Under Pressure

I have vivid memories of a giant silver kettle rattling away on the stovetop, letting off steam like a rocket about to head to the moon. But I was likely too young to be involved in actually running this pressure canner. And by the time I was old enough, my mom had acquired a vacuum sealer and exchanged the steamy heat-of-summer process for extra chances to open the freezer door.

When I inherited my mom’s canning equipment more than a decade ago (with the caveat that I fill both our shelves with its results), I also inherited “the beast”: the heavy pressure canner capable of holding 7 quarts. I promptly broke it before I could even get its old seal tested. It now makes a lovely open kettle for cooking down applesauce and other large batches. I’ve never replaced it, and I’ve never missed it. And here’s why.
I don’t pressure can. Why? I find that pickling, freezing, or other ways of preserving low-acid vegetables produce tastier results than pressure canning. Read more about (not) pressure canning.
Pressure canning is required for low-acid foods like vegetables and meats. Some common vegetables run through a pressure canner are asparagus, beans, beets, carrots, corn, mushrooms, peppers, potatoes, and squashes. But you won’t find any advice about pressure canning these here for a simple reason: I find that pickling, freezing, or other ways of preserving low-acid vegetables produce tastier results than pressure canning. That’s why the canning recipes you find here focus on naturally high-acid and acidified (pickled) foods. Can them properly in a water bath, and you automatically can them safely.

But don’t just take my word for it. After forgoing red meat for nearly two-thirds of my life, I recognize that my food preferences aren’t for everyone. If you’re considering pressure canning, let’s put a bit of thought into why you should—or should not—do so.

Why I Don’t Pressure Can

Many people don’t pressure can because they’re terrified of the giant, rattling kettle that looks like it’s preparing to explode its contents all over the kitchen. Some people feel they need to pressure can simply so that they can face their fear. Perhaps this is a worthy goal, but I think a lot of other reasons should be given equal or more consideration.
I don’t pressure can. Why? I find that pickling, freezing, or other ways of preserving low-acid vegetables produce tastier results than pressure canning. Read more about (not) pressure canning.

  1. Space. A pressure canner is a big, bulky kettle used only for a single purpose. You can’t substitute a smaller pressure cooker designed for cooking dry beans and evening meals; you need the beast. Yes, it’s smaller than a freezer, but it’s a lot less versatile: My 5.5-cubic-foot chest freezer is a holding pen for produce I can’t process straight away. Its lid doubles as a handy flat surface in my tiny house. It takes up less space than I would need to put all its contents in jars on shelves. It even cost less upfront: Pressure canners are expensive.
  2. Time. There’s a misconception that canning under pressure is faster than in a water bath, but the overall process is actually slower. According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, it takes at least 1 hour 30 minutes to pressure can a single batch of snap beans, counting from the time you turn on the stove until you can remove the pint jars from the kettle. A batch of pickled snap beans takes as little as 30 minutes—for the first batch. Pressure canners need to be depressurized after they’ve done their job and before you open them, which means you need to wait 30 to 45 minutes after you’ve turned off the stove before you can think about canning a second batch. In a water-bath canner, you just keep the water boiling and add new jars. If you’ve got the process streamlined, you could crank out four or five batches of Definitely Dilly Beans in 1-1/2 hours.
  3. Content. Speaking of beans, are you really interested in spending several hours, including your prep time, to come up with 7 pint jars that taste a lot like commercially canned green beans? Even if they’re from your garden, organic, and gorgeous, pressure-processed beans taste a lot like those from a tin. When you acidify your beans so that they are safe to seal in a water bath, you end up with a unique treat. If you’re not into pickled foods, you can simply snap and freeze your beans to preserve their garden-fresh flavor; even with blanching, you should be able to put up 4 quart bags in under an hour.

Why You Would Pressure Can

Pressure canning does have its place. Adding vinegar or another acid to make a low-acid food safe for water-bath canning changes its flavor. Some people don’t have or want to acquire extra freezer space. But to my mind, the real reason to consider pressure canning is all about what you’re putting in the jars.

  1. Hunters and Fishermen. Although meats can be pickled, they are usually stored in the refrigerator and eaten within a few weeks. If you’re an avid hunter or fisherman, then pressure canning may be an ideal way to preserve your bounty. Most of my game-loving friends store their kills frozen as cuts or spiced into sausages, and they pack fresh or smoked fish into vacuum-sealed freezer bags. But fish, shellfish, red meats, and birds can take up a lot of freezer space, so canning is worth considering if you run out of room.
  2. Quick Meals. The latest trend in pressure canning seems to be ready-to-eat meals in a jar. My 1990 Ball Blue Book has recipes like Bean Soup, Chicken a la King, and the appealingly titled Meat Sauce. But The All New Ball Book of Canning and Preserving offers up Thai Coconut–Squash Soup, Aztec Chicken Soup, and BBQ Pulled Pork for your pressure-canning pleasure. Again, freezer space may be key: I prefer to freeze a couple of containers of leftover soups and sauces if I have excess and want a quick meal at hand, but pressure canning may be your solution.

If you still want a pressure canner, get one that is certified by Underwriters Laboratories. The company tests and approves pressure canners, which should be marked with the UL safety symbol. In addition, be sure to follow the recipes and process precisely; you’re still making a jar shelf stable.

Twice as Tasty

As someone who’s diet is based on naturally low-acid foods (vegetables and fish), I can tell you that you don’t need to pressure can to eat well all winter. We grow or are given everything we water-bath process, freeze, dehydrate, or otherwise preserve. We eat our bounty all winter long and rarely buy out-of-season veg. And I’ve never felt the need to pressure can.

I’ve already shared some of my favorite ways to preserve vegetables, from pickling cucumbers, to freezing zucchini, to drying herbs. This month, I’ll share some ideas for items that could—but don’t need to be—pressure canned, including grab-and-go stocks and quickly prepped soup. Next month, I’ll focus on low-acid vegetables that keep well in your basement, garage, or even closet. See you next week.

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