Food is one of the most important things to keep in your emergency storage. Canning has been around for a long time and it’s an easy method of keeping food edible for a long time without a cold place to store it. No stockpile is complete without canned food.
You can by any shelf-stable food at the grocery store, but nothing compares to doing it yourself. Home canning gives you more control of the ingredients and a final product that tastes better and is better for you. Knowing how to can is a survival skill that will be important in a post-apocalypse world. Knowing how to can food will help you survive the winter when you can’t just go to the store anymore. Food independence isn’t just better for you, it can save your life.
But make a mistake with canned food and you create a breeding ground for dangerous bacteria. Getting sick from the food in your storage can be fatal when medical treatment is hard to find. That’s why it’s critical that you understand the rules for preparing and canning food, including sterilizing canning jars.
1. The Facts About Sterilizing Canning Jars
If you ask your grandmother about the process required for sterilizing canning jars, she’ll tell you all about botulism. She will tell you to boil all the components of the cans for several minutes before filling them with food. The truth is that you don’t need to work on sterilizing canning jars or lids as long as the food will be in a canner for 10 minutes or more. This is also true for pickled or fermented foods that will be under water in a water bath canner for at least 10 minutes.
Traditional wisdom says that the cans, as well as the lids and jar rings used to seal them, all need to be boiled for several minutes. Only after this step should you fill them with food while hot, and leave them to seal. Traditional wisdom is wrong here. The new guidelines from the Ball company that makes mason jars now say to wash the lids and use them at room temperature. You can still get a perfect seal and you do not run the risk of thinning out the rubber on the lid that seals to the jar.
These updated guidelines are great news for preppers and survival enthusiasts. Boiling the cans and jars is a waste of both clean water and energy in an environment where both might be hard to come by. Your grandmother may never be comfortable skipping this step because it was drilled into her from the time she learned to can. Luckily, you can rely on what science has learned, save resources, and be a bit lazier than that.
If you run across a recipe that calls for 5 minutes in a water bath canner, you would need to sterilize the jars first to kill all the bacteria present. Yet, you could also up the time in the canner to 10 minutes, which will not change the recipe very much but will allow you to skip sterilizing the canning jars.
2. But What About Botulism?
Plenty of people don’t like the new guidelines. People who have had bad experiences in the past will think twice about skipping sterilizing canning jars. Amy Fewell of the Fewell Homestead gives us a good example of why sterilizing canning jars is a good idea. This video was posted in 2016, which is after some companies have come out saying that sterilizing canning jars isn’t important.
Amy ran two experiments to test out what might happen if she didn’t sterilize her jars. She also left the rings on the jars in the cupboard, which is something you’re not supposed to do. Her results in the experiment were not great: she lost both of the experiment jars. She had a quart jar of peaches that grew mold after the jar had not been sterilized properly. The ring she left on her jar of applesauce broke the seal, and the applesauce had quickly gone bad. With the applesauce, she had a broken seal which was obvious. The applesauce smelled bad, and there’s no way she would have made a mistake about whether it was good to eat. But the peaches are scarier, because there was only a small spot of mold visible. It would have been easy for her not to notice that bit of mold and eat the peaches anyway. But, the presence of even a little bit of mold makes the entire jar trash.
It’s possible that sterilizing the canning jars wasn’t what made the difference. If Amy is used to cleaning her jars with the sterilization process, then it’s possible that she simply didn’t get her jars clean enough by switching to a different method. Maybe if she had been a little more careful, the peaches would be fine. But, as she points out, there’s no reason to take risks when it comes to your family’s health. If you have a tried and true method for sterilizing canning jars, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel just because you’re taking extra steps. You can rely on the facts of science that, done properly, sterilizing canning jars isn’t necessary. Yet, if you have the time to spare, the same process of sterilizing canning jars can give you really clean jars.
3. Understanding the science of canning and sterilizing canning jars
Home canning was invented in a time where the people using this method didn’t understand why it worked, just that it did. We didn’t have the working knowledge of bacteria and other germs that we do now. We knew that we shouldn’t keep our food out in the air, and that it would spoil quickly if we did. But we didn’t know why it spoiled. That means that all methods of preserving foods were not much better than a best guess, and when people got sick after eating preserved foods it was a mystery on why.
Luckily, we’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot about how to safely preserve our foods. We understand now why canning works. But germ theory, while explaining why canning was safe, also brought us the concept of sterilizing canning jars.
Here’s a basic primer of the science behind canning and sterilizing canning jars. What happens is that when you submerge a sealed can of food in boiling water, the heat does two important things. First, it kills off bacteria, enzymes, yeast, mold, and other harmful substances in our food. Second, it forces the gases inside the food and jar to exit and makes the food expand from the heat.
When you remove your canning jar from the water and set it on the counter, it begins to cool and get smaller. This leaves a major difference in the pressure inside and outside the can, which causes the rubber gasket to seal tightly around the can. This prevents any air from getting into the food which can carry bacteria, molds, and other things that cause our food to go bad. Proper canning keeps the food inside safe from harm.
4. How the Rules for Sterilizing Canning Jars Has Changed
Once we had the germ theory to explain how canning works, we realized the importance of having clean, sterile tools to work from. This lead to the advice that jars, lids, and rings, would need to be sterilized by themselves before they were suitable to use for canning. Sterilizing canning jars was seen as one of the most important things you could do, and skipping the step could invite unseen germs and bacteria into the prepared food.
But, we now understand that any left over microbes will be sterilized during the canning process, just as the microbes inside the food are killed when boiled. For that reason, it’s completely pointless to sterilize your equipment if it’s going to be put into a pressure canner or water bath canner for at least 10 minutes. Save yourself the time and be assured your food will still be safely canned.
In fact, the rubber ring around canning lids can actually be thinned out and work less effectively when boiled. That means that the old ways that we thought were safer could actually lead to a poor seal, allowing food and germs to enter your food after canning. It’s a great day all around when the safest way to preserve food is also the easiest.
5. Not Convinced? Sterilizing Canning Jars In The Microwave
If you can’t stomach the idea of skipping the process of sterilizing canning jars, you’re not alone. There’s lot of ways of methods for sterilizing canning jars that are easy and don’t take much time. Many people decide that they don’t want to take the risk and go through the whole routine of sterilizing canning jars anyways. The good news is that there are a variety of way to do this, and this video will teach you how to use the microwave.
The jars are rinsed under water and placed in the microwave still wet. Then, they are cooked on high for 60 seconds. The jars will be hot, so be careful when you remove them. Next, the lids are boiled for ten minutes in water. Remember, the lids can’t go in the microwave because they are metal. The makers of this video are sterilizing canning jars in different sizes and some of them are not designed to be home canning jars. It’s a good idea to always use brand new lids for canning, as boiling them in water can weaken the rubber gasket and give you a poor seal.
6. Sterilizing Canning Jars in the Oven
Like the microwave method, this video from Jamie Oliver shows how to sterilize jars in the oven. In the video, Pete first washes the jars and allows them to dry on a clean towel. He puts them on an aluminum tray in a preheated oven (180 degrees) for ten minutes. The lids are boiled, again, not put in the oven with the jars. You’ll notice that the types of lids he is using do not have the rubber gaskets that Ball jars have, which is possibly why this method works alright.
I’ve seen other methods where you can place the jars in warm water with some lemon or vinegar, which will help kill the last bit of germs without putting your rubber seal in danger. Although the manufacturers report that you do not need to sterilize your jars before using them, it is a good way to make sure they are extra clean and not retaining bits of food and other organic material that can make you sick.
6. Canning for Preppers: Watch the Water
A lot of the advice online about how to can is written for individuals looking to preserve their garden harvest, eat more food processed at home, or trying to save money by doing it themselves. There’s lot of great advice out there for preppers and survival enthusiasts as well, but because your goal is different, the things you might be concerned about are also different.
For example, canning recipes often call for large amounts of water. You’ll need water to wash and prepare the foods you’re canning, water to cook or pack the food in, water to wash all your supplies, and water for water bath canning. If you insist on sterilizing canning jars, you’ll need at least a bit of water for every method we’ve laid out here. But learning how to preserve food in a survival situation means always keeping an eye out for how much water you’re using.
Skipping the step of sterilizing canning jars and lids will be one great way to use less water during canning. Consider recipes that call for less water, such as canning stewed tomatoes instead of packing whole tomatoes in water. Another important thing to note is that you can’t use a water bath canner to can low-acidic foods like meat, but you CAN use a pressure canner to can anything that can go in a water bath canner. Water bath is the preferred method for acidic food because it’s easier and safer than a pressure canner, but easier and safer doesn’t conserve the precious water you need to survive.
7. Sterilizing Canning Jars When The Grid Goes Down
One common concern for preppers is, how can I can fresh food for myself and my family if the grid goes down and I no longer have electricity? Don’t plan on being able to can over a fire in the middle of the woods. It’s not practical, mostly because of the equipment you’ll need to have on hand and the fact that cans are not easy to throw in a backpack and carry through the woods. Yet, a pressure cooker can be used over a propane camp stove or a wood cook stove in a well-equipped survival kitchen. Having the right tools ready can be the difference between life and death when the grid goes down.
Lastly, if you’re canning for a SHTF situation, you’ll want food that will last a long time and still taste great. The highly-acidic foods that can be canned in a water bath canner will hold up longer and taste fresher for a much longer period of time than low-acidic foods like green beans or meats. You can still count on your green beans to be safe to eat, but they will start to taste more and more like mush as time passes. For the best taste and nutrition, pack your stockpile with acidic foods such as tomatoes, jams, and anything pickled. There are no extra steps for sterilizing canning jars when they will end up in your long term storage.
To get set up for canning, there are some tools you will need. First, you’ll need to invest in canning jars and lids. Some people will reuse jars that had other items in them from the store, such as spaghetti sauce. The two biggest problems with this is that you may struggle with a lid that’s not designed for the jar, and these jars are not designed to be reused for years.
If you’re going to go out and buy ten cases of mason jars, it will be a bit of an expense at first. But you can buy them a case at a time as you start trying recipes and putting up food, and the expense is not so great. They will last forever and sometimes you can save money by picking them up at garage sales. Unlike the jars, you’ll always want to use a fresh lid to seal in food. Remember, the rubber gaskets of these lids can weaken with heat, so think twice before sterilizing canning jars and lids in boiling water.
There are lots of different sizes of canning jars to choose from and you’ll want to store food in quantities that you’ll use. Filling a quart jar with jelly isn’t a good idea because the jelly will likely go bad before you can use four cups of it. A ½ cup jelly jar is a much more usable.
9. How To Select Your Water Bath Canner
You will also need to invest in a large water bath canner with a rack. The rack holds the jars off of the bottom of the pan, where they can overheat and break if you’re not careful. Water bath canners can be found at yard sales as well, but sometimes they are missing the rack. If you end up in this situation, throw a layer of canning rings on the bottom of the pan to prop up the jars.
This Williams Sonoma water bath canner is stainless steel and costs less than $100, which makes it a great tool for the beginning water bath canner still learning the tricks of the trade. It can hold 8 pint jars or 7 quart jars at a time and has a built in thermometer on the lid.
But when you’re done messing around and ready to get serious, this Lehman’s stovetop canner is the investment you’ll want to make. For less than $200, this beauty is made right here in the USA in Ohio and holds up to 36 pint jars at one time! You can also use the canner as a stock pot, which is a great two-in-one solution for cooking up a big batch of whatever you plan on canning. A rig like this won’t work on an induction stovetop, but it does work great on a woodstove or gas hot plate, giving you options to continue canning if the power fails.
10. Invest In A Jar Lifter and Save Your Fingertips
You’ll need a jar lifter, which is a special set of tongs designed to grasp a mason jar. The rubber handles prevent you from getting burned when you lift the hot jars out of the boiling water. A canning funnel can help you prevent mess and waste when throwing the food into the jars.
11. How To Select A Pressure Canner
A pressure canner will be an important investment, particularly if you plan to can anything that’s not particularly acidic. Invest in a good, American-made, sturdy pressure canner that can easily be used on a variety of surfaces such as a cook stove. This will give you more options without relying on the electricity in your home.
An All-American pressure cooker like this will set you back about $250, and can hold 19 pint jars at one time. This aluminum beauty is made in Wisconsin and works on a variety of cooking surfaces. Buying a canner made in the USA is a solid investment for a piece of equipment you’ll be using in 30 years.
12. Cooking In Big Batches
Lastly, you’ll need cooking equipment big enough to make large quantities of food. A big stock pot or Dutch oven will do the trick here, and don’t forget the utensils, knives, spoons, kitchen towels, and other equipment to have on hand.
A stock pot like this option above will be necessary if you’ll be doing a lot of canning. You can save time by cooking bigger batches of food and canning them up to store for emergencies Cooking in smaller batches means putting more effort into cooking more often. Since you are planning on canning enough food to keep you and your family alive in the event of a major emergency, save time by cooking and canning in bulk.
13. Is Sterilizing Canning Jars Really Necessary?
The makers of the most popular kinds of canning jars in the United States now say that sterilizing canning jars isn’t necessary when the can is going to be in a canner for more than ten minutes. If you get a queasy feeling about not sterilizing canning jars, fret not. You can still spend time sterilizing canning jars if it makes you feel more confident in the quality of your food. But, opt to buy new lids for each batch you put away and let those sit in warm water with lemon juice to keep the rubber gasket strong.
14. Don’t Count On The Internet For Recipes
When the grid goes down, you won’t be able to head to Pinterest for the coolest canning recipes around. You will only have your memory and what you write down to keep for later. It’s a good idea to keep a notebook with canning recipes in your emergency supplies. When you try a recipe out, you can make notes on what went well and what didn’t. That way, you’ll have insight for how to improve your recipes with time and you aren’t tied to a internet that you can’t count on forever.
In the meantime, here are 5 easy recipes to get you started canning some of the basic foods your family can survive on.
15. Canned Red Meat (Venison, Rabbit, Beef, Pork, Elk, Etc)
Meat is the backbone of an American diet. Getting off the grid and learning to be self-sufficient means that you have to learn how to supply yourself with meat, whether you hunt or raise your own. Although you can easily store meat in the freezer, losing power for more than a couple hours can leave you with a mess of thawed meat beginning to rot. If you never want to look at your careful harvest going to waste, canning meat is a great way to be prepared.
Canning meat is easy once you get the hang of canning. The easiest way to do it is to process your meat through a meat grinder. Next, brown the meat with some onion, garlic, and other spices. Make a broth by simmering plain tomato sauce with beef bullion and drippings from the meat you’ve browned. You can use any broth you’d like, including one purchased from the store, if that doesn’t sound delicious. In a pinch, you can use plain hot water although you won’t have such a rich taste.
After sterilizing canning jars, fill them with the meat mixture leaving about one inch in the top of the jar. Add liquid, letting it fill up the cracks between the meat and staying about one inch from the top. Gently tap the sides of the jar to release air bubbles, then put the lids and rims on them.
Next, all you have to do is process them in a pressure canner for one hour and 30 minutes. When you remove them from the pressure canner, let them cool by themselves on the counter and listen for the lids to ping. If any of the jars don’t have a great seal, refrigerate them and use them within two days. Label the rest of them and store them for another day.
16. Canned Applesauce
Where I live in the midwest, it’s easy to find apples growing wild over the state. Knowing how to make applesauce is an important survival skill for me because no matter what my home garden looks like, I’ll always be able to harvest enough apples in the autumn to fill several cases of applesauce. Best of all, canned applesauce is easy to make!
The first step is to gather your apples, and you can choose any combination of apple types you like. Wash them and simmer them in about a cup of water for half an hour, then pass them through a food mill. You’ll have beautiful apple sauce, and you can add sugar and cinnamon if you’d like. If you don’t have a food mill, just peel and core your apples before simmering them and let them cook a little longer.
After sterilizing canning jars, spoon the applesauce into the jars leaving about one inch at the top. The sugars and acids in applesauce make it easy and safe to process in a water bath canner. Once you put the jar on, process them for 25 minutes for pint jars and 35 minutes for quart jars. Let them cool on the countertop. Don’t forget to check the seal and eat any that didn’t seal within two days.
17. Canned Bread and Butter Pickles
I’m nuts for bread and butter pickles. They are easy to make, delicious, and they get better with age, which makes them a perfect addition to any emergency stock of food. You can slice the cucumbers into discs, slivers, or pick the cucumbers while they are still small and pickle them whole.
In a large stockpot, boil the following ingredients:
● 2 pounds onions
● 1/3 cup canning salt
● 3 cups vinegar
● 2 cups sugar
● 2 T mustard seed
● 2 tsp turmeric
● 2 tsp celery seed
● 1 tsp ginger
● 1 tsp peppercorns
Once that’s got a rolling boiling, add your cucumbers and let it come back up to a boil. Next, simply fill your hot jars, leaving one inch of headspace, with the cucumbers and onions. Ladle in the vinegar mixture to fill the spaces between the pickles and gently tap the glass to remove any air bubbles.
Process these jars in a water bath canner for 15 minutes and let them cool on their own on the counter top. Remember to put any jars that don’t ping into the refrigerator and use them up, because they will not last long without a good seal.
18. Canned Tomato Sauce
Tomato sauce is easy to can and can be used for lots of different recipes with lots of different ingredients on hand. With the right seasoning, it can easily be made into spaghetti sauce, chili base, pizza sauce, marinara and more.
The most difficult part of canning tomatoes is removing the skins. What you’ll want to do is bring a pot of water to a boil and dip the tomatoes in small batches for about one minute in the water. You’ll see the skin of the tomato start to split. Pull them out, remove the skins, and set the rest of the tomato in a big stock pot. You might like to remove the seeds as well, but this is optional.
Add some water to the tomatoes and let them simmer for a while until they are nice and soft. Then, use a food mill or a blender to puree them. Bring the sauce to a boil again and let it thicken, stirring often.
If you want your tomato sauce seasoned before you can it, go ahead and add whatever you would like. My family has a traditional sauce mix with garlic, onions, and peppers added into it that we enjoy in lots of different recipes. If you aren’t sure what you’ll want down the road, you can always season it when you bring it back out of the can.
Fill your hot jars with the sauce, leaving one inch of headspace. Tap to remove bubbles, then process in a water bath canner for 15 minutes with pint jars and 20 minutes with quart jars. Allow to cool naturally and you’ve got beautiful, multipurpose canned tomato sauce.
19. Canned Dandelion Jelly
Dandelion jelly is delicious and dandelions are plentiful all summer long where I live. I love this recipe because you don’t have to worry about your garden harvest when you can simply go pick the wild things growing in the yard. Dandelion jelly tastes like honey and looks beautiful on your shelf.
Pick a large basket of dandelions and cut the flowers away from the green stems. The goal is to keep out all of the green stuff, but don’t worry if you get a few snippets among the flower pieces. You’ll need about four cups of dandelion tops.
Once you’ve collected your flowers, put them in a stock pot and pour boiling water over them to cover. Let it sit for an hour or two or overnight for a stronger flavor. In the morning, pour the liquid through a strainer or cheesecloth so that you’re left with a strong dandelion tea. Bring it to a boil and add 4 and ½ cups of sugar, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, and 1 box of pectin. Let it boil for about two minutes.
After sterilizing your canning jars, fill them with the jelly mixture, leaving about ¼ inch of headspace. Process in a water bath canner for 15 minutes and let cool on the stove top.
20. Sterilizing Canning Jars For Dry Canning
Dry canning is a method of sealing ingredients that have no water in them, such as rice, flour, noodles, or even crackers. Dry canning helps your ingredients stay fresh for longer and prevents bugs from being able to get into them.
There are methods for dry canning ingredients in the oven, but the safest and easiest way to dry can is to use oxygen absorbers. Simply follow the directions of the oxygen absorbers you buy and put them in your jar with the things you need to keep for emergencies.
The important part to remember about dry canning is that because you will not be processing them in heat, you must remember to follow the processes outlined above for sterilizing canning jars before adding food to them. You can’t keep your food safe if you don’t prepare a sterile environment to store it in, and oxygen absorbers do not kill bacteria or stop mold from growing if it is already inside the jar.
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