Canning - Get the Basics Right - High Acid vs Low Acid | Just Plain Living

Canning - Get the Basics Right - High Acid vs Low Acid

How to can foods safely - when do you pressure can and when do you boiling water bath?

Have you ever heard the expression "Oh, no, someone is WRONG on the Internet"? Shocking, of course, but it does happen some times.  That is why it is important to occasionally review the basics of SAFE canning, both pressure canning and boiling water bath canning.

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Why does it matter? High acid, low acid? Can't we just put it all in boiling water and can it? It's actually extremely important!

Before I do so, let me say that canning is not the only safe, effective and cost-effective method of food storage

It is, however, my favourite. 

My husband has been known to tell the children that they shouldn't sit still too long or Maman might can them up in jars.

Dehydrating is very useful, if you have the climate or the access to inexpensive electricity (we don't have either!). 

Pickling, fermenting, cold storage - these are all good ways to extend the usable lives of our food. However, most of these require a cool cellar, or the appropriate climate, or lots of electricity. Anyone can do canning.

No, I don't list freezing in this. While it is certainly possible to run a freezer on solar electricity, making it independent of the power grid, I am not positive that many people are doing so. In general, using a freezer means being connected to the grid. I'm pro food storage, but anti grid! :)

Before you begin canning, you need to know WHAT you are canning. That's because the most important information for canning is the pH level of your food. LOW ACID foods are all vegetables and all meat. Yes, it's that simple. If it's a vegetable or a protein, it is low acid. HIGH ACID foods are fruits, pickles, jellies/jam. Then there are tomatoes. They sit right at the border between low acid and high acid, so they are treated slightly differently.
It is very important to know the difference between high acid and low acid foods.

Canning High Acid Food

For the average person growing up with home-canned food, this is what was canned. High acid means pickles, fruits and highly sweetened preserves like jam and jelly. Pickles are made from vegetables usually, but the addition of all of that vinegar makes them high acid. These are the foods that can be safely processed in a BOILING WATER BATH. Please take careful note that this is not a "hot bath". If the directions say to process something, say pickles, for 10 minutes in a boiling water, then the processing time only starts when the water is at a full rolling boil.

The high acid foods are the SAFEST foods to can when you are learning to put up food. (With that said, I think I started with stewing beef, so this is a Do As I Say moment ..

Now, here is a myth I heard recently, and I want to address. 

I was told "If you pressure can your jams and pickles, they'll keep. Otherwise, they need to be tossed out after a year." 

It's not true.  

The quality of ANY canned food, unless stored in ideal conditions, might degrade after a year. It might not, too. I've kept boiling water bath canned strawberries on a cupboard shelf and they were bright red and delicious two years later.  My personal experience is that *properly* canned food will keep just as long as the seal remains intact.
There is NO need to pressure can fruits, pickles or jams. All you're doing is hurting the quality of your food. I tried pressure canning fruit, thinking it would be easier. Instead, it just made nasty, dark, overcooked fruit.


The only benefit to pressure canning high acid foods is that it uses less water. My pressure canner will process 18 pint jars in 3 litres of water while I need to use several gallons in the boiling water bath canner. But the decrease in the quality of your food is not worth it. Better to organize it so that you can do enough jars to make the water worth it, and then re-use the water (let the animals drink it, use it for flushing the toilet, or water the garden).

What do I use for boiling water bath canning? While it is technically possible to use any pot that is large and deep enough, that usually means a canning pot. They're not very expensive, so get one that is intended for your jars. My mother was using a deep pot and burning her fingers every time she pulled a hot jar out until I bought her a water bath canner and kit for her birthday. She had a "Where have you been all my life?" moment.

Canning Low Acid Food

I often have people express "You can CAN that?" when they see jars of carrots, corn, beans and weiners and more on my pantry shelves. And even if they had a mother or grandmother who canned vegetables, most people think of these foods sitting (over the winter ONLY) in a very cool cellar, in the dark and carefully undisturbed for fear of breaking the seal. I have been given gifts of these foods in the past, and within a day or two at room temperature, the seal has popped.

Properly canned meat and vegetables will definitely keep longer than a year in the cupboard.

Here's the catch, though - vegetables and meat can ONLY be safely processed in a pressure canner. That's a pressure CANNER, not a pressure COOKER. Pressure cookers are just not designed for pressure canning.

There are no shortcuts here. If you boiling water bath low acid foods (and I certainly have known people who do so), you are playing Russian Roulette with your food.

So what do I use for pressure canning? Although a lot of people swear by the All-American, and I have Old Order Mennonite friends who use and love it, I have to admit I'm still using my far less expensive Presto pressure canner. There are a few things that you need if you're going to use it. Just to save your own sanity, make sure to get a three piece pressure regulator, an extra canning rack and a canning tool kit.

(Should you use an All-American? Yes! Honestly, they are a better canner since they don't use rubber gaskets and are made to last forever. I simply have no experience with using one.)

Tomatoes are an oddball. Are they a fruit or a vegetable? Are they low acid or high acid? Without using a pH tester to check your tomato sauce, you are left with two options - either treat it as a low acid food and pressure can it, or add acid in the form of citric acid, lemon juice or vinegar and then treat it as a high acid food. (Low acid tomatoes taste better, and modern hybrids are generally grown to be low acid and tasty.) I have done both, and there are benefits to both ways. One thing, though - if you add meat or other vegetables to your tomato sauce, you have turned it into a low acid food and you definitely need to pressure can it.

Now those are the BASICS. Any questions?

Here's the takeaway. 

Boiling water bath can HIGH acid foods: pickles, jams, jellies and fruit. 

Pressure can LOW acid foods: meat and unpickled vegetables including (usually) tomatoes.

Sum it up – what do I NEED to pressure can?

  1. A safe, modern pressure canner. Two of the most popular ones are Presto 23 quart pressure canner and All American 921 21-1/2-Quart Pressure Cooker/Canner The Presto is the most popular, but survivalists and preppers might want the consider the All-American, which does not need replacement gaskets every year.
  2. A second canning rack for the Presto (the All-American comes with two)
  3. canning kit with magnetic lid lifter, jar lifter and more
  4. Optionally, but I recommend it, a stainless steel canning funnel
  5. If you have a Presto canner, a three piece weighted regulator because the canner really should come with one but does not. Having an extra sealing Ring on hand is also wise because my experience is that they fail when you have vital canning to do.
  6. Jars. Do not re-use glass jars from jam and other condiments. They are made for single use and are not designed to withstand pressure canning a second time. I mostly use pint jars but you can also use half-pints or quarts. The first jars you buy will come with lids and rings. After that, buy canning lids. The reusable canning lids are more expensive but are worth the price.
  7. Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving: 400 Delicious and Creative Recipes for Today
The initial output is fairly high, but every item in that list will last you for *years*. Stay tuned for a step-by-step on safely canning vegetables.


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Just Plain Living: Canning - Get the Basics Right - High Acid vs Low Acid
Canning - Get the Basics Right - High Acid vs Low Acid
How to can foods safely - when do you pressure can and when do you boiling water bath?
Just Plain Living
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