What began as a military necessity in late 18th century France has evolved into a hobby fueled by the desire for sustainability and control over the ingredients that go into the food we eat.
While methods and motives have changed over the past two centuries, food preservation remains an activity that interests people today. This month, Cornell Cooperative Extension in Saratoga County will offer a three-day Master Food Preserver training, providing hands-on experience and the most up-to-date information on food preservation.
In 1795, Napoleon Bonaparte offered a reward to anyone who could figure out how to preserve foods for his armies. Nicholas Appert took up the challenge and spent 15 years developing a process for preserving food in sealed bottles. Englishman Peter Durand ran with the idea and came up with a way to keep foods in tin, which was later perfected by two other Brits.
The process made its way across the pond. We got the “mason jar” in 1858, followed by other similar products that allowed Americans to preserve the bounty from their gardens to see them through the fall and winter months.
Master Food Preserver Training
WHEN: 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, June 24-26
WHERE: Cornell Cooperative Extension, 50 W. High St., Ballston Spa
WHAT: Hands-on experience with boiling water bath canning, pressure canning, jelled products and pickling. Demonstrations on freezing and drying foods. Participants will take an exam at the end of the course, and there are other requirements to obtain certification as a master food preserver.
HOW MUCH: $350
MORE INFO: Call Diane Whitten, 885-8995
Today, as concern about what goes into our food increases, people are looking for ways to grow and preserve their own food, eat locally grown products, and in general, have more control over the ingredients in their foods.
“Interest in food preservation waxes and wanes,” said Judy Price, one of Cornell Cooperative Extension’s two home food-preservation experts who will be teaching the Master Food Preserver training.
“We are definitely in the midst of an upswing. People are becoming much more interested in what they’re eating — for safety and nutrition.”
Ballston Lake’s Anne Cargile is a case in point. She became interested in canning watching her husband’s family do it when she was a young bride. She has canned various foods over the years, including string beans, bread and butter pickles, dill pickles, salsa, applesauce, sauerkraut, pickled beets, piccalilli and hotdog relish.
She likes to preserve the fruits and vegetables that grow in her garden, which she and her husband have recently expanded, installing a greenhouse and growing plants from seed. But more than that, she likes the idea that she grows her food organically without pesticides and that she can control the sugar and salt content of the foods she cans herself.
Cargile signed up for the course because she wants to do even more canning and other food preservation, and she also wants to make sure she is up on the latest about canning. The couple recently remodeled their kitchen so that Cargile would have more space for canning activities.
Important for home canning is the research that has been conducted by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture over the past hundred years. Price said that there have been “bursts of research,” such as in the 1940s and late 1980s to early 1990s, so that the agency could provide new, better and safer ways for people to preserve food at home.
The research done at universities across the country is shared nationally. For example, the University of Alaska developed a process for the safe canning of quart jars of fish.
In addition to fish, the “hot” items for canning these days are vegetables, combinations of foods, meat (a lot of hunters are looking for information on canning venison, Price said), and fermented foods such as pickles, sauerkraut and kimchi.
Knowledge of food chemistry is essential for safe canning. It is important to preserve a food in such a way that destroys harmful bacteria, including the one that causes the most concern for home canners, Clostridium botulinum. This bacterium causes botulism, which attacks the central nervous system.
The method of canning and amount of heat required depends on a food’s acidity level. Foods with pH levels under 4.6, like many fruits, can safely be canned using a boiling water canner, while foods with pH levels over 4.6 have less acid and must be canned under pressure, which creates a higher boiling point.
There are many variables that figure into how to safely can a product, including the size of the container, the pH level of the food, and the viscosity of the product.
“As research becomes more specific and we are learning more and more about the life cycle of microorganisms, we have very specific directions for canning all sorts of food,” Price said. “Depending on the characteristics of that food, the canning directions will be very different.”
In the 1930s and 1940s, people put food into canning jars and heated them in the oven — a sometimes dangerous method. Today there is equipment like the pressure canner that can do the job safely. Cargile is investing in a pressure canner so that she can expand the types of food that she preserves.
In addition to chemistry, there’s an artistic aspect to food preservation, said Diane Whitten, nutrition educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Saratoga County.
“We can teach the science of food preservation, but it’s through experience that you learn the art — the art being the finer points that make your product an excellent product, for instance, knowing when the jelly is ready by feel, as opposed to temperature, or being able to make your own jelly recipe because you have the experience and confidence to experiment,” she said.
Whitten hopes that people will leave the course with confidence in their food preservation abilities. “Confidence is a big thing,” she said. “Once you learn it, it’s easy, but I think many people are worried about not doing it right and making themselves or their families sick.”
She also notes that if a master intensive course is more than someone is interested in, Cornell Cooperative Extension in Saratoga and Albany counties offers food preservation classes throughout the year.