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Yes you can! (Get it? It's a story about canning)

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The thing about canning is you have to be an experienced canner to do it; otherwise you get botulism and die.

So, unless you were born into a canning family and blessed with the gene that gives you an innate knowledge of food-preservation techniques (and, like, a birthmark in the exact shape of a weighted pressure gauge), forget about it. Get ready to throw away all that's left of your garden and survive the winter on millet and other grains. Tough break.

Wait! What's that you say, Yakima County Master Food Preserver Margaret Morris? Home canning can be safe and fun? Even for beginners?

"You just need to follow the rules."

Well, she should know. She's one of only two local Master Food Preservers (Ken Tolonen is the other), a distinction earned through completion of Washington State University Extension training. Plus she's been canning for decades and has never once died of botulism.

"Growing up, my mother was very aware of canning information and used the extension office," Morris said. "But it's easy these days for anyone to find that information."

And that "follow the rules" thing is no joke. Clostridium botulinim spores aren't uncommon on fresh food, but they're not harmful. It's when they're deprived of air, as they would be in canned food, that they form the fast-multiplying vegetative cells that'll straight-up kill you. So you've got to kill them first, and the best way to do that is by properly processing your jars and foods. If you don't, you'll never know whether it's safe.

"You can smell mold but not botulism," Morris says. "When it's in the food, there's no smell and no taste."

That's why strictly following a recipe is important. If cooking is an art, canning is a science. There's a wide array of tested, USDA-approved recipes, but there's not much room for improvisation once you choose one. 

"In cooking you can use some creativity, and it doesn't matter," Morris says. "But when you're canning, you have to follow the recipe very carefully. And you have to use an approved recipe."

You have to stay up to date, too. Recipes your grandma used might not be considered safe these days. For one thing, we know more now; food science has come a long way since canning recipes were written on note cards and stuffed inside her junk drawer. For another, the ingredients themselves have changed. Newer tomato varieties, for instance, are frequently less acidic. And the typical acidity level of commercial vinegar has changed over the years, too.

Then there's technique and equipment. Oven canning, for instance, was once common. But it is widely discouraged in the canning community these days. Gauges for pressure canners need to be checked annually to see if they need recalibration. And jar lids must be new and unused.

Beyond that there are basically two canning methods: boiling water canning for high-acid fruits and vegetables, and pressure canning for low-acid foods. Canners for each method are available at hardware stores and department stores. Both require Ball or Mason jars and new canning lids (those little guys with the rubbery sealing compound on the rim) and the threaded screw-on rings that go with them.

Once you have all that, the next step is picking a recipe based on what food you want to can and how you want your end product to taste — how much sugar you want to add to fruit, for instance. The place to go for that is the USDA "Complete Guide to Home Canning," which can be found in paperback at many booksellers on online for free at sites such as the University of Georgia's National Center for Home Food Preservation,

Then you follow that recipe, taking note of recommended equipment and processing times. It's precise work in some respects, and it requires attention. 

"It's a big deal," she said. "You have to get prepared. I've always told people, 'You have to be ready — everything on hand — because you want things to go smoothly."

When you're done, you let the food cool in the jars and sit for 12 to 24 hours. Then you take the metal ring off (the lid will have sealed itself tightly by then), label your food and put it on your shelf, where it will stay good and ready to eat for a year or more.

"Ideally, you use it within a year," Morris said. "But they're good for longer than that."

That's a big part of the appeal for home canners, she said. Preserving fresh food for winter is a way of ensuring quality fruit and vegetables even off season.

"You can choose the fruits and vegetables at their peak," Morris said. "And they do taste better. People like to know the quality of the food they're providing for their families."

And, despite the whole get-it-wrong-and-you-can-die thing, it is the sort of thing anyone can do if they devote their attention and do it carefully.

"Safety, that's the No. 1 lesson," Morris said.

Reach Pat Muir at

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