As a self-proclaimed Homesteader, I have spent many years learning and researching how to do all manner of things on a homestead. I taught myself how to grow all the food and different ways to use that food. I’ve learned tons about chickens, goats, and cows, and hope to apply everything I’ve learned to animals of my own soon. I’ve learned how to be self-sufficient and dramatically lessened my dependence on many grocery store items. But one thing that intimidated me for quite some time was canning. My fear of botulism from home canning hindered my desire to learn this essential part of homesteading life.
In my circle of other gardener and homesteader friends, just about all of them had someone to teach them skills. They had someone to go to when they had questions, when seals failed, or when things didn’t look quite right. Unfortunately for me, I did not have that person. Yes, my grandmother canned, but she passed away when I was young. So even though I did ask her questions as I stood over my canner wondering if what it was doing was actually what it was supposed to be doing… she didn’t respond. At least not in ways that tangibly helped me.
I haven’t met any first-time canners that didn’t have some (or a lot) of fear towards canning. When I first started water-bath canning, there was solid fear. Then I bought a pressure canner, and I lost many nights of sleep over things I had canned. For months, I refused to let anyone other than myself eat my pressure-canned goods, not even my dog. I might sound crazy, but what is the punishment if you canned something incorrectly? It’s not just a little slap on the wrist. It’s not intestinal distress, nausea, vomiting… no. If something goes wrong, the result is death!
Ok, am I being dramatic? Slightly. However, being a first-time canner, the first few things I put into my pressure canner, I ate hoping and praying they didn’t kill me. If something is canned incorrectly, or the jar doesn’t seal, it can grow bacteria, and a deadly bacteria it can grow is Clostridium botulinum, the cause of botulism.
Of course, in my wildly dramatic mind, there was zero doubt that every single jar I canned contained this deadly bacteria and that it would kill me and anyone I served. So, one night around 2:00 AM, after canning some collard greens, I surfed the internet trying to find out just how common this was.
According to the CDC, from 1996 to 2014, there were 210 cases of foodborne botulism in the U.S., with 43 of those cases attributed to home-canned vegetables. A normal person would have read that and thought, “Ok, that is a very low percentage. Follow the rules and you will be fine.”
But I am not a normal person.
I started messaging EVERYONE on social media asking them for signs of botulism; how did they get over the fear of killing their loved ones; can one contract botulism and simply not die? Did I go down a rabbit hole? Yes, yes I did.
But I didn’t have anyone to ask in my world that preserved food in any way, much less through canning. For me, that is the worst thing about being a homesteader: I don’t have anyone in my life who does this. I don’t have anyone to discuss ideas with when something goes wrong. As the years have passed, I have gotten some friends into water-bath canning, but when they have questions, I’m the one they go to for answers. But who could I go to for answers?
This journey of learning how to can food safely, and to get out of my own head, was definitely a trial by fire, but about four years later, I am finally fully confident in my abilities. I’ve gained the knowledge I needed to feel safe about what I’m doing. I’ve had enough success that the freak possibility of a rare case of botulism from home canning doesn’t scare me anymore. I no longer lay in bed at night, wondering, if I listen hard enough, can I hear the bad bacteria growing in my stomach? (Yes, that actually happened.) Or asking myself how long I have to live after eating the carrots that looked and tasted fine because maybe I don’t know what a carrot is actually supposed to taste like? (Yes, that happened, too.) I’m here to help everyone who has the desire to escape their fears of home canning and just do it! Canning is nowhere near as daunting as people believe it is.
When it comes to canning, most folks know there are three different types: water bath, pressure canning, and steam canning. There are so many resources available to tell you how to do this safely. Learning this task that has been practiced for many decades was intimidating, but the modern world of Youtube and recipe blogs helped me greatly.
First, I started with pickles and tomato sauce. Probably the easiest things you can can, and they made me cocky. I could do it all! I started doing relishes and slaws, jams and jellies, and my pantry began to grow.
The following year I got a pressure canner. I watched all the videos I could, I followed all the rules, and while I was canning collard greens, I hid behind the wall in my kitchen, with just my eyes poking out in case it exploded.
I had pressure canned probably four or five loads by mid-summer, and one thing that I didn’t understand, was why my floor was always soaking wet after I did a load. It was so bad that I had to put a towel down and it was soaking wet at the end of the canning time. “This is just how pressure canners are, I guess,” I thought to myself as I continued to fill up my basement pantry.
Each time I added a new item, I took a picture and posted it to social media. I was doing this and I was doing it all on my own. Wasn’t I just the greatest?!
Then it all came tumbling down. I watched a YouTube video of someone canning something, I don’t even remember what it was anymore. But I could distinctly see their floor, and it wasn’t wet. Why wasn’t their floor wet? Why wasn’t water spitting from their canner, as it did from mine? I had just gotten done canning my entire potato harvest from that summer and like it always did, my floor was soaked.
That night, I didn’t get even five minutes of sleep. I spent the entire night either researching or tossing and turning. Was my brand-new canner broken? Was all the food I had already put up at risk for botulism? Would I live to see thirty? All of these crazy scenarios popped up in my head. Through all my research I couldn’t find one single article, video or comment, addressing the issue that I was having, and I didn’t know anyone who could possibly have known the answer.
Laying in bed that night, telling myself that crying over the loss of this food was not acceptable, I decided to sell the pressure canner. “It’s too hard to learn to do this myself. The punishment, if I unknowingly do something, wrong could be death.” There was too much at stake for me to try and push through. I lay in there and sulked over the fact that I didn’t have someone like a grandparent or aunt who could have been my guide and resource. Even just someone reassuring me that I’m doing everything right would have been great. But I didn’t have anything like that.
The next day I took pictures and was prepared to post them to Facebook Marketplace, but, something told me not to post them, just let it sit. I let it sit for two days, and for two days I obsessed over whether the food I had canned was safe to consume. I don’t think I thought about anything else.
Finally, on the third morning, I woke up resolved. I was not going to let this beat me. If in almost 20 years, there were only 43 cases of botulism from home canning, I would be fine.
I tore that canner apart, washed everything, and reassembled it. I threw some green beans in a jar and put it in the canner and brought it up to pressure. I noticed a few things then. One, my canner got to pressure in half the time it did before. Two, I didn’t leak any water. Not even one droplet once the air vent lock popped. Three, I was able to regulate my pressure ten times easier than I had been able to do in the past.
What I realized was that my air vent lock had been loose, and, while I was able to build pressure, the loose air vent lock may have caused my pressure gauge to report an incorrect pressure. I was incredibly pleased with myself that I figured out and fixed the issue. I deleted the pictures I had taken when I wanted to sell it and I went back to dreaming about all the food I would can.
And then I thought about all the food I had already canned. Was it still safe? Could I eat it? I decided that, while it was probably fine, I didn’t personally feel safe eating it. I started doing research on whether I could re-can it; pop the top, put a new one on, and put it back in the canner. I eventually decided to do that, and I’ve since eaten everything, and I’m still alive to tell the tale.
But these were two important lessons for me. In life, we don’t always have a guide or a mentor, and just because we don’t have that person to help us, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do that thing or things. Last year I pressure-canned over 300 jars of food that fed me and my family through the entire winter and counting. If I had given into the fear of what could go wrong, I never would have learned how to make things go right.
In this day and age, we have endless resources right at our fingertips. YouTube and Google are just seconds away from giving us an answer at any time. That has conditioned many of us to throw in the towel at the first slight mishap that the internet can’t answer. Learning something new is hard, but, it’s often those hard lessons that we value most.