In the comments section of my last post on the canning closet, someone asked about how folks canned low-acid foods in the past without a pressure canner. My guess is, they didn't. Or if they did, they faced the very real possibility of poisoning themselves with botulism because of improperly canned food.
I decided to address this issue in a separate post rather than burying my answer in the comments section, because it's so important.
If you're interested in learning to can, please remember this: NEVER EVER EVER CAN LOW-ACID FOODS WITHOUT A PRESSURE CANNER. Boiling-bath methods DO NOT KILL THE MICRO-ORGANISMS in low-acid foods. I'm serious about this, folks.
Some people swear that their grannies never used a pressure canner and only used a boiling-bath to can meats, veggies, etc. Well, granny must have been blamed lucky she didn't kill her family using that technique.
A small anecdote: early on in my canning days, shortly after my husband and I got married, I decided to can up a favorite dish of mine: chicken in homemade barbecue sauce. I followed all the steps and canned two 18-pint batches (my canner holds 18 pints at a time) for a total of 36 jars.
I was so proud of myself! Here were all these gleaming jars of chicken and BBQ sauce. I didn't need to refrigerate them - I could store them on a shelf at room temperature. It was a novel and wonderful concept.
It's worth noting that in those days I stored my jars with the rings still on because I naively thought the rings were necessary to keep the lids tight. They're not, of course.
A week late I decided to open a jar and have the contents for lunch. When I looked at the shelf that had my canned chicken on it, I gave a cry of dismay.
Every lid - every single lid on my 36 jars of chicken in BBQ sauce - was bulging. I had evidently done something wrong. The lids hadn't sealed properly and the food was contaminated. Since the jars had rings on, the lids couldn't pop off - but they would have if the rings weren't holding the lids in place.
It broke my heart, but I threw out the contents of all those jars. It also taught me an important lessons: pressure requirements and processing times are in place for a reason. Shortly thereafter I bought my beloved canning bible, Putting Food By, and have seldom had a failure since.
I taught myself to use a pressure canner simply by following the directions that came with the canner. Anyone can teach themselves to can simply by following directions and not skipping any of the safety steps. Alternately, your local County Extension Service usually has classes or at least individuals who can teach you to use a pressure canner.
There's nothing mysterious about using a pressure canner, it's just a matter of keeping an eye on the pressure gauge (I highly recommend a kitchen timer to clip to your collar so you'll remember to check the pressure every five minutes or so).
But whatever you do, do NOT think you can escape using a pressure canner if you're serious about preserving foods. All meats, vegetables, and most sauces, etc., are low-acid and need to be pressure canned.
A reader pointed out a distinction I should address: a pressure CANNER is not the same thing as a pressure COOKER. I've never used a pressure cooker so I can't speak with authority on those, but I do know they're not the same thing and cannot be used interchangeably. A canner has a gauge which gives you the accurate buildup of pressure in the canner. Not sure about what gizmos a pressure cooker has.
I'll try to answer questions about canning in the comments to this post, but please don't try to convince me (or worse, any novice canners reading this) that boiling-bath methods are safe for low-acid foods - because THAT IS INCORRECT.
Okay, taking a deep breath and stepping off my soap box....