Debunking canning myths: WVU Extension Service agent offers expert advice to safely preserve food

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MORGANTOWN W.Va. – It’s almost harvest season for gardens which means beginning the process of preserving those foods to enjoy year-round. Although tons of online videos on the subject are available on Tik Tok and YouTube, weeding out fact from fiction when it comes to food safety can be tricky.

Gina Taylor, WVU Extension Service Family and Community Development Agent, debunks a few of these widely circulated myths and provides expert advice on safely preserving food.

She addresses 3 common canning myths in regards to food safety:

  • Food can always be safely processed on the countertop.
  • Even unsealed cans can be safe to eat.
  • My foods are safe because I boiled the cans even longer than recommended.

She also offers safer alternatives and tips to make sure your garden will last you through the year.

Myth 1: My grandmother used to just let her jars seal on the countertop, and they sealed every time. So, I know it’s a safe way to preserve my food.

This open canning practice can be dangerous, according to Taylor. In open kettle canning, food is cooked in an ordinary pot and then packed into hot jars and sealed without processing. Although this process is popular, if you are following recipes passed down through the years or found in older cookbooks, they do not include instructions for processing. The foods are usually canned by the open kettle method, sealed and stored.

“Foods prepared in this manner present a serious health risk,” said Taylor. It can also be particularly dangerous when canning food with low acid content such as vegetables, meat, seafood and poultry. “All foods should be canned using a boiling water bath canner or a pressure canner, depending on the level of acid in the foods,” said Taylor.

Improperly canned, low-acid foods can create a risk for botulism, a rare but serious condition that attacks the body’s nerves and can lead to difficulty breathing or even death. Botulism becomes a danger in canned foods because it required a no-oxygen environment to grow. Because of this, Gina Taylor said that the canner must reach a temperature of 240°F in order to destroy the bacteria. Because boiling water only reaches 212° F, a pressure canner is necessary to safely can low-acid foods.

“Low-acid foods such as vegetables, some tomatoes, meats, seafood and poultry should always be processed in a pressure canner to reach the temperature required to destroy food-poisoning organisms. High-acid foods such as fruits, fruit juices, some tomatoes, soft spreads, pickles and salsas may be canned using a boiling water bath canner,” said Taylor.

Myth 2: Food in unsealed jars is still safe to eat.

“Canning takes some time and effort, and one of the most frustrating parts of canning is when a few jars don’t seal,” said Gina Taylor. so, what should you do when a few jars don’t seal? Throw the contents away? According to Taylor, not necessarily. She said that unsealed jars can be re-canned as long are they are discovered within 24 hours of canning.

To re-can unsealed those jars, the lid must be removed, the jar sealing surface checked for tiny nicks and the jar changed if damaged. Taylor said to prepare a new flat lid if using two-piece metal lids and then reprocess the jar according to the processing time from your recipe.

“Lids should not be used a second time since the sealing compound becomes indented by the first use, preventing another airtight seal,” said Taylor. “Screw bands may be reused unless they are badly rusted, or the top edge is pried up, which would prevent a proper seal.”

Myth 3: The green beans I put in a boiling water bath canner are safe to eat because I boil the jars longer than recommended.

“Green beans are a low-acid food and must be canned in a pressure canner to eliminate the growth of the bacteria clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that causes botulism, a rare but sometimes deadly illness,” sai Taylor.

Like in the first myth, you do not want to assume that boiling water will properly seal your cans. A boiling water bath canner, even for an extended period of time, is not enough to destroy deadly bacteria, said Taylor. She recommends only canning green beans in a pressure canner that can reach 240°F.

Gina gave her safe method for canning green beans.

When canning green beans, select filled but tender, crisp pods. Wash beans and trim the ends. Leave the beans whole or cut/snap into 1-inch pieces. Hot pack or raw pack beans into jars, add salt (if desired) and cover with boiling water. Adjust lids and process in a pressure canner (there is no safe option for processing green beans in a boiling water canner). Process pints on 11 pounds of pressure for 20 minutes. Process quarts on 11 pounds of pressure for 25 minutes. Pressures may vary depending on altitude.”

Gina Taylor, WVU Extension Service Family and Community Development Agent

Click here for Gina’s full answers and advice.

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