Sunday, November 17, 2013

Home canning of meat and berries

Living in a remote setting like I do, I have neither a refrigerator nor freezer, to store my food. Fortunately in northern climates, that isn't a difficult issue to overcome. Homesteading is simply taking a bit of a step back in time. After all, this has already been done. There is no reinventing nor pioneering in any stretch of the imagination.
When I need to keep food cool, in the brief summer/warm months, I simply keep items in a sealed bucket in the creek. In the colder months just setting stuff in the corner on the floor of the cabin will suffice.
However this article is about canning, as there is just so long meat, vegetables and berries will keep without proper preservation techniques. Canning is, in my opinion the most effective way to store long term. It isn't rocket science, in fact you can equate it to reloading ammunition. Buy a manual and follow it. it is just that simple.
I bought several canners, years ago, and delved into it a bit before I moved into the sticks. However my experimenting was quite casual, and only for practice.
Two summers ago, I found myself in a situation, with a problem bear, (see "the break in bear", posted here). After I had killed the bear and found that any attempts to secure a ride out either with a charter service or a friend not available, i decided to take the bull by the horns and get the bear 100% processed at my homestead. In reality I was already set up. It was just the sudden turn of events that caused a minor, temporary panic. Once I gathered myself together I got on with the task. It went somewhat as follows:
Since the daytime temps hovered in the mid 60's I didn't have much time, and the meat would go bad. It was obvious the next few day's would be rather full. My process was to par-cook the meat to buy me some time. So I slow cooked the meat in my large dutch oven, on the kitchen propane stove while I fired up the cache cooker, to run the canner and the stockpot used for sterilizing the cans, lids, etc. Now under normal conditions you do not need to cook the meat as the canning process will do that.
I focused on cutting the meat into cubes to be used in stews and chili, rather than steaks etc. As soon as a batch of meat was cooked, I'd fill the sterilized jars as I saw fit and added water up to about 1" from the top of the jar. I then placed a lid, from a pan of hot water onto the jar and screwed on a ring to just finger tight. I placed all the jars into the canner and filled the canner to the specified amount. The canner lid was locked on and brought up to temperature. Once there the weights where placed in the canner vent and the flame adjusted until the weights slightly jiggled. This takes a few minutes to adjust but is no big deal. The directions suggested 75 minutes for the canning process. During this time, I sterilized more jars and cut and cooked more meat. There was always something to do...
Once the processing time was reached I shut off the heat and waited for the canner to cool down.

Pic of canner and jars being prepped.

Once the canner has cooled down. I removed the weights and waited for steam to stop coming out of the canner. Basically I relieved the pressure.... I then placed the jars (very very hot) onto a towel, using a pair of tongs designed for the job. As the jars sit and cool the lids will pop from time to time, sealing and unsealing. This is totally normal. Once the jars are cool to the touch, you can test the seal by thumping the lid with your finder. It the seal is broken you will hear and see it pop. This is not a total defeat, as all you have to do is inspect the lid, re clean the rim of the jar and try again, perhaps using a new lid.
Then you simply repeat this process until you are done. In the many quarts and pints of bear meat, every and all jars sealed. The cooking time of 75 minutes at boiling temps totally cooked the meat and stored it securely.

Preserving vegetables is no different. Simply wash and cut the potatoes, carrots,etc as you see fit. Place the food in the jars packing as tightly as you wish. Fill jars with water (and a bit of salt if you wish), then can for the suggested time.
Canned food does resist freezing, in that enough fluid boils out of the jars that in the event of freezing temps, there is not enough liquid left to break a jar. I have not had any jars break although I did lose a few seals. This was no big deal since if the temps allow liquid to freeze, so will the meat, thereby preventing it from spoiling. I simply placed the jars outside. In effect I lost no jars...

Canning fruits and berries is no different although you will have to decide what you want the end result to be. Juice, syrup, or jam?
The initial processing is pretty much the same. The main difference is in the amount of sugar, and pectin you decide to use. In the case of my canning high bush cranberries, which I decided to can mostly as juice, I began by placing a large batch of berries in my stock pot, and adding aboutt an inch or so water. Heating the water and mashing the berries with a potato masher began to produce a lot of juice!

Cranberries and water in stockpot...

Berries and masher...

Within a very short period of time you will get a lot of juice. In fact you can even pour off the first batch and add water and get a bit more juice out. The cranberry has a rather flat dislike seed inside which will need to be separated along with the berry skin. I found that straining through typical U.S. army mosquito netting worked very well.
After a large batch of juice was obtained I needed to add sugar, to taste. If anybody has tasted a cranberry raw, you will know that it is not the type of berry you will eat a lot of without some help in the sweetening department. However the store bought juice is way to sweet for me. I simmered the juice, adding a bit of sugar and stirring it in, until I came up with a flavor that suited me. Now I'm not sure the exact combination, however my jam worked out to be 2/3rd cup sugar per pint. That is no where near the recommended recipe for any of the pectin companies which recommended 3 cups plus, sugar per pint! Rest assured that if you do it slowly to taste you will end up with a lot less sugar than the store bought stuff.
Once the sugar was added I increased the heat, and let the sugar thicken the mixture up, to a thinnish cough syrup consistency. I then poured the syrup into the sterilized jars to about 1" from the top. I placed a lid and ring on nd put the jars in the canner.
The recommended times for fruit is much shorter than mat, but be sure to follow the recommendations of the canner manufacturer. When the juice is done, it will be a semi concentrate. I found that a dilution of two parts water to each jar was about right, or until the juice left no film on a glass when swirled.
That is simply how it goes...
Making syrup for pancakes is the same, except you add pectin during the heating process. Note that low sugar cranberry jam will not set up as firmly as you might want. In my case I found that adding blue berries solved this, and most of my jam was blueberry or a blueberry/cranberry combo. If you want a store bough firm jam, you will need to add a Lot more sugar. That is totally your call.

The finished product..

A few notes on thinghs concerning canning. My canner's don't use pressure valves. My models use the weights that go on the vent hole. I find these very efficient, and they do not go out of spec! The worst that can happen is that you lose them.But not having to worry about whether they are reading properly is definetly something to consider.

If you are having a good berry year, can a lot more than you will need. Next year may be a poor berry year.

I have found that if you are very gentle with the lids when removing them, you can use them over several times. As I mentioned. If a jar does not seal, simply clean the rim, inspect/replace the lid and re can!
I have had nearly a 100% sucess rate in my canning. The only jar that failed, failed in freezing. However no food was lost. If I can do it.... you can do it!!