This is not what you want to see when you grab a jar of tomatoes off your shelves.
Unfortunately, it was what I saw when I went to grab a jar late last fall. I immediately double checked the seal – nope, it was good. That growth was sealed in there with my food. Worse, I discovered two more jars just like as I quickly looked through the not quite four dozen jars of tomatoes on the shelf next to it.
I have been canning for well over a dozen years. I teach canning. I have taken the in-depth two day FDA approved Better Process class offered by Virginia Tech. For the life of me I didn’t know what I did wrong & worse, I worried if the whole batch was tainted. I reached out to the local county ag extension office. I wanted someone to tell me the rest of the jars were okay. They gave me a list of reasons why my jars looked that way if my seal was good – basically, the jars had not been heated enough to kill the bacteria spores that caused this. Which I knew, because, well, the first few sentences of this paragraph.
I ran into my friend Maynard, who I took the Better Process class with. He’s my tomato guy, supplying my family as well as some of the canning classes I’ve taught over the years. He knows how much I know about canning. I admitted to him I had discovered these three jars, how I was apprehensive about using the rest of them. He talked me off the ledge, reminding me how much I know about canning & food preservation. He pointed out that it very well could be the seal, despite my confidence that they were good. “It only takes a tiny spot that you can’t see to compromise it” he reminded me.
It turns out he was right. When I went to empty the jars, at least two of the three lids popped off in such a way that I knew immediately the seal wasn’t good. How they passed the first few seal tests is beyond me. The third seal did seem a bit more stable, but did not pop off in a way that suggests it was a good one. The sense of relief is HUGE.
Every winter, I seem to find a jar or two with a bad seal. It never fails to inspire me to mentally walk through the process again – what could I have done differently to avoid this? It seems that no matter what steps I take, there is always something I discover I could have done differently. This year was the first time I dug into pressure canning, a process that had previously intimidated me. In my initial conversation with the Ian over at the ag extension office, I told him I had both hot water bathed as well as pressure canned the tomatoes, but I had no way of knowing which jars were which. I was ready to blame the whole thing on the fact that these tomatoes were my first big batch in the pressure canner and chalk it up to an embarrassing lack of knowledge on the subject. Now that I know it was bad seals that somehow got through, I feel relieved, but I still have spent a good bit of time reading & learning more about pressure canning this winter.
Among the things I’ve learned:
1. The longer you vent your pot, the more oxygen you release, the higher the temperature you can reach. The higher the temperature, the more spores you kill. The literature that came with my pot recommends venting for 10 minutes, but I’ve read elsewhere to vent for 15. I’m going to start leaning to the side of overcautious and go for 15 minutes.
2. Once the pot is at the proper pressure, start your timer. If that pressure drops, you need to bring it back up and restart your timer. Admittedly, I may have been a little loose with that.
3. When I have more than one canner going at a time, I don’t normally mark which jars were processed in which canner. After talking with the ag extension office, I will be marking which jars were in which canner, just in case I have any questions (or doubts in my ability) in the future.
4. Get the gauge on my pressure canner checked. Even though it’s a new pot, it should be checked out to ensure accuracy. The county ag extension office does this for free – all you have to do is make an appointment. I will most certainly be hauling mine down there to be checked before I can anything in it this year.
5. Next time I see a jar containing anything that resembles mold in it, I’m going to pop the lid right there & then to avoid a whole lot of worry. Instead, because I was in a hurry, I fretted over it and let it wait until I could properly dump the contents to discover it was only a bad seal. In order to properly dump the contents, I like to dig a hole in the back yard – I don’t want those spores in my compost bin and while I’d like to serve them to the pesky squirrels, I’ve read the best way to dispose of contaminated food is to bury it. The deep freeze we’ve had this winter has not been conducive towards digging a hole, so I’ve put it off repeatedly. Lesson learned.
I probably learn more in canning fail than I do canning success to be honest. But isn’t that how it goes – we learn more from our mistakes then we do our successes? I stress in all my canning classes that there are hard & fast rules of canning that one must hold to. Pressure canning has intimidated me for years – I still am slightly intimidated by it, truth be told. I’m not going to let it stop me though – it took me a few years to get the hang of making jam and I can already tell you, pressure canning is far easier than that. I just have to pay attention – not necessarily my strong point, but hey. We can always learn.