Brain Food 101 posts make the science behind food easy to understand and accessible to everyone. I recently completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I received a degree in Biological Systems Engineering – Food and Bioprocessing. Essentially, my curriculum was half Chemical Engineering classes and half Food Science classes. Though I decided to pursue writing rather than a technical engineering career, I can still put my education to good use by writing Brain Food 101!
Brain Food 101: The Science of Canning
At the beginning of the summer, I wanted to give canning a try, but I hesitated. I was afraid that I would somehow poison myself and Dan by doing it wrong. I’ve heard from several others that this is a concern, and I’ve done a lot of reading/research on the science end of it. I am much more confident now that my canned goods are going to be safe for my pantry. Phew!
As frightening as it may seem, microorganisms such as yeasts, molds and bacteria are naturally present in all foods. A natural level of these microorganisms will not harm us, but when left unchecked, these yeasts, molds and bacteria can grow, change, and multiply to poisonous or even toxic levels. A less dangerous form of spoilage is quality loss. The canned food may be off-color or lose flavor. Before using any canned food, check for these signs of spoilage. If any are present, throw it out!
- Bad odors
- Lid that bulges out
- Lid that comes off easily/doesn’t have a tight seal
- Air bubbles moving towards the top (stationary air bubbles are fine…you just didn’t get them all out before you sealed the jar!)
The Three Factors
There are three things that can cause canned goods to spoil:
- Microorganisms can grow.
- Quality of food can drop because of enzyme activity. Enzymes are proteins that speed up chemical reactions, and occur naturally in all fruits and vegetables.
- Recontamination due to outside air getting into the jars.
Beating the Big Three
Luckily, we can prevent all three of these factors from becoming an issue by properly canning our food. For all canned vegetables that aren’t being pickled, a pressure cooker is absolutely necessary to insure safe food. For now, let’s focus on acidic foods such as pickles, jams, and fruit preserves. Do NOT use this science to can carrots, green beans, etc.
Savvy Tip: These methods will be safe for canned tomato products, as long as you add some lemon juice or other acid. Tomatoes are right on the border of foods safe to can using the boiling-water method, so make sure you add the amount of acid called for in the tomato recipe, and you’ll be good to go!
Most canned foods contain enough water to support microorganism growth, but by heating the food and adjusting the oxygen content and pH (acidity) of the food, we can keep problems at bay. Heating Heating food to 212*F (the boiling point of water) will kill most molds and yeasts, as well as some bacteria. It will also deactivate most of the enzymes that would otherwise hurt the quality of the food.
Savvy Tip: Older canning recipes may instruct you to simply invert the jars, rather than processing them in boiling water. However, this is no longer considered safe by modern food safety standards! As a result, a boiling-water canner should be used to process all jars of fruit preserves and pickles.
pH Adjustment Even with heating the food, some bacteria and spores can still flourish in your jars. And we don’t want that, now do we? To remedy, make sure that your food has enough acid in it to prevent this growth, which puts its pH below 4.6. Though you could get some pH testing strips, the best and most reliable way to make sure your recipe is acidic enough is to base it off of a tested and approved recipe found in a cookbook such as the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving or my personal favorite,Canning for a New Generation by Liana Krissoff. For safe modifications you can make to a recipe, check out my first post on canning. Vacuum Seal The final and most important part of the canning process to prevent unsafe food is creating a vacuum seal. Here’s how it works (and why you MUST leave some space between the food and the lid when you fill the jars): When the jars are processed in a boiling-water canner, the heat causes the food to expand (which is why you need head space!). This creates a pressure that pushes air out of the jar.
As the jar cools back down to room temperature, the pressure inside the jar drops. Eventually, the pressure outside of the jar is higher than that inside the jar, which pushes the lid in. This is when the seal really forms.Because of the vacuum, there is no oxygen for the microorganisms to use for growth. And because of the seal, no outside air can get in to recontaminate the food.
Savvy Tip: Jars need to be left largely undisturbed for 24 hours after processing. However, after an hour of cooling, press down on the center of the lid. If there is any movement at all, such as the edges flexing upwards, the seal did not form and the jar should be refrigerated immediately! Otherwise, leave the jars alone for the rest of the day!