Friday, March 26, 2010

Maybe Spring is coming up Soup Instead?

I broke open a bottle of the canned hamburger patties last night. I just warmed them and we ate them on buns. The flavor was not what we're used to with grilled burgers probably because they boiled for an hour and a half in liquid. With my ranching background, I'm pretty picky about quality of food, particularly meat. So, I'll be using that hamburger in the future for casseroles and soups, where hamburger usually cooks awhile and often in liquid anyway. For economic and health reasons, we often eat hamburger mixed with something else, like you would with shepherd's pie. I'm still looking forward to having the meat for things like that. Hamburger is great as a replacement to stew meat in some stews.

All that said, the quality of canned chicken is phenomenal. So, don't even hesitate. My daughter likes it so much she actually drinks the broth when I open a jar.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Spring is Coming up Meatballs

Sale prices on super-lean hamburger were great at Fresh Market this week, so I've been canning hamburger. The photo at left is of some hamburger patties and meatballs I canned last week. Here is a link to the current USDA guide 5, Preparing and Canning Poultry,
Red Meats, and Seafoods
with detailed instructions (page 5-2 has the instructions for ground meat). Please make sure to adjust the pressure to what is needed for your altitude – where we live, it’s 13 pounds. If the canner goes below the required pressure for even a few seconds, start the processing time over. That’s why I keep my canner around 15 pounds pressure, just to make sure I don’t have to start over. Since meat takes 90 minutes to pressure can, believe me, you do not want to have to start processing time over.

I always slit a big black garbage bag and lay it over my work area when I'm prepping the meat to can. I don't get meat juices and pieces spread all over my counters. It is sanitary and makes cleanup a snap.

What is my honest assessment on the ease of canning both chicken and hamburger? Anything you can stuff in a jar raw, without pre-cooking and without adding extra liquid, is of course going to save you a whole lot of time. Therefore, boneless, skinless chicken is soooo easy to do. I haven’t done chunks or cubes of red meat yet, but since they can be put in the jar raw, I’m sure they are the same ease as chicken. Hamburger, though, is a different matter, entirely.

Hamburger must be slightly browned before pressure canning and it has to have added liquid. Why? With ground meat, there is a lot more possibility for bacteria to lurk inside the meat than with chunks of meat. That’s why you should NEVER, but never, just stuff a bunch of raw hamburger into a canning jar and pressure can the way some bloggers tell you to do – that method is not USDA approved and it’s really playing roulette with your family’s health. With one big glob of hamburger like that, the boiling liquid that will kill the bacteria cannot circulate around all the meat. Play it safe and follow USDA guidelines, even if those guidelines seem paranoid. Pre-browning the meat also ensures that the hamburger keeps its shape while you are canning and that it looks nice when you pull it out of the jar.

Season both the hamburger patties and meatballs as desired. I chose to add spices, salt, and finely minced garlic to the hamburger and mixed it up with my hands (wearing disposable gloves) before I formed it for browning. I felt if the seasoning were inside the meat, the flavors would hold better through the canning process. Meatballs had oregano, basil, onion powder, salt, and minced garlic. Hamburgers had onion powder, a little Worcestershire Sauce, salt, and minced garlic.

I used a cookie scoop to scoop out the meatballs. A dozen browned meatballs of that size will fit in a pint jar. For the boiling liquid required for both meatballs and patties, I used soup base (like bouillon) to make a half-strength broth. My neighbor tells me that “Better than Bouillon” makes a low sodium soup base that does not have MSG, and I’d use that next time. You might be surprised that most bouillon and soup base contain both corn syrup solids (a health no-no) and MSG. The MSG is often under disguised names like “hydrolized vegetable protein” or “hydrolized yeast extract” or “natural flavorings”.

I used a half-cup measuring cup to scoop out hamburger patties and squished them to ½ inch. I browned the patties on an indoor electric grill (George Foreman style) that browned both sides of the hamburger at once. The patties shrunk to the perfect size to fit in my wide-mouth quart jars – I do recommend wide-mouth jars for the patties. I did 50 patties in very little time that way. Each quart jar held five patties.

Hamburger can also be browned and pressure canned without shaping, following the instructions in the guide I have linked above. One lady has commented that not shaping the meat results in meat with a finer consistency, like the hamburger you get in fast food tacos. She recommended, instead, canning patties and then breaking them up for other uses after you open the jar.

Will I be canning hamburger again, even with the extra work? Absolutely! If I were cooking hamburger for a meal, I’d have to go to the work anyway. Pressure canning the hamburger just puts the work up front and the bottled meat will be a time saver for me on busy days. Ha! That’s every day, but let’s not get carried away. :) If the power goes out, I have a ready source of protein that is already cooked, not to mention I bought this hamburger about half the normal price. Gotta love sales! Besides, the hamburger tastes good!

My family will be scooping out the meat next time I do hamburger – that’s the real time saver. Canning is so much more enjoyable when you’re not doing all the work yourself. The kids tend to think it's slave labor, but 'tis the nature of kids to complain at work, of any kind. They like the family together time once they get going and their dad's silly stories and jokes.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Buying and Maintaining a Pressure Canner

I've had several questions about pressure canners....

Question: I want to buy a brand-new pressure canner. Which brand and style?
Answer 1: I'll answer this from my 25 plus years' experience in canning. If I were buying a new pressure canner, I would spend a little more money to buy one that is designed to do two levels of quart bottles at once. Food prep takes a lot less time than the canning time, especially if you are canning meat, which takes an hour and a half each load -- again, at 13 pounds pressure at our altitude. Look at the canner specifications as to how many pints and quarts fit and don't make the mistake of thinking that a 30-quart canner will fit 30 quarts. A 30 quart canner will generally do 14 quart jars -- there apparently has to be air space at the top of a pressure canner.

Answer 2: Several food storage experts recommend purchasing a canner that does not need a gasket, and hence no need to change the gasket/sealing ring. The Mending Shed sells several sizes of All American Pressure Cookers, which are metal-to-metal and need no gaskets. Click here for that link. Compare prices for the best deal. Online, you'll also pay over $20 shipping, but you could also go directly to the Mending Shed -- if you live near it. With this type of canner, you will still need to change the vent, which this company calls an "over pressure plug", every few years.

You will note that the price is a lot higher on the All American Pressure Canner than what you will likely spend locally on a lower-end canner locally. You have to decide if the convenience of being able to process more jars at once and not having to change the gasket is worth the price. For me, even with my frugal (O.K., cheap!!) tendencies, if I were purchasing a new canner, I would personally go with the higher-end canner (more quart jars in one canner load) just to cut down the processing time. How many nights did I stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. when I only had one pressure canner that fits six quarts at a time? Your time and sanity are worth the extra money, and you'll can more food if you make this easier. If you can't afford it, you can buy a couple of oldie goldies like I did and also cut your time in half.

Question: Can I buy a used pressure canner?

Answer: Absolutely, if it is not damaged and if replacement parts are still available. I was amazed to find out there are canners older than mine for which you cannot get parts! I have two really old, but perfectly good, Presto 21B pressure canners that were old long before I bought them. I had the Extension Service test the gauge, and it was faulty. So, I bought a new gauge, new sealing ring and automatic air vent, and even a new handles at the Mending Shed. Each of my canners will do six quart jars at a time. The time spent processing is why I picked up the extra canner at at thrift store. The photo below is the kind of canner I have, except I have plastic handles. (This photo shows the lid on sideways.)

Question: If my pressure canner has rubber parts (a sealing ring or gasket and a rubber air vent/safety plug) how often should I replace them for safety?

Answer: If you use your canner, you will need to replace the rubber parts every few years. Here is an example of what you need to replace and how the gasket fits in the pressure canner lid.

You will know you need to replace the rubber parts when one of two things happen: 1) the gasket (a.k.a. sealing ring) or the rubber vent have gotten loose enough that one or the other is not keeping the steam in the canner (steam will come out between the canner and the lid or from under the rubber vent) ; or 2) The gasket feels hard and is not easily pliable -- if the gasket is hard, the air vent is hard, and the vent is a safety feature.

Make sure you buy the right parts. I keep the original box for the gasket and regulator right in my canner so I never have to guess. I just take the box with me when I buy new parts at the Mending Shed. The new gasket/sealing ring will be larger than the slot it has to fit in the canner lid. Instructions say to ease the gasket into the lid, and it might take you more than one try to do it. It's easy, though. Oh, and never put oil on the rubber parts.

Before you use your pressure canner, always tip the lid upside down and check to see if the vent hole is plugged. Mine never has been plugged, but the experts say to check.

Question: How often should I have my pressure canner's gauge checked?

Answer: At the beginning of every canning season. Gauges change. Sometimes the gauge will be right on and other times a pound under or over what it should be. We can have our canner lids tested where we live at either the Extension Service or at the Mending Shed, both for free. When they test it, they give you a little tag that tells you what your pressure reads in relationship to the correct pressure. If your gauge reads 14 lbs. when theirs says 13 lbs, that means your gauge is a pound under what it should be and you need to start timing the canner full of food when the gauge shows one pound higher than the desired pressure. I confess to just keeping my canner at 15 lbs., because I never have to worry about getting under 13 lbs., which is what I need here. It's possible that some products might be more cooked that way, but I haven't noticed any difference. I keep the little tag the tester gave me handy and hang it over the vent when I'm not using the canner.

I'll be canning hamburger for my first time tomorrow, inspired by the wonders of home-canned chicken -- of course, I'm following U.S.D.A. guidelines in the Extension Service publications. Here's a link to their publication on meat -- make sure you process for your altitude.

By the way, if you have never had home-canned chicken, you are truly missing out. It is oh so easy (I canned 40 lbs. of chicken breasts this week -- one 1 1/2 pint jar is just under 1 pound of chicken.), and so delicious. This is just raw chicken with a couple of tablespoons of minced carrots and a 1/2 tsp. of dried parsley and 1 tsp. salt per quart -- I asked the Home Economist at the Extension service if I could safely add the carrots and parsley, and it's O.K. because the hour and a half processing time for meat takes care of it. The carrots give the chicken a nice color. The chicken roasts itself and makes its own juice -- my teenager actually drinks the juice every time I open a jar. The store-bought stuff isn't all that great, but the home-canned product is just wonderful and a great convenience. I'm crossing my fingers that hamburger is just as good. I'll be following the U.S.D.A. guidelines and doing hamburger patties, meatballs, and loose hamburger. Fun!