The Fayette Tribune, Oak Hill, W.Va.

August 19, 2013

Why Grandma didn’t always know best

By Lauren Weatherford
WVU Extension

— It’s canning season, so as I become more familiar to people as their WVU Extension agent, they ask me more questions about home canning.

Unfortunately, one of the most unpleasant aspects of my job is telling people that what they learned from their mothers and grandmothers are often not safe canning practices. In some cases, grandmother didn’t know best. There were no fancy labs to test for things like botulism in Grandma’s day.

Of course we have learned many valuable lessons from our mothers and grandmothers. They are to be revered and respected. But that doesn’t mean we should continue to do everything the same way they did. For example, most of us would never give a baby brandy to ease teething pain, or worry about going outside with wet hair for fear of getting a cold, nor would we drink castor oil because we now know it will cause more stomach upset than it will solve. But these are all things our grandmothers shared.

Why are modern canning practices important?

Botulism! The most likely risk of unsafe canning practices is the growth of botulism. The bacterium that creates botulism comes from the ground and is found on many fresh foods. Since the toxin develops in the absence of air, the bacteria in fresh food is harmless. However, this bacterium thrives in environments that have very little air, such as home-canned foods.]

While botulism is rare, the consequences are severe. Any form of botulism is considered a life-threatening condition. Symptoms begin in 18-36 hours. If there’s any fear that you’ve contracted botulism seek medical care immediately; this will greatly increase your chances of survival.

So I ask you, despite the fact that you’ve always done it this way, are you sure you’re willing to risk it? Or risk those you love? Can you be sure?

What determines safe canning practices?

There are several laboratories around the country that test canning recipes. They test to find out if bacteria, yeasts and molds are completely destroyed. They can test every part of a jar of canned food from the outside that will heat up faster to the center which will be heated last.

Common unsafe canning practices:

n Canned hot dogs – Hot dog-stuffed peppers in tomato sauce is a regional favorite. However, there is no recommended canning process for hot dogs. The high fat content combined with variety of meat types in a hot dog results in the inability to determine a safe process for eliminating bacteria growth.

If you really like this food, it is recommended that you pressure can the peppers in the tomato sauce and then when you are ready to eat them open the properly canned vegetables, add fresh hot dogs and let simmer. This will infuse the flavor into the dogs.

n Green beans – It is very popular to water bathe green beans. However, green beans are a low-acid food, therefore requiring pressure canning. You can boil your green beans for two days and it will not get hot enough to kill the botulism bacteria. Boiling only raises the temperature of food to 212 degrees. Pressure canning will bring up the temperature to 240 degrees. If done for the proper amount of time, this will ensure harmful bacteria are destroyed.

n Heating jars in the oven — Using hot food or warm jars to seal the lids is not canning. Canning is a safe form of food preservation that allows food to be stored safely for up to one year. This requires that low-acid foods be pressure canned, and high-acid foods are processed in a hot water bath. Heating a jar in your oven, filling it with food, and then turning it upside down to allow the seal to pop shut is only storing the food. This would be no different than putting it in a Ziploc bag or a plastic container. For jams, jellies, apple butters, etc., there are recommended recipes for hot water bath processing, allowing for safe food preservation.

n Cakes in jars — There are no recommended safe processes for canning cakes baked in a jar. Canning jar manufacturers do not recommend their products for use in an oven. They are designed for use in canners, but not designed for ovens. Also cakes are very low-acid foods and prone to bacteria growth. While various laboratories have attempted to test these recipes, they have not been successful at proving these combination foods can be processed to completely eliminate bacteria growth. Therefore cakes baked in the oven and then sealed are not recommended.

For information on safe canning processes, contact your local WVU Extension Service office. In Fayette County, call 304-574-4253; in Nicholas County, dial 304-872-7898; or email

There will be a canning class offered Aug. 19-20 from 5 to 8 p.m. at Fayette Institute of Technology, Oak Hill. Call the Fayette County WVU Extension Service at 304-574-4253 to register.

For other information and recipes, visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation at

(Weatherford is the WVU Extension Service Families and Health agent for Fayette and Nicholas counties.)