Mastering Food Preservation: An Introduction

Here in Maine, eating locally year round requires some familiarity with the art of preserving food. Through experience — mostly trial and error — I’ve built up a working knowledge of canning, drying, freezing and storing these past few years, but not in any organized fashion. Luckily, Maine is one of the handful of states to have a Master Food Preserver Program run by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Offered on an annual basis, the program has experienced a growing increase in applicants since its inception. The limited class size makes enrollment selective, and I was excited to be one of those admitted to the current training session.

Now in its fifth year, the class consists of a dozen of us gathered from around the state, brought together by a shared desire to learn more and continue the tradition of passing these skills onto others. Our first meeting was in June, and included an orientation and an overview of food preservation, primarily issues surrounding food safety. The stack of materials we received consisted of a binder of selected readings, and copies of So Easy to Preserve (book and video), the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning, and Ball’s Blue Book Guide to Preserving — all available to the public and worthwhile references for any home library. Along with the in-class labs, we’re also required to complete the self-study course, Preserving Food At Home, also accessible to the public.

The Cooperative Extension also offers testing of pressure canner dial gauges, and recommends that they be tested yearly. It’s especially a good idea to have the gauges from secondhand or older pressure canners tested before using. Kathy Savoie (above), our Extension Educator, checked my gauge for accuracy — it was slightly off (I admit to dropping the lid), but still within tolerance. More than 2 pounds off and it should be replaced.

Session question: What’s the difference between a pressure cooker and a pressure canner, aren’t they the same thing?

A pressure canner is one that is designed to can low-acid foods, such as vegetables, meats and beans. According to the USDA, a pressure canner must be able to hold at least 4 quart jars, and have a gauge or weight that allows you to measure 5, 10 and 15 lbs. pressure. While you may pressure cook in a canner, the converse, using a pressure cooker for canning, may be problematic. Processing times for canning factor in specifically the larger size of a pressure canner, and the time it takes to heat up and cool down. My Presto pressure canner is labeled for both canning and cooking, but I find it’s too large to use for anything other than canning.

Note: When purchasing a new pressure canner, make sure it will fit in the space between your cooktop and any cabinets or vent hood above. If you have a glass cooktop, look for a pressure canner that is designed to be used on it. My canner has an extra plate on the bottom that allows it to sit flat and fit within my cooktop’s rings.

This is second in a series of posts following the Master Food Preserver Program, offered through the University of Maine Cooperative ExtensionNext: “Jams & Jellies”

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