving food for the winter season. Today, some people still use the method because they love the taste it creates.

Jennifer Abel, extension agent at the Virginia Cooperative Extension in Arlington, says there are two different methods of home canning. For high-acid foods with a pH of 4.6 or lower, such as fruits, jams, jellies, pickles, relishes and most tomatoes, water-bath canning is used. Low-acid foods, with a pH higher than 4.6, such as vegetables, soups, stews, meats, poultry and seafood, require pressure canning.

"A lot of people are intimidated by home canning, but it's really a lot of fun," Ms. Abel says. "It's not as hard to do as people think, especially if you have a group of friends doing it with you."

•••

For water-bath canning, one should have the proper size canning jars and two-piece vacuum caps for the recipe involved. Inspect the jars for cracks or nicks. Make sure the lids and retaining bands or rings fit properly. Clean the jars, lids and bands thoroughly in hot, soapy water. The jars should be sterilized by boiling them for at least 10 minutes. The lids should be simmered in a saucepan with water, but not boiled. Both should be kept hot until they are ready for use.

After the food is prepared by carefully following the recipe, the hot jars are filled one at a time, leaving about ½-inch extra room at the top of the jar. Without the head space, the seal on the jar could fail. Make sure all air bubbles are removed from the food and clean any residue on the jar. Then, place the band and lid on the jar, making sure it is tight. Fill the canner with jars and add water. The water should cover the jars by about 1 inch.

After covering the canner, the water should boil at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Refer to the recipe for the amount of time the jars need to boil. Usually, the time listed in canning guides are based on an altitude of 1,000 feet above sea level. Every additional 3,000 feet above sea level requires about five more minutes of boiling. Most foods take between 15 and 40 minutes to cook when canning. When finished, allow the jars to cool for about 24 hours.

Then, make sure the lids have sealed correctly by checking if they flex. Sometimes, one can hear a "plink" as the jars seal. Unsealed jars need to be refrigerated or reprocessed. After removing the bands, one should label and store the jars in a dark cool place. Try to eat the food within a year of canning.

•••

For pressure canning, the food is processed at 240 degrees Fahrenheit through a steam-pressure canner. The increased temperatures kill bacteria that are not present in high-acid foods. Otherwise, the low-acid foods will spoil. Unlike water-bath canning, only a small amount of water is placed in the bottom of the pressure canner. However, the steps for cleaning the jars and preparing the food are the same.

One should adjust the heat to maintain the recommended amounts of pressure. Food processed at about 1,000 feet above sea level, should be cooked at about 10 or 11 pounds of pressure. Above 1,000 feet, between 12 and 15 pounds of pressure should be used. Refer to the recipe for the specific amount of time the food has to be processed. It can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours to complete.

Bonnie Moore, executive chef at FoodFit.com in Northwest, says if home canning is not done correctly the food could cause serious illnesses, even death. The most common food-borne illness is botulism, poisoning caused by a nerve toxin that is produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Botulism spores grow if the food has not been heated thoroughly. Sure signs that the food has spoiled is when the lid has puffed up, when the jar is leaking or when there are bubbles in the food.

She stresses using up-to-date recipes, which take these problems into consideration. The Ball Blue Book Guide is one of the most reliable resources on home canning, with step-by-step instructions based on recent research. One should not try to modify recipes for personal taste because the ingredients are specifically measured to ensure the food will not spoil when stored.

"The trouble is that you can't really see or smell botulism," she says. "But it can be lethal."

Ms. Moore doesn't want to discourage those people who are responsible when home canning. She says the taste of foods that are preserved through the method are usually much richer than the items bought in the grocery store. It's also a bonding experience for family and friends.

"It's something you can do that's therapeutic," she says. "That's where the real value is."

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Argia Caporuscio, 65, of Amissville, Va., says she has been home canning for about 40 years. Her husband won't eat anything other than her homemade tomato sauce.

"Tomato sauce is hard work," she says. "Sometimes, I make 100 quarts at a time. That's a two day process, to clean the tomatoes, cook them, and take the seeds out of them."

Mrs. Caporuscio makes strawberry, blackberry and peach jam to sell at the Warrenton Farmer's Market in Old Town Warrenton, Va. She also cans bread-and-butter pickles and pickle relish for her family.

"I think it's relaxing," she says. "I started doing this as a young woman, and that's the way I do it."

Martha Cavanaugh-O'Keefe, 16, of Laytonsville, Md., says she has been canning since age 8 under her mother's supervision, along with her older sister Beth, who is now 20. Martha plans on entering various items, such as jams, jellies, peaches, tomatoes and tomato sauce, in the food preservation competition at the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair in Gaithersburg at the county fairgrounds. The fair starts Friday and runs through Aug. 17.

"It's fun," she says. "When my friends come over and see what I've canned, they think it's pretty cool. It's a unique thing to do."

John Mark Leatherman, 16, of Damascus says he learned about home canning through his mother. When she stopped having time to make jellies and jams through home canning, he did it for her. He plans to enter some of his work in the Montgomery County Fair, such as strawberry, blackberry, cherry, peach and raspberry flavors.

"It's handy to know how to do," he says. "Most jellies you buy aren't nearly as good as the ones you make … I think more people should try it. I've never been able to mess it up yet."

Sherri Seymour of Alexandria says she appreciates being able to control exactly what she's eating through home canning. She starts with the best produce she can find, usually from local farmer's markets, to ensure a good finished product. Her husband especially likes the ketchup she makes from fresh tomatoes.

Although the cost of home canning is often the same as buying items from the grocery store, she is convinced that preserving the food herself is healthier.

"You're not putting lots of preservatives in your food," Mrs. Seymour says. "If you look at the jars of things you buy, they have stuff in there you can't even pronounce, and you definitely don't need to eat."

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