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Canning Dry Beans: It Matters How They Go in the Jar

As a low-acid food, all beans require the use of a pressure canner for preservation by home canning, unless they are sufficiently pickled (acidified) to bring them out of the low-acid food category. But pressure canning isn’t a magic bullet if you don’t know the safe way to prepare food and carry out the right process for each food type and style. If you are new to pressure canning or could use a refresher of the basic how-to, then please read Using Pressure Canners before beginning. If this is your first time canning, then also read Principles of Home Canning from the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning. 

The USDA recommended processes in the Complete Guide to Home Canning for home canning dried beans require a hydration step prior to filling jars:   https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_04/beans_peas_shelled.html

The options are to (1) place sorted (for stones or other contaminants) dried beans or peas in a large pot and cover with water. Soak the beans 12 to 18 hours in a cool place. Then drain off the soaking water and do not use it in canning the beans. The other option is, to more quickly hydrate the beans (2) cover the sorted and washed beans with boiling water in a saucepan. Boil them 2 minutes, remove them from the heat, soak them 1 hour and then drain. That cooking water is also not used in canning the beans.

The procedure then calls for covering drained beans hydrated by either method with fresh water and boil 30 minutes. The USDA canning process recommendation is for a hot pack prepared this way only: hot beans boiled 30 minutes then filled quickly into jars while still hot. (But of course being careful not to burn yourself, as with all canning steps.) Optional salt can be added to the beans in the jars if desired (½ teaspoon of salt per pint or 1 teaspoon per quart jar). The jars with cooked beans (and salt if added) then get filled with the hot cooking water, leaving 1-inch headspace. As with all jars packed this way, water should cover the food pieces for expected heat distribution during processing and best quality in storage of the canned beans.  See the link above for full instructions and the processing times and temperatures (pressures) for pints vs quarts, and for various altitudes.

According to inquiries I get, and what I read elsewhere on the Internet, it is popular practice to put dry beans in the jars, cover them with water and put them into the pressure canner that way. Unfortunately, I have never found or been shown research for home canning that has determined what the process time should be for dry beans filled into jars in this manner.  A safe process time is partially dependent on jar size and type of food, yes, but it is also partially dependent on the texture of the food, the temperature of the food and liquid, and the weight of the food filled into jars.  Dry beans sitting in water at the start of the process time will not heat up at the same rate as beans prepared as described in the research-based method described above and in the USDA materials. The final sterilization of the jar contents achieved by the end of the process will not be the same as when the process is applied to jars filled as described in the recommended methods.  People canning their dry beans by other methods, and especially by starting with dry beans in the jars, are taking a big risk on food spoilage and possibly botulism food poisoning.  Those doing this and getting away with it have just been lucky – so far.

I guess part of my message is do not expect me to endorse or support this method of filling jars for home canning of dry beans.  If you choose to do it, you are taking a chance by your own decision.

There are also different processes for different types of beans and dry bean recipes for home canning. For canning dry beans, there are research-based processes in the USDA database for Baked Beans, prepared as described in the process directions, and Dry Beans with Tomato or Molasses Sauce versions provided.

If you have fresh beans of the Lima variety, then follow these directions for Fresh, Shelled, Lima Beans. Follow these similar procedures, but slightly different directions for Snap and Italian Green and Wax Beans. As you’re deciding whether to prepare a hot pack or raw pack, remember that hot packs are often considered to produce the highest quality final product, and you can often fit more beans into one jar, even though raw packs do cut down on the prep time.

The home canning processes which we can recommend for these various bean products can be found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation website at this menu: https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can4_vegetable.html .

Please be safe in your home canning choices. The research-based processes available may seem very limiting and traditional but there has been little public funding for researching new recommendations in a long time and there are few labs set up and staffed to do home canning research. You can flavor or combine your home canned vegetables with other ingredients after opening them, at the time of serving, rather than risk botulism or losing money from spoiled food from making up a process for your own recipes. This solution doesn’t address choosing an easier way to fill jars than has been tested such as with dry beans, but is something to consider for other food choices.

Even though this has been about dry beans, I hope you all are looking forward to another season of local, fresh vegetables coming in like I am!

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Learn Before Canning Vegetables

Another tragic story has been told about botulism poisoning resulting from improperly home-canned peas. Three women arrived at a New York hospital on morning last summer with acute nausea, dizziness, blurred vision, slurred speech, droopy eyelid, thick-feeling tongue, and shortness of breath. This was about 14 hours after they shared a homemade potato salad containing home-canned peas. (Of course, not the most common type of potato salad to many!) CDC released botulinum antitoxin that was administered to all patients about 12 hours after arrival at the hospital. All three patients survived, BUT, two developed respiratory failure requiring intubation and mechanical ventilation in the emergency room and the third was intubated that evening.  All three did require prolonged intensive care, with a range of 34-54 days, and rehabilitation.

Because a family freezer malfunctioned, one of the patients home-canned commercially frozen peas to “save them”. This was done 1-2 weeks before consumption. It turns out this person used directions for preserving a peach preserve in a boiling water canner, unaware that low-acid vegetables needed pressure canning to eliminate spores of C. botulinum. This is a good reminder that frozen vegetables may contain these spores as well as fresh ones. After processing, one of the jars did not seal so she refrigerated it. These are the peas consumed in the potato salad.

Yes, our USDA guidelines say that foods in jars not sealing after processing could be refrigerated and consumed within several days. HOWEVER, this is for jars correctly processed in the first place that did not pull a vacuum to seal the jar. Toxin was recovered from the jar and leftover food in the potato salad bowl. And that toxin matched that in stool specimens from two of the patients. Yes, it was those peas.

The closed jar of peas containing spores of C. botulinum held in the refrigerator for 1-2 weeks did indeed produce toxin. These spores like a low-acid, moist, oxygen-free environment. I wonder what the refrigerator temperature was, also.

dial=gauge pressure cannerPlease use recommended, science-based processing methods for home canned foods, especially low-acid ones. And if processing errors occur, discard the food or reprocess according to recommended guidelines within 24 hours. And, this is a reminder that even foods made with commercially processed ingredients can lead to serious consequences including death, if canned incorrectly.

See www.homefoodpreservation.net, the 2015 USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning (https://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/publications_usda.html) and So Easy to Preserve, 6th ed. (https://setp.uga.edu/).

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Reference:  Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 68(1):251-252. March 15, 2019. Notes from the Field: Botulism Outbreak Associated with Home-Canned Peas — New York City, 2018.  https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/68/wr/mm6810a5.htm

That Leftover Pickling Brine

A frequent question lately has been about re-using that leftover pickling brine when making homemade quick pickles.

Sometimes quick pickles are made by heating cut pickbrine
or sliced vegetables in a vinegar solution to acidify them. If this is done prior to filling jars, we refer to that as a hot pack method for canning: heating vegetables in the pickling liquid before filling them into your jars and covering with the hot liquid. Other times, quick pickles are made by the raw pack for canning: prepared raw vegetables are placed directly into the jars and then the hot pickling liquid is filled over them into the jars.

Once you heat, or even soak, your vegetables in your pickling solution, pH changes start to happen. (Heating makes the interaction happen faster.) The vegetables become more acidic, which is what we want to happen in pickling. However, the pickling solution then becomes less acidic. So if your recipe is a hot pack for canned pickles, and you have heated your vegetables in the pickling solution (“brine”), then you should not use leftover brine from filling jars for another round of the recipe. The expected ratio of acid to low-acid ingredients and ultimate pH adjustment in the next recipe will not be the same.

If you are making a usual raw-pack recipe for canned pickles and have leftover vinegar or pickling solution, then that could be used for another round of the recipe if you have a significant amount left over. An example of this type of raw pack would be pickled dill green beans, or quick dill cucumber pickles. The beans or cucumbers are never combined with the vinegar solution until it is filled over them in the canning jars.  The initial boiling may have concentrated the vinegar (and other ingredients like salt or sugar) just a little, but that does not make it less safe.  If you boiled it quite a bit to concentrate the mixture, you may not want to use it for its effect on flavor, however.

In some recipes, sliced raw cucumbers are soaked for hours in the pickling liquid (vinegar, sugar and/or salt, for example). Then the liquid is drained off the cucumber slices into a pan. The soaked raw slices are filled into jars while the liquid is then heated and poured over them. Even though this is a raw pack in terms of filling jars, this vinegar solution had its original pH (acidity) altered from that initial soaking before it was heated and poured into jars. It should not be used again for a canned pickle recipe since it is now of unknown acidity.

Leftover solutions from preparing a canning recipe could be used to flavor some veggies that only get stored in the refrigerator. This would be similar to marinating for flavor. Not knowing each recipe and situation, I cannot give you a definite storage time for this new mixture in your refrigerator.  I would treat it as a fresh vegetable salad and consumer it within several days in most cases.  And remember, home refrigerators should keep foods at 40 degrees F or lower!

Unfortunately some of our “legacy” USDA pickling recipes, as well as those from other sources, and especially those using whole pickling cucumbers, do result in some leftover brine after filling jars. Different varieties of pickling cucumbers have varying diameters and lengths and will not always fit into canning jars to the same degree. Therefore, there are more uncertainty and variable results in issuing recommendations for general use.

Do realize that the safety of pickle recipes for home canning in boiling water will depend a great deal on the ratio of ingredients and preparation steps including piece size. And not all pickle recipes produce the same final, equilibrated, pH in the vegetable and brine. Even though safe for boiling water processing, the length of the process time needed for keeping them on the shelf at room temperature can vary depending on the actual acidity.

Our Pickled Products recommendations for home canning can be found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation website or in So Easy to Preserve, 6th edition, from the University of Georgia. The University of Georgia Extension also has two factsheets that can be downloaded for free, Pickled Products and Canning Relishes. Please be safe in choosing your pickling recipes for canning!

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Why do you recommend processing jams and jellies?

puttingjarinBWBUSDA and the Cooperative Extension recommend a boiling water canning process for jams and jellies even though some entrepreneurs or small batch processors are told to just fill the jar hot and close it. Why? Some other sources say processing isn’t necessary for any home canning of jams and jellies — just fill the jar hot and close it. Some others will say to invert the jar (turn it upside down) after putting the lid on, with various numbers of minutes recommended for this inverted position. Why?

A “process authority” advising someone packing jars for sale may indeed not recommend a boiling water process, but then other controls should also be specified for the particular recipe and full preparation procedure, such as a measured minimum hot fill temperature with every batch, specific acidity levels that would allow for no process with that specific product, perhaps measured and documented water activity control or degrees Brix for each batch that allows for no processing, and/or specific processing steps that would support this recommendation. Home canning recommendations for the general public have to cover a wide variety of recipes and methods of cooking the jam or jelly.

Even with a very acid fruit jam or jelly that has good water activity control, there can be some benefits to even a short boiling water process if food safety isn’t the reason. For one thing, molds can be airborne and settle into your jars at filling. The retained heat from filling jars in many home situations may not be enough to kill airborne mold spores. The goal in this case for a boiling water process would be to minimize the risk of spoilage during storage and thereby prevent “economic loss” by product having to be thrown out. Many larger scale commercial operations, in addition to tighter batch-to-batch cooking and filling temperature controls, have equipment systems that force an injection of superhot steam into the headspace before the lid is placed on the jar. This helps with closing temperature, but also forcing air out of the headspace.

So that leads to a second benefit to the home boiling water process. With a properly applied lid, the processing helps force some of the retained air of the headspace in jar. When the jar then cools after processing, this evacuated headspace can lead to better vacuums in the sealed jars (if lids are applied correctly) than just hot filling. Not all vacuum seals are equal. A jar may seal with a weak vacuum. A weaker vacuum is related to more occluded (trapped) air, and therefore oxygen, in the headspace of sealed jars. That oxygen can lead to discoloration and possible flavor changes over time, so quality retention is often better with a processed product than one just hot filled at home.

Finally, one of the considerations discussed when USDA was making recommendations is the potential for burns or leaking jars with the inversion process vs. a boiling water process. Although not in published journals or other sources, there are documentations from some research experiences that leaking and failure to seal are higher risks with inversion than processing. I have read one journal article using inversion that caused the researchers to abandon it in their future studies because of leaking and needing better control of temperature for safety reasons with their particular recipes. Other concerns with inversion include individual variation in practicing this procedure or that unexpected interruptions can result in delays between filling jars, getting lids screwed on, and inverting the jars. If the product cools down too much, the temperature of the product can become low enough to no longer be effective in sealing jars or preventing spoilage. Not ALL jams and jellies/spreads even fit criteria for even a 5 or 10 minute boiling water process; they might need a longer process!

USDA made the decision to recommend processing for all jams and jellies and very acidic foods for reasons of preventing economic loss and physical injury from burns as well as food quality during storage, even if it might not be needed for food safety.   We in Extension consumer education firmly believe the best practice to recommend even for very high acid foods is a boiling water process vs. hot fill only and inversion even though the other may be successful and safe for some food products.