“I’d like to know how my meat became cooked, how it was processed, who cut it up.” Kotzebue middle school student, from ‘Eating Alaska’
Sitka film maker Ellen Frankenstein’s documentary Eating Alaska* cuts right to the core of how we think, and don’t think, about where our food comes from; to know who cut up your food, to find it important—essential—for peace of mind, to know who cut it up yourself. Compare that mindset with a recent bill, passed by our United States Congress, that decrees meat in America no longer needs to be labeled with the country of origin. As of June, 2015 not only do Americans no longer know who processed their meat, they don’t even know what country the meat came from. In fact, they don’t even know what continent their meat came from. Putting up your own food looks better all the time. And so, here’s to home canning.
Exploding pressure cookers and botulism kept my childhood home free from canning operations. Not that our family ever met anyone who’d experienced such things. Our parents had heard stories about someone who knew someone who’s grandmother’s friend had met a gruesome end and, well, we weren’t going to take the chance. Having taken it upon myself to learn canning as an adult I was surprised at how safe and easy it is. Pressure canners underwent design changes in the 1970’s and canners built since then have several safeguards to keep you from over pressuring the unit. Also, there are clear instructions including hundreds of free videos about how to proceed.
Note on botulism: The reason we pressure can instead of water bath canning is to prevent botulism. Botulism is a neurotoxin produced by particular bacteria living in anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions on foods that didn’t get hot enough to kill the bacteria before sealing. Botulism is vanishingly rare today, but life threatening when it happens. Symptoms of botulsim poisoning appear 18-36 hours after eating contaminated food. Here in Alaska we had about 350 known botulism cases between 1950-2017. More than any other state. BUT ! apparently all of them were from eating traditional Native foods like fermented fish heads, that were not prepared in traditional ways (fermenting in modern containers that don’t breathe for example). Here’s a CDC page on that. https://www.cdc.gov/botulism/botulism-alaska-foods.html
The only documented case of botulism from home canned fish in Alaska was in 2019 and involved a man who broke pretty much every rule of canning fish. The patient said he caught the fish five days before he canned it. For canning he heated it overnight in a slow cooker (not a pressure canner). After a few days the fish began to smell. He said the fish he ate smelled and tasted bad but he ate it anyway, and without reheating it. Because Alaska has a high number of botulism cases some hospitals have the anti-toxin on hand, including the one where this man went. That’s what saved him. He spent 7 days in hospital but made a full recovery. https://www.adn.com/alaska-news/anchorage/2019/12/31/anchorage-man-survives-botulism-after-eating-home-canned-salmon/
The take aways: Follow approved canning practices and you’ll be fine. If in doubt, throw it out.
A good place to start is the Alaska Cooperative Extension’s excellent tutorials called ‘Canning the Catch.’ They’re available online at https://cespubs.uaf.edu/publications/?cat=*&pt=*&s=Canning%20the%20Fish%20Catch. For salmon you want the incomparable Sarah Lewis’ “Canning the Fish Catch.” Tells you all you need to know about filling jars (pack firmly, leave 1 inch of headspace), closing lids (finger tight), cooking times, how much water to put in the canner (typically 2 1/2 to 3 inches–your canner owner’s manual will have that–if you don’t have the manual y0u can usually find an online version), using the bones for calcium (they crumble after they’re canned) and more.
In addition, the Cooperative Extension will answer questions and test the pressure gauge on your canner. Gauges can be off by several pounds so you want to get them tested every year. My canner, a heavy duty aluminum model (All American 921), * recommends using the gauge as a reference only and going by the pressure control weight on the vent pipe as the guide. The weight has 3 different holes that make the canner vent at 5 pounds pressure, 10 pounds, or 15 pounds depending on which hole is over the vent. The weight doesn’t change from year to year and so as long as it’s dancing a couple times per minute with steam coming out I can be sure the proper weight of steam in the kettle is pushing up on it.
Before you put the weight on: The canner’s loaded, top’s on, turn on heat (not full blast if you’re using a camp stove or crab cooker–see next article for that), when the water starts to boil steam comes out the petcock. Let it vent for 10 minutes to make sure there are no cold spots inside.
Canned salmon–at sea level–using pint or half-pint jars– should be cooked at 10 pounds pressure for 100 minutes. Unless you’re canning smoked salmon, if you are, process at 10 pounds for 110 minutes. Canned meat and poultry are usually 10 pounds for 75 minutes. At 10 pounds pressure water boils at 240 degrees instead of 220. If for some reason pressure drops below 10 pounds during canning you have to start the timing over.
For canning fish or meat you want a pressure canner big enough to make it worth the effort. Canners that hold between 10 and 16 one-pint jars at once work well because you can still move them conveniently and, really big ones tend to be a lot more expensive. If you’re thinking of buying, note that a lot of canners aren’t recommended on flat-surface stove tops. They can crack the glass or void the warranty. You can still use them outside with a propane burner and in fact canning outdoors is popular. People at fish camps do this a lot. Someone minds the canner while the others keep fishing. They come in from a few days on the river and the canning’s already done. Others do it outside to avoid steam or fish smell in the house. Personally, I love the smell of canning fish. I also love watching the cans still boiling on the inside after they’ve come out of the canner and are sitting on the counter. Jar lids have a small dimple in them that pulls in as they cool. When they seal, the metallic ‘Pop!’ is one of the most satisfying sounds on a summer evening.
Some items for canning: Wide mouth pint jars. ‘A pint’s a pound the world around’ as the English say, so plan on about one jar per pound of fish. Jars should be clean but they don’t need to be sterile because cooking in the canner will do that. Two-piece canning jar lids make the seal. Jars and screw on rings are re-useable. Once you have those all you need to buy for future batches is the top lid. A canning funnel that fits inside jars is handy so you can pack them without getting salmon bits on the jar rim. Rims have to be clean to get a good seal. Clean, damp dish towel for wiping off jar rims before you put the lids on. Rack inside canner to keep jars off bottom of canner. That way water bubbles don’t form under jars and push them around. Jar tongs to pull out jars when they’re done.
And for motivation, Ketchikan’s Geri Lewis has created a Facebook group called ‘Home made canners of Alaska.’ Geri is amazing. She’s an uber-canner, hunter, gatherer and a wealth of information. There are 1,382 members in the group. If you have questions about canning, gathering or drying just about anything you can harvest in Southeast Alaska, someone in that group will likely have gone down that road before you.
We hear a lot of over-inflated nonsense these days about the value of multi-tasking. Canning is the essence of uni-tasking. It’s about being right there with your food. Connected. And about knowing how it became cooked, how it was processed, and who cut it up. When the jars go Pop!, you know in that instant who made it happen.
*two things to know about the All American Canners
1) they have a metal to metal seal. That is, no rubber gasket. This being the case, you should put a little olive oil on your finger and rub it around the lower seal before you start. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ez-Bp-dfNBY
2) When the job’s done, after the pressure’s released, and you’ve loosened the wing nuts, sometimes the lid sticks and doesn’t want to twist open. If that happens, slip the claw of a small hammer (a screw driver also works) between the prongs where the wing nuts go on–not somewhere else on the edges or you can warp the seal–and give a little twist.There’ll be a little pop and it comes right off. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVoqmcVgKcE
* Trailer for Ellen’s Film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAXtiNzD3Mg