As a frequent judge for food competitions at county and state fairs, Karen Blakeslee is on the front line seeing where Kansans are excelling and where they are struggling when it comes to home food preservation.
That experience led her to create resources that we can find at local K-State Research and Extension offices or on the extension’s website dedicated to preservation: rrc.k-state.edu/preservation.
Blakeslee is a sort of agent for the agents. She is an extension associate based in Manhattan and she coordinates the Rapid Response Center, where agents call in if they need help answering food-related questions, whether it’s about food safety, preparation or preservation. She puts together how-to videos and guides for preservation methods that local agents use or the public can access on the website. She also gathers tested recipes and other resources from trusted sources around the country.
She’s noticed a resurgence in interest in food preservation tied to movements involving buying local, lowering food waste and having more control over food sources. Preserving food by canning, freezing or dehydrating allows home gardeners or even those who buy from others to save more of what is grown and enjoy it year-round. Preserving food at home allows consumers to control the sodium and sugar content in some preservation recipes they choose. She’s also noticed a trend in fermenting vegetables. This uses salt to pull moisture out of the food to create an acidic brine with the help of good Lactobacillus bacteria and an anaerobic environment.
With increased interest comes the need to share safety guidance to prevent foodborne illness from improperly home-canned food. Blakeslee’s key message: “Food preservation is not something that can be done quickly. Make sure you take the time that’s needed to do it safely and properly so you end up with good, safe products.”
The time you set aside should begin in the spring, she says, as gardening season gets underway.
“Think about what you are going to plant or buy from the farmers market, then look through recipes; I have links to good resources for tested recipes on my website,” she says. “It’s important for people to understand there are recipes on the internet that have not been tested and can give unsafe results. So be mindful about your source for recipes.”
Selecting recipes early in the season allows you to gather the correct supplies and equipment so you’ll be ready when the produce is ready to be preserved.
How you choose to preserve food comes down to personal preferences, the type of food and how much food and storage space you have available, Blakeslee says. Most people have more space to store canned food in their cupboards. Freezing takes less time than canning but depends on freezer space. Use freezer-safe plastic bags and containers for best freezing quality. Her K-State website has tips for dehydrating and freezing foods in addition to the canning information.
One of the biggest misunderstandings when it comes to canning is using the wrong processing method. The recommended method is based on the type of food being canned. Low-acid foods, such as plain vegetables and all meats, must be processed in a pressure canner to get the temperature up to 240 F to 250 F and to destroy the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. The boiling water method will safely can high-acid foods, such as fruit, pickles, jams and jellies, and destroy any yeast and mold present.
One of the most often confused foods to can is plain tomatoes. Whether you’re canning whole tomatoes or tomato juice, you need to add extra acid. This is required for either pressure canning or water bath canning tomatoes.
“There is a misconception that tomatoes are a high acid and don’t need extra acid. They can actually be a low-acid food. To can all tomatoes safely, however, it is important to add either bottled lemon juice, citric acid or even vinegar,” Blakeslee says. “We have guidelines in our ‘Preserve it Fresh, Preserve it Safe: Tomatoes’ publication on our website.”
Another common mistake is using old processing methods passed down from previous generations, such as heating canned food in an oven, dishwasher or outside in the sun.
“Jams and jellies, one of the most commonly canned foods, are easy to do with kids to teach them about food preservation,” Blakeslee says. “Some people still do an old-fashioned method called open-kettle canning. This is filling the jar, putting the lid and ring on it, turning it upside down, then right side up. There is not a final heat processing step. This is not recommended because yeast or mold could still be present and grow.”
Water bath canning method is the correct processing method for jams and jellies, which will give a better-tasting product with a longer shelf life.
Blakeslee wants to remind you that even if you don’t know the science behind food preservation, K-State has resources and hands-on classes to make it understandable, whether it’s learning about recipes, or getting comfortable with operating a pressure canner.
“Food preservation has been around for a long time, and research has discovered the best methods,” she says. “We’re here to ease the fear behind food preservation, to show them it can be fun and to give them tools so they are smart about safely preserving food to enjoy throughout the year.