Unraveling the Mystery: Water Bath vs Pressure Canning

Canning is something most newbies want to do but are intimidated by. Their imaginations go into overdrive and they worry about things breaking, blowing up, or any number of other calamities happening. There is a learning curve that can turn some people away, thinking it’s too complicated for them. The truth is, while there are differences between water bath vs pressure canning, they aren’t nearly as complicated as they think.

water-bath-vs-pressure-canning

Let’s dive right in! First we will cover what water bath and pressure canning is and how it preserves food. Then we will cover the differences between the two and wrap it up with choosing the right method for whatever food you’re trying to preserve.

What is Water Bath Canning?

Water bath canning is, essentially, boiling jars with food in them. You bring the jars, lids, and contents up to the same temperature (boiling) and then remove them to cool. As the jars and contents cool, a vacuum is created and the lid seals to the jar. This keeps air, moisture, and bacteria from getting inside and ruining the food.

What is Pressure Canning?

Pressure canning is very similar to water bath canning, though a bit more intense of a process. Instead of boiling the jars and contents, you are putting them under pressure. The increased pressure brings the overall temperature up higher than boiling water and processing times are longer than when water bath canning. The pressure canner is more expensive and has more moving parts. Because there is massive pressure involved, many newbies are completely intimidated by it and, with the recent bombings using pressure canners, the fear is even worse.

What the media doesn’t tell you is that the people who did these heinous crimes had to go to great lengths to make it explode. Great. Lengths. Serious modification. There are so many safety features in place to alert you of any trouble far before it gets hot enough to actually explode. First, there’s the gauge on top of most canners, showing you the pressure plain as day. Then, there is the knocker. This is a weight that is placed over a steam spigot. When your canner gets to 15 pounds of pressure, this little weight starts making noise and gets louder the higher the pressure gets. If left alone, it would eventually pop itself off and the steam would spew out. While steam is dangerous, the canner will not explode. Note that for most foods and altitude locations, you process at 11-12 pounds of pressure.

Finally there is the plug on top. A small, black rubber plug that will pop itself out if the pressure gets too high as well. The hole is larger than the steam spigot you place the knocker on to. Between both of them, the steam will escape long before the canner will fail. Mind you, the food inside may not be any good.

What’s The Difference?

Water bath canning is meant more of a way to heat everything up so it will seal. It isn’t really cooking anything per se. The process simply helps in the sealing process and is generally much faster than pressure canning. A typical batch in your large water bath canner will process for 10-15 minutes. From filling the jars to pulling them out to cool takes me about an hour at most. I use the larger sized canner linked above so it takes a bit to get the water to a good, solid boil.

You only water bath can foods high in acid. This is very important: high acid foods are naturally more resistant to bacteria and bacteria has a hard time growing in it. In some cases, you may let the jars stay in the boiling water for longer but if you are dealing with low acid food, it’s not near hot enough to kill everything. If you’d like a more in depth look at water bath canning, click here.

Pressure canning is another ball of wax. As explained above, there are numerous safety features on pressure canners and to let your fear keep you from the joys (not to mention possibilities) of canning up soups, sauces, and even meals in a jar is unfortunate. It’s perfectly normal to have a little wariness and caution! Don’t let it keep you from all you can do with it though!

Pressure canning is for all those other things you want to jar up that are low in acid. Things like meat should always be pressure canned. Even if the meat is fully cooked, it should still be pressure canned. Only through the process of pressure can the temps reach the levels needed to kill off all the bacteria. At 11 pounds of pressure, your canner is sitting around 240 degrees Fahrenheit and gets hotter the more pressure there is. You are effectively sterilizing the contents of the jars and then creating a sealed environment that will not allow bacteria to enter and spoil your food.

How Do You Know Which One To Use?

This is the biggest question of all. How do you know if something is acidic? You would think that tomatoes are acidic enough to water bath can but you’d be wrong. You shouldn’t water bath can tomatoes unless you add in lemon juice or ascorbic (citric) acid. Many tomato varieties are actually low acid and need more to safely can. Of course, pressure canning everything will ensure that you’re covered but I wouldn’t recommend pressure canning jams or jellies. Bleck! What a mess that would be!

Consulting your pressure canner’s manual will tell you what needs to be pressure canned and for how long. Here’s a small list to give you an idea of the difference:

Water Bath Canning

  • Jams and Jellies
  • Pickled Food
  • Fruits and fruit juices
  • Salsas

Pressure Canning

  • Carrots
  • Green beans (any bean, really)
  • Potatoes
  • Peas
  • Anything with meat

Another fantastic place to research information is the National Center for Home Food Preservation. Water bath vs pressure canning is something everyone should learn. When you think about it, you’ve taken food that usually requires some kind of energy to keep it fresh. When you can your food, you are creating shelf stable food. Even if the power goes out, you still have perfectly edible food just waiting for you.

I love canning. There’s a feeling of intense satisfaction I get when I put those jars away on the shelf or when I open my pantry and see the rows filled with food I processed myself. There’s just nothing like it: when you open a jar of blueberry jam in the middle of winter and get a taste of summer. You remember the days in the sunshine when you picked them and processed them into something delicious. I invite you to give it a try and don’t forget: if you have any questions, you can send me a message on the Facebook page or email me at akhomestead.dreamer@gmail.com.

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Unraveling the Mystery: Making Your Own Vinegar

Pressure Canning on Electric vs. Propane Stoves




Unraveling the Mystery: Make Your Own Vinegar

Vinegar (a French word for “sour wine”) is one of those things that is largely taken for granted. Once upon a time, vinegar was a ‘must have’ for any kitchen – and not just for cooking with. In fact, vinegar was used for all manner of cleaning, food preservation, and even used for medicinal purposes! It’s a great all around thing to have but to make your own vinegar – now that is one heck of a skill to have. The upside is making vinegar is pretty darn easy!

Make Your Own Vinegar

I’ve done a little in the area of making my own apple cider vinegar (using apple scraps, no less!) last year when I made apple cider vinegar. It turned out really well, I was so proud of my little self! When I tried to make it a second time, it didn’t go so well because I didn’t ensure the apples were fully submerged. This year, when apples go on sale and I start making apple sauce, apple butter, and canning apple pie filling, I plan on making a bunch of the vinegar from the peels and cores. I love it when you can take the ‘waste’ and make something useful out of it!

There are pretty much two types of vinegar starts: Those started with grain and those started with fruit.

I remember having a bad sunburn as a kid. Grandma diluted some white vinegar in water and then smoothed it over my red, angry skin. The cooling feeling of it gave me so much relief, I remember crying because it felt so good. I also remember using it on newspapers to clean glass with, again from grandma. Vinegar is highly acidic and yet still mild, and there are so many non food uses for it! Now that I’m older, I started wondering how white vinegar is made. How all vinegars are made. What I learned is pretty darn cool and so easy, it makes you ask why everyone doesn’t just make their own! Chances are pretty good that you have everything you need in your house already, too.

As we do with all of the “Unraveling the Mystery” articles, we will first dive into the science of vinegar, then cover the equipment needed and the process to make your own vinegar, and lastly, provide you with some links to different kinds of vinegar you can make!

The Science of Vinegar

Vinegar is made via fermentation. Some might call it “ultra” fermenting because vinegar is what happens to alcohol when it’s been left too long. Firs the sugars Vinegarmake the alcohol, and then the acid makes it into vinegar. Ever have a bottle of sour wine? That’s the start of vinegar. There’s some kind of joke there, I’m sure of it. 😉

To ferment, you need sugar for yeast to eat. That process turns the liquid into alcohol. Once the yeast and sugar have done their dance, the first stage is over. The second stage of making vinegar is letting acetobacter, a harmless bacteria, feed on the alcohol. This process is what makes the vinegar and gives it that sour, distinct taste and scent. Instead of sugary, now it’s acidic. Instead of making a sticky mess, now it cleans sticky messes up. Ah, science!

If you would like to get a more technical explanation on what happens at the microscopic level, you can check out the Wiki page that will tell you all about it (and more!).

There are pretty much two kinds of vinegar types: Those made with fermented grain (rice, corn, etc) and those made with fermented fruit (apples, etc). The fruit or grain is fermented, strained, then sometimes fermented again. You can infuse vinegars with different flavors after fermentation, too.There are numerous ways to make vinegar that are used the world over. Whichever method you choose, there are certain things you need to use (not not use) during the process to end up with your own homemade vinegar.

The Equipment and Process

The equipment needed is pretty minimal, unless you’re doing something overly fancy. It’s easy to buy a bunch of ‘gadgets’ for making vinegar but the truth is, you really don’t need it! Chances are good you already have what you need.

The Equipment

You will need:

  • Fruit or grain you plan on fermenting
  • Glass, plastic, or pottery bowl(s) and utensils. NO METAL
  • A double boiler (or a pot within a pot will work just as well). Typically used for vinegar made with grain.
  • Fine Mesh Strainer
  • Cheesecloth or other filter to strain out the fine pieces
  • Measuring cups, clean cloth, mixing bowl(s)
  • VERY CLEAN AREA*
  • Jars or bottles to put the vinegar in when it’s ready.
  • Time
  • Some may want to use fermentation airlocks (though not generally needed in my opinion)

Depending on what you’re making, there may be things here you don’t need and some items not listed that you do need. It would be pretty easy to write a book about making vinegar. The purpose of this post is to show you how easy it is to make your own, not to cover all possibilities.

*You are dealing with fermentation. You want to ensure only the bacteria you want gets into the mix!

The Process

I cannot stress enough how important it is to have a clean working area. Fermentation requires certain bacteria, especially for the second round of fermenting. Also, the use of any metal is a vinegar making no-no. The reason for this is because you are dealing with acidic liquid and when metal comes in contact with it, the chemistry changes. Trust me on this one, it will mess up your batch.

It’s very satisfying to make your own vinegar!

Fruit based vinegar: Mix your sugar and water. Put your fruit (or fruit scraps) into the bowl or jar you’re using. Pour in your sugar mixture (generally 1 TBL to 1 cup of water) until it completely covers the fruit. Make sure to leave some headspace, too! Loosely cover with cheesecloth or maybe a coffee filter. Put it away in a place that will be warm and dark for about 2 weeks. You can stir it every other day if you like. A layer may form on the top, simply skim it off. It’s totally normal.

After 2 weeks, you will be able smell the vinegar but it won’t have the tang you want just yet. It needs another fermentation period but this time, without fruit! Strain the liquid well and then put back into the cupboard, loosely covered, for another 2 weeks (minimum). If it isn’t as tangy or scented the way you prefer, simply let it sit longer!

Rough, right? Grain based vinegar is a little more involved but still easy enough to get it started in an afternoon.

Grain based vinegar: There is more to it when you are using a grain to make your vinegar with. Other than the normal two step fermentation process, you may also need to distill the vinegar which can be rather dangerous. Most people who make their own tend toward using a fruit instead of a grain for this very reason. I don’t know too many people who have a still, let alone know how to safely use it.

White vinegar is generally what you end up with when using grain and an alcohol base. It tends to be very clear and strong, much like what you can buy in the store. The difference is the vinegar in the store is sped up with chemicals and other additives to turn it into something sellable more quickly. The downside is the chemical use, the upside is white vinegar is very inexpensive.


There is so much you can do with this amazing liquid and it’s very satisfying when you make your own vinegar. This article has only made one tiny scratch in the surface of the world of vinegar and I don’t claim to know or have experience with it all – that would be quite the dedication! Even though I may not understand every tiny detail, I feel pretty confident in making and using my own. One less thing to buy at the store!

Additional Resources




Unraveling the Mystery: Making Jams and Jellies

It’s berry season!! Here in Southeast Alaska, we have three different berries that are prevalent: blueberries, huckleberries, and salmonberries. Three years ago, I taught myself how to make jams and jellies (yay for YouTube videos!) and we have not purchased so much as a single jar of either from the store since. Neither has my mother in law! When I consider how much a typical jar of blueberry jam costs at the store (let alone ‘organic and all natural’), I know I have come out on the better end of the deal. To give you an idea: Cost of store bought for a pint is about $6. Homemade pint is about $2.78 and that is because I pay the kids to pick berries. If I pick them all myself, it would be less than a dollar.

Making Jams and Jellies

Making jams and jellies yourself is easily done and you don’t need any real ‘specialized’ equipment either. The difference between a jam and a jelly is chunks vs no chunks. Jams have bits of the fruit where jelly is strained (or just made with juice) to remove all seeds and chunks. Preserves are another beast where whole or partial pieces of the fruit are left intact. All three are water-bath canned due to their acid content (you can always add lemon juice to increase the acidity) and will keep for a good couple years. We just opened a jar of huckleberry jam from September 2013. It tasted perfect, as if I had just canned it a month ago!

If you learn nothing else from this article, I want to convey to you how easy it is to make your own. There is nothing ‘hard’ or complicated to it but it does take extra time for your first few batches. You have to learn how to ‘read’ the mixture. Please note that in this article, we are covering how to make your typical jam or jelly, with sugar. There are plenty of sites out there that have ‘no sugar’ recipes you can research on your own. As with all of the “Unraveling the Mystery” articles, our goal is to show you how easy things are, explain why and how it works, and give some tips and tricks that I have learned along the way.

The Science

The process of making jams and jellies preserves the fruit via the sugar and forms a gel that allows you to spread it on whatever your heart desires. The key to a successful batch is getting the gel just right. There are 4 main ingredients to making ‘soft spreads:’ fruit, sugar, pectin, and acid. It is the combination of these over heat that will produce the results you are looking for. How much of each kind depends largely on what kind of fruit you are using. Some tend to be higher in pectin and acids while others are low and need to be supplemented.

The heat is important as it kills off any bad bacteria but if your heat is too high, it can scorch and ruin the mash. You want to have a 1:1 ratio of sugar to fruit as a general rule. Too much sugar and it may crystallize but too little and it won’t gel up and preserve right. Yes, you can add pectin (and sometimes have to) to help speed up the gelling process but don’t forget to check and see if you need to add some lemon juice. Apple juice is another, lesser, alternative.

The Equipment and Process

While it is nice to have a water bath canner and a canning utensil set, they are not strictly necessary. You can get by with a couple large pots and an alternative way to grab jars but these inexpensive items (less than $40 for both) do make life easier.

The Equipment

  • A large pot for the mash
  • A large pot (or water bath canner) for sealing jars when done
  • Fruit of choice
  • Sugar
  • Powder or liquid pectin
  • Lemon juice (apple will work in a pinch)
  • Funnel (to fill jars with)
  • Quart, half, or full pint jars. (Going larger requires experience and even then may not set right)

The Process*

Assuming you are making jam, you will want your fruit to be all mashed up and measured. However many cups of mash you have, plan on having that much sugar. It is important that the pot you are cooking in is not filled more than half way with the mash and sugar. Yes, it will cook down but before that happens, it will rise up with a gentle boil and you will need the space.

  1. Assemble all equipment utensils.
  2. Visually examine jars, lids, and bands for defects. Wash jars and two-piece caps in hot, soapy water. Sterilize jars by placing in boiling water for 10 minutes. Place lids, bands, and jars in simmering water. Remove pan from heat and allow the lids and jars to remain in the hot water until needed. Do not boil the lids. Dry the bands and set aside.
  3. Use top-quality fruits after washing.
  4. Prepare only one recipe at a time and follow the directions.
  5. Remove from heat and skim foam.
  6. Immediately fill hot spread into hot jars, leaving a ½-inch headspace.
  7. Wipe top of jars and adjust caps.
  8. When all the jars are full, place on a rack. Lower in a canner half full of boiling water. Add boiling water to cover twopiece caps by 1 to 2 inches.
  9. When processing time is complete, remove jars from canner. Most recipes call for at least five minutes. Stand jars upright on a towel a few inches apart.
  10. After 12 to 24 hours, test seals and remove bands.
  11. Wash outside of jar and lid surface. Label and store sealed jars in a cool, dark, dry place.

That pretty much covers the basic steps but I have a few things to add. When making salmonberry jam, for example, the foam gets out of control and Strawberriesneeds to be spooned off sooner than listed above. I learned through trial and error that if you remove too much foam before it has jelled up, it will take more pectin to get the results you want.

One thing they did NOT mention above is the gel test. How do you know if it is setting right or not? There are several ways. First, having a thermometer helps as the ‘setting point’ is around 220 degrees F. If you don’t have one, you can simply take a plate and put it in the fridge for 5 minutes to get it cold. Then spoon out a little onto the plate and let it sit for a few minutes so the mix will cool. With a clean finger, run it through the middle and if it stays in place, it is set. Click here for pictures so you can better understand.

Another way, the way I learned, was to use a spoon. Take your stirring spoon from the pot and allow the mix to dribble off it. When it gets down to the last few drops, do they gel up and stay in place or do they drip right off? The first method will be easier for a true newbie in my opinion. I botched a few batches trying to get it down. Thankfully, mistakes tend to teach the best lessons and sometimes, really great stuff can come from them.

*The steps listed were found on the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension publication. It covers the basics without going into too much tiny detail which is what I likely would have done. Trust me, it is better this way.

Tips, Tricks, and Cover Ups

Have a batch that didn’t quite set up? There is little that is more disappointing than going through all that stirring and waiting, only to find out that in the end, your jam or jelly is more watery than you wanted. It may set but still be runny. There are a couple things you can do about that.

First, you can remake the jam. That’s right! You will need to open the jars and add more goodies to it but thankfully, making jams and jellies are rather forgiving to mess ups. Too thick? Easy peasy! Just add some grape juice (or apple, etc) and mix until you have the right consistency you want. Personally, I will save a jar or two of the ‘runny’ jams and use them as a syrup. The process of making syrup is pretty much the same.

I had one batch that passed my gel tests but when it finally cooled down after being jarred and water bath canned, it was still runny. I really didn’t want to open them all up and remake them so instead, I started using it like a syrup or enhancement. I take a couple spoonfuls and mix it into my cooked oatmeal or stir some in a pancake mix. It is also really good drizzled over vanilla ice cream.

Questions? Comments? SUPER AWESOME TRICKS??? Drop us a line below!

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Unraveling the Mystery: Making Cheese

Unraveling the Mystery - Making Cheese

 

CHEESE!! Both Mister Dreamer and I absolutely love cheese, all different kinds. I have written before about this wonderful food that can be stored for a longer time than most foods. It is one of the few ways we can ‘preserve’ dairy. As many of the long time followers know, we love to smoke cheeses for special treats but making our own the first time was a disaster. Of course, we tried to make it by using powdered milk (not instant!). While it was edible, it was less than appetizing.

Moving forward! I want to understand and practice making different kinds of cheeses because it is a good skill to have and if I can make it myself (while saving money) well why not?! As with all of our “Unraveling the Mystery” articles, we will look at the science side of cheese making, the equipment and process for making cheese, and then include links to tried and true recipes!

The Science of Making Cheese

Cheese is made by a fermentation process that pulls the proteins out and makes them curdle (going to curd). Please keep in mind that explaining the actual “science” of the chemical reactions and how they differ from one process or method to another would turn this article into a book. Personally, I just want to know how it works and get to it (likely you do, too), so I will give you the short and skinny of it.

  • Enzymes are added to unpasteurized, preferably whole milk (not to be confused with homogenized milk) that separates the curds (proteins, fats, etc) from the whey.
  • The kind of cheese you get depends on if you are using an acid for coagulation (vinegar, lemon juice, etc) or rennet.
  • If you would like to really get into the ‘hows and whys’ of cheese making, here is a link to fill in the blanks.

The Equipment and the Process

The overall process for making most cheese is the same. The reason we have so many different kinds is because a slight variation when making “the wine of food” can ultimately change everything and give you a completely different result! Since I am not trying to write a novel (get to making cheese already!), I will cover the most basic cheese to make at home which is acid cultured versus using rennet. A soft cheese is easier and faster to make and eat than harder cheeses that require aging.

The Equipment

CheeseYou really don’t need much to make cheese with. The average household would likely only need to buy one or two things (other than the milk, of course). Here are the items you need to have at hand.

  • A pot large enough to hold the amount of milk you plan on using. Heavy bottomed is better since it will help keep the milk from scortching.
  • Milk. The higher the fat content, the more cheese you get. It is important not to use ultra-pasteurized milk. During that process, the proteins are broken down too much and won’t form curds very well.
  • Thermometer, rated safe for cooking with.
  • Strainer, preferably wire mesh
  • Cheesecloth
  • Kosher Salt (if desired)
  • Lemon juice, vinegar, or rennet (see below for the differences)

The Process

Brace yourself. You may be blown away by how easy this really is!

  • Pour the milk into the pot
  • Turn on the heat to a low medium. Too hot and you will scorch the milk! Better to take a little longer than go to quickly.
  • Stay with your milk. You have to stir constantly and gently while the temp comes up!
  • Once the heat is up to the temperature of your recipe (see below!), remove from the heat.
  • Add your vinegar, lemon juice, or rennet and stir thoroughly and gently. You will know when it is working because curds will begin to form. It happens very suddenly. You will notice the curds separating from the whey.
  • Let it sit for 5 minutes (or however long your recipe says).
  • Check the curds with a knife. If they cut cleanly, chances are it is ready. For firmer cheese, let it sit longer.
  • Ladle out the curds into a cheesecloth lined strainer. If saving the whey, do it over a bowl or jar.
  • Depending on what kind of cheese you are making will determine what happens at this point. Mozzarella is stretched, cottage cheeses or paneer cheese is pressed, etc. Salt is usually added at this point and the cheese worked to achieve your desired texture, flavor, shape, etc.

That is pretty much it! The variety you make will also determine whether or not it can be (or should be) aged and preserved with cheese wax (not paraffin wax!). Some people will use weights to remove more of the whey from the cheese (makes it firmer).

Rennet vs Vinegar or Lemon Juice

What is rennet? Well, before science stepped in, the only way you could get rennet was from the stomach of animals. It is an enzyme. While it does not sound appealing, the results sure are! Thanks to science, there are options! You can get regular animal rennet or vegetable rennet in either liquid or tablet form. The type of cheese you want to make determines which kind of acid or enzyme you will need. Harder cheeses like cheddar require rennet while softer cheese such as mozzarella uses vinegar or lemon juice to curd the milk.

Lemon juice is reported to give a bit of a tang to the cheese while vinegar tends to be more of a neutral flavor.

What to do with the Whey?

Whey is reportedly very tasty with many health benefits. You can use it to soak grains in, in breadmaking, make ricotta, and all sorts of other goodies. Livestock and domestic animals love it too but be careful with Fido and Whiskers – too much can make them sick up. A quick Google search will give you lists and lists of what you can do with the whey leftover.

Aging and Preserving Cheese

Cheese WheelSoft or ‘quick’ cheeses usually aren’t aged more than a few hours or days and normally aren’t stored for the long term. That is not to say you can’t, it just isn’t normally done. Hard cheeses like cheddar are different.

Aging the cheese gives unique flavors and allows all those little microbes and enzymes work their magic on the proteins. Aging cheese is not something you just tuck away and forget about it. The area needs to be checked on and the climate controlled. If you want to get more serious about aging cheeses, I highly recommend you do research into the type of climate that is best for the type of cheese you are making. Better to figure out that you have no suitable place to age your hard work before actually making batches of cheese.

Cheese can be preserved with the traditional wax (but not paraffin!), though many are using vacuum sealers instead because there is less mold issue.

The Fun Stuff

Though we have zero access to fresh milk, using whole milk is good enough to work with when making your cheeses and personally, I really look forward to experimenting! We have done the mozzarella and I helped a friend make paneer cheese. Let me tell you straight out – it is hard to stop eating fresh cheese once you have started. I have enjoyed ‘squeaky cheese’ curds that were smoked (oh yes, we WILL be doing that ourselves too) or made with fresh spices like basil and oregano. There is no comparison.

Some people would prefer to just get a kit and I don’t blame them! Especially for the newbie, it helps boost confidence when you have everything right there at hand. Here is a list of kits on Amazon (filtered for 4 star plus and Prime eligible, of course!).

Below you will find links for some quick and easy, at home cheese making recipes. Tried and true

LINKS:

Self Reliant School – World’s Easiest Cheese

Better Hens and Gardens – French Style Cream Cheese

Chickadee Homestead – Homemade Cream Cheese

Homestead Lady – How to Make Feta Cheese

Melissa K Norris – How to Make Homemade Mozzarella

Serious Eats – Paneer (or Queso Fresco) Cheese Recipe

Trayer Wilderness – How to Make Simple & Tasty Goat’s Milk Cheese

One Ash Farm – Raw Milk Soft Cheese

Back to Our Roots – Homemade Feta Cheese

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Unraveling The Mystery: Using Mylar Bags and Buckets

Most people know about the use of Mylar bags, oxygen absorbers, and buckets as a way of preserving and storing food for the long term. What they don’t know is how and why it works! There are also a lot of misconceptions and untrue beliefs that surround this particular method of food preservation. Examples would include: high expense, not being able to move them around once sealed (because they are fragile), and needing specialized equipment.

Mylar Bags and Buckets

Unlike pressure canning, you don’t need much in the way of equipment except a way to seal the bags (and I have a trick for that, too!) We will also touch on Gamma Seal lids, making sure you have food safe buckets, and some other tidbits I have learned along the way.

The Science of Mylar Bags

Mylar bags are made out of a polyester film that are incredibly strong even at paper thin dimensions. Originally developed by DuPont in the 1950’s, the applications for this material soon became widespread, according to this Wiki article.  The term “Mylar” bag is a registered trademark of DuPont though like many other products, it is universally used regardless of manufacturer. (Think ZipLock bags, Kleenex tissue, etc.)

There are 5 things that promote food spoilage: Moisture, heat, air, light, and pests/rodents. Mylar bags preserve food by removing 3 layers of what makes food spoil. When used properly, they will keep moisture, air, and light out. By placing the bags into food safe buckets, with a lid, you are adding an even more robust (and 4th) layer of protection against rodents and pests. The lid will keep out more air and moisture, too.

It is important that you make sure your buckets are made out of a food safe plastic and that no chemicals of any kind have been stored in them before using for long term food storage. It isn’t worth the risk or potential loss of money and food and would be a very nasty surprise to open your bucket, discovering everything inside is inedible. That would be another disaster in itself!

To make sure you have the right kind of bucket, look on the bottom. Here is a cheat sheet you can print off. As you can see, 1,2,4, and 5 are suitable for food storage. Some say that the ones with #5 on it, made of high density polyethylene, is the best choice for long term food storage. There is some debate about the difference between food safe and food grade plastics as well. My take on this is the food is inside the Mylar bags, therefore not in contact with the plastic itself. You will need to decide for yourself which is the best grade of food safe plastic for your family.

The Equipment and Process

As I said before, you really don’t need any special or expensive equipment to successfully store food in Mylar bags and buckets. You need Mylar bags, o2 absorbers, food, a permanent marker or label maker, and a way to seal the bags.

The Equipment

Mylar Bags – When it comes to choosing which ones to get, you need to look at thickness and size. The size is personal choice and what suits your needs and storage space availability. The thickness of the bag plays a big role. Too thin and you end up with pinholes, tears, and general failure of the product. The typical thickness, called a ‘mil’ (a mil is a thousandth of an inch so .001 = 1 mil) is 3 mils. You can get 5 and 7 or higher as well.

Sizes vary. You can find one quart, one gallon, and five gallon bags. The size will determine how many oxygen (o2) absorbers.

Oxygen Absorbers – One of the reasons that Mylar bag food storage works so well is because of the oxygen absorbers you put in the bag before sealing. They ‘eat’ up the oxygen and essentially vacuum seal them from the inside. The end result is a brick-hard block of preserved food! O2 absorbers are measured in cc’s. The most common amounts are 100cc, 300cc, 500cc and 1,000cc packets. There are some small variances in just how much to use in each bag but they are broken up into two different kinds of food: dense and airy. Flour would be dense, grains would be airy.

Dense – Use 3-400cc’s for one gallon bags and 1500-2000cc’s for a five gallon bag.

Airy – Use 500cc’s for gallon bags and 2-3000cc’s for airy.

Sealer – There are sealers out there that are made specifically for ensuring a good seal on your mylar bags. People have tried to use their vacuum sealers to close the bags up but often times, that fails. The heat required for melting the mylar is higher than that of vacuum seal bags. You want to make sure whatever you use gives you a good thick band. If it is too thin, it can split open as the oxygen is absorbed. Thankfully, these sealers have come down in price considerably but there are other options! I will explain in more detail below.

Permanent Marker/Label Maker – You will want to have some way of marking the contents and date stored on the bags. A good permanent marker should suffice but I have also seen people print labels on their printer or personal label maker. Don’t skip this step!

The Process

  • This is pretty straightforward. Make sure you have everything you need at hand.
  • Get your sealer heating up.
  • Place half of the required oxygen absorbers into the bottom of the bag.
  • Poor food into the bags. Make sure you leave a good 3-4 inches of space at the top!
  • Put the rest of the o2 absorbers into the bag and press them down a little into the food.
  • Pack the food down a little and fold the top portion over, pressing down to compact the contents.
  • With the top of the bag straight up, take your sealer and seal the bag three quarters of the way. Before fully sealing it, press as much air out as you can.
  • Label and set aside. Leave it for 24 hours before putting into buckets. You want to make sure it is sealed tightly with no holes. The bags should be compact and the contents inside unpliable.
  • Use common sense when placing the bags into the buckets. If you cause any holes, you have wasted all of your effort!

What I Use

I personally use the 5 mil bags in the one gallon size. I never get any larger because of the way 5 gallon bags get folded. Creases are formed that create pinholes and make the bags useless. Gallon bags are laid over in half, not creased.

I put 2, 300cc packs of o2 absorbers in each bag. It may be a little more than needed but it doesn’t hurt anything that I can tell.

I don’t use a traditional sealer. I use a hair straightener that has adjustable temperature settings on it. At two inches wide, it gives me a nice, wide seal that won’t split up. I use a permanent marker to label (simple is best haha!).

We use Gamma Seal lids on all of our buckets. The additional protection is worth it plus, makes the buckets more versatile.

Tips and Tricks

Here are some tips and tricks I have picked up and used along the way.

  • Don’t use o2 absorbers in when sealing sugar or salt. The result will be a solid block that you’ll either have to chip away at or toss out. Also, don’t store 5 gallons of salt or sugar at a time. Smaller sized bags (gallon for sugar and quart for salt) will serve you much better and lessen the risk of spoilage before you’ve used it all.
  • Coffee shouldn’t be stored in mylar bags according to a several articles on the topic. Storing green coffee beans and roasting yourself will be a better option.
  • You can often get food grade buckets from restaurants for free! You may have to scrub it out and there might be a lingering scent of garlic or pickles but free is worth it! A little bleach will take care of it.
  • I don’t really recommend trying to store pasta or other sharp edged items in Mylar bags. With the oxygen being taken out of the bag, something will likely poke through.

In my experience, all food preservation methods are fairly easy and you can save some serious money by doing it yourself. Be sure to check out the other “Unraveling the Mystery” posts by going here!

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Unraveling the Mystery: Making Jerky

Making_Jerky

I’ve been saving this one for awhile. I expect it may get a good amount of attention because, let’s face it, jerky is pretty much one of the best things on the planet, right? (Vegetarians and Vegans excluded, of course). Well, it also happens to be one of the easiest things to make yourself! It is pretty straightforward really: You are taking the moisture out of meat. Cavemen figured this stuff out as a way to preserve meat for winter so pretty much anyone can do it. The difference is we have loads of spices and plenty of salt to add, not to mention modern equipment such as smokers, dehydrators, and ovens to speed things along in larger batches. You might want to grab a cup of coffee for this one. It will likely be a lengthy post. 🙂

The Science of Making Jerky

The process of making jerky removes the moisture from the meat. Moisture is one of the 4 elements that makes food spoil: moisture, heat, air, and light. Essentially, you are dehydrating the meat, with the major difference being that you add spices and salt to help the preservation process and make the food enjoyable. Along with the removal of water and addition of spices, when making jerky (or dehydrating anything, really), you need to bring the temperature up as well to kill any bacteria. For meats, the minimum temperature is 160 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat and drying take away the environment that bacteria needs to grow in, hence the food is preserved.

The Equipment and Process

There are several ways to make jerky. You can use a modern dehydrator, a smoker, or even your oven. The oven option can present some challenges that we will touch on later. As long as you make sure there is air flow around all sides of the meat and the heat reaches 160 degrees, you can make jerky! It does take some attention to make sure things are evenly drying and keeping the heat or smoke steady. Overall though, you can check it and leave it for hours and go accomplish something else in the meantime.

The Process

Marinate the meat in a brine for the preferred length of time or you can also use a dry rub, depending on personal preferences. Then, slice or grind the meat into your jerky pieces and dry it out! That is pretty much it in a nutshell. There is, of course, more to it than that in the finer details. The step by step process can be found all over the internet with a simple Google search. I will leave that part of the process to you as everyone is different not only in taste but the equipment they have to work with. I will give you some tips and tricks that I have learned over the course of numerous batches of jerky making at the end of the article.

The Equipment

Dehydrator. The most common way to make jerky, the modern day dehydrator makes the process of pumping out batches of jerky easy and pretty fast overall. We saved up and got the ‘Cadillac” of dehydrators, the 9 tray Excalibur. I knew I would be using it for far more than just making jerky and dehydrating herbs and spices with it so we went for the big guns. I have never once regretted it and it has paid for itself time and time again. When I pull out one of my stew starters, it is paying off. When I eat banana and apple slices, it is paying off. When Mister Dreamer uses it to get the bread dough to rise faster, it really pays off!

Most dehydrators use heat from the bottom of the machine going upward and that causes the need to rotate your jerky about halfway through to ensure even drying. The Excalibur has the heat and air at the back and does not require flipping each piece over. (Can you tell I love my dehydrator? haha!).

Smoker. Using a smoker is another way to make jerky. It adds great flavor to the meat and, provided you have it thin enough, will fully process your jerky. Heat is the big thing to watch out for here. Make sure the heat gets high enough. Also consider that you may not want to completely dry out your jerky using smoke and heat if you don’t really love a smoky flavor. Times will vary greatly using a smoker versus a dehydrator. We have used the Big Chief ‘Little Smoker’ with alder chips. You will need to rotate your jerky about halfway through or at the very least, rotate your trays around. We much prefer a front loading smoker for the ease of removing only certain trays versus having to lift the whole rack at once in a top loading smoker.. When we buy our property, we will build our own much larger smokehouse that you step into.

Oven. Using an oven to make jerky with can be done but it is trickier than the other two methods. First, most ovens don’t go down to less than 200 degrees. Ultimately, if you can get it to 160 or 170, that is best. If you cannot go below 200, there is the option of leaving the oven door cracked open a bit.

You need to have some kind of wire rack that will allow air to get on all sides of the meat. A bread cooling rack works well and the meat will need to be rotated to ensure even heating. It can take 12+ hours and rack up your electric bill so while it is possible, this is a rarely used method. Maybe you could rig something up with a wood stove?

No matter which method you choose, it takes practice and patience to get it ‘just right. though even ‘bad’ jerky is still pretty darn good. Kind of like pizza. Keep in mind; making jerky takes hours and hours of low, steady heat. Even in my dehydrator with thinly sliced pieces of beef it can take 10-12 hours @ 165 (f) degrees.

Ground vs Sliced

There are two basic ways people make jerky: sliced pieces or ground and formed sticks, patties, etc. It really is a preference of taste and texture but there are a few key differences between the processing. Either way you go, the results will likely be very tasty! We will be doing both methods because of the variety.

Jarred_JerkySliced. If you are going to slice pieces off to dehydrate, you generally cut your steaks before you put them in the brine at the thickness you want. It’s quick and easy. Slice and place on rack, dehydrate!

Ground. I don’t have much experience with doing too much ground/formed jerky before but I can’t wait to really dive into it. This last Christmas, we got the attachments for our kitchen aide mixer (thanks Mom!). Anyway, grinding and then forming patties or silver dollar sized pieces before dehydrating opens up a whole new set of options. Say you have some beef that is getting close to going bad or is slightly freezer burnt on one side. You may also have some venison or other wild game to use up. Combine them in the grinder, add spices and have a special jerky!

It does help to get yourself a jerky gun, too. They range in price from $20 to $65 on Amazon. They help to get even strips of ground meat and spices onto your racks. It seems to me that using one of these will be considerably easier than trying to hand form or use some kind of mold or something. If the gun doesn’t put out the thickness you prefer, you can always add another layer and pat it down to your preference.

Beef, Chicken, Pork, and Salmon Jerky

To each their own. I will touch on this only briefly. The one thing that is absolutely universal when it comes to making jerky is you must use lean meat. The reason why is simple: It is hard to dehydrate fat and the fattier the meat is, the quicker it will start to rot. That is why you eat the ‘fatty’ pieces first and store away the lean bits since they will last longer.

Chicken Jerky. You usually don’t see many chicken jerkies being sold as human food. It is usually a dog treat because honestly, chicken jerky isn’t that good. It is too dry and while it would provide you with protein in a survival situation, not many people go reaching for a nice stick of chicken jerky.

Beef Jerky. Need not say more? Make sure it is lean meat! Bottom cut rump roast is a good cut because there is one main line of fat.

Pork Jerky. There are some ‘candied’ jerkies out there that use pork. Don’t forget candied bacon jerky which is, in my opinion, along the same level as the apple in the Garden of Eden. It is out there, tempting, glorious, and oh-so-evil. That is meat candy at its finest.

Salmon Jerky. This may be more of a local thing here but you pretty much take fillets of salmon and cut thinner strips of meat with a rub or in a brine and smoke or dehydrate (or some of both smoking and then dehydrating) as you prefer. This type of jerky is usually a sweet one though we prefer salty/spicy.

Tips and Tricks

I have turned literally hundreds of pounds of beef into jerky in the last couple of years. My biggest run was 30 pounds that turned into about 10 pounds of jerky (3:1 ratio is average). There is one serious downside to making your own: There.Is.Never.Enough. I’m not kidding. Ever. It gets eaten up so quickly that before long, you are stashing away bags and jars so that the kids, company, and spouse don’t clean you out! Here are some tips and tricks that help make some of the processing and storing of your jerky easier. They are tried and true from my own experiences.

  • When cutting slices off of prepared steaks, place onto a wax paper covered cookie sheet. Put them into the freezer for 20-30 minutes and check them. You want the steaks to be frozen firm but not solid. This will help immensely to get uniform sized slices. Take out a couple of steaks at a time to keep the others from melting too much, especially when doing large batches.
  • Vacuum sealing jerky into jars is a fantastic way to store it for up to a year. Many vacuum sealers have an adapter for a hose that will allow you to seal special containers. You can also get attachments for regular and wide mouth jars. Store them in cool, dry places and your jerky will last a long time.
  • Traditional vacuum sealing in bags is also possible but after many pierced bags, I have had to hone my skills a bit. The vacuum sealer I use allows me to stop the vacuum suction and seal the bag when I want. You cannot let the machine take all the air out because the sharp edges will puncture the bag and defeat the purpose of sealing them up.

So there you have it. My secret is out, the gig is up. I will miss the looks of awe when I pull out a bag of my peppered jerky and offer some. People will no longer wax poetic about how “amazing” it is because they will now know that it really is no big deal and anyone can do it, even without a dehydrator. *sigh* 😉

Want More? Click here to unravel more ‘mysteries’ of food preservation!


Aftermath_Cover_for_Kindle (1)

 

Did you know the Saturday Survival Serial is now a book AND that there is a second volume already started? If you missed out on the first one, you can catch up by reading Aftermath, A Story of Survival now available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle!

 




Unraveling the Mystery: Water Bath Canning

Mystery Water Bath

Water bath canning is a fantastic and incredibly easy way to get into preserving and packaging your own food. I consider it the ‘gateway’ to pressure canning as it is less intimidating and like I said, incredibly easy! It requires less ‘specialized’ equipment than pressure canning does, too. Chances are pretty good that you have a pot large enough to use right now! In this article, we will unravel the mystery of water bath canning: How it works (the science of it), why it works (the process), and a list of things you can safely water-bath can.

The Science

The point to canning food is to kill off any bacteria and seal the food in an airtight environment. This makes the food shelf stable (no refrigeration!) and safe to eat months later. Both water bath and pressure canning serve this purpose and some may ask, “What’s the difference?” It all comes down to how acidic the food is that will determine which method of canning you use. The more acidic the food, the less chance there is for bacterial growth when heat is applied. Some vegetables and fruits naturally have enough acidity while others (like cucumbers when making pickles) need to have it added. An article on Mother Earth News sums it up nicely:

Low-acid foods have pH values higher than 4.6. They include red meats, seafood, poultry, milk, and all fresh vegetables except for most tomatoes. Most mixtures of low-acid and acid foods also have pH values above 4.6 unless their recipes include enough lemon juice, citric acid, or vinegar to make them acid foods. Acid foods have a pH of 4.6 or lower. They include fruits, pickles, sauerkraut, jams, jellies, marmalades, and fruit butters.

Yes, tomatoes do have a lot of acid in them but not quite enough. Simply adding some lemon juice, citric acid, or vinegar will take it over the line and make them safe to water bath can up jars of tasty food!

The Equipment and Process

There are dozens, if not hundreds of “how to” guides out there on the process. What I present below is the barest bones in the hopes that it will help push the fence-riders into trying it! When you think about it, you are boiling jars. When put into that perspective, it suddenly doesn’t seem as intimidating!

Equipment

Water-Bath Canner*

Canning tools

Jars, lids, and bands

The food you will be canning, prepared and ready

Clean towel to wipe rims

The Process

There are variations on the process and length of time you will keep the jars in the boiling water but the idea behind it all is the same.

  • Sterilize jars and keep them warm until ready
  • Heat lids in hot (just under boiling) water to soften the seal
  • Lay out everything you need so you can work efficiently without having to rush
  • Begin filling jars, making sure to wipe the rims clean before placing the lid and band
  • Make sure you only ‘finger tighten’ the jars. If it is too tight, it won’t seal right. Same results if it is too loose.
  • Place the filled jars in the water and let it boil for the recommended time on the recipe. A few minutes extra to be safe should not harm the food in any way!
  • Once the time is up, remove the jars from the water. Allow the jars to cool down, undisturbed, for 12 hours. Listen for the ping!!

Yes, there is more detail to some of these steps, but this is the bare bones process for water bath canning jars. I encourage you to check out this article from our friends over at Simply Canning that will give you more details. I cannot recommend this site enough! I go there often to learn new things about canning, get recipes, and make sure I am doing things the right way.

 

List of Food You Can Safely Water-Bath Can

Most Jams and Jellies

Salsa

Tomatoes (with a form of acid added such as citric acid, lemon juice, or vinegar)

Anything Pickled (You can learn how to pickle in a single afternoon!)

Apple Butter

Relishes

Vegetable Stock (There is some debate about this. It is up to you to decide which is right for your family)

Peaches, apples, and other various fruits

Sauerkraut


 It is my sincere wish that if you are reading this, trying to learn and decide if you want to take the plunge, DO IT!! My intent on this article is to show people that this is not rocket science or brain surgery. It is safe, extremely easy, will end up saving you money, and FUN! Hearing those pings of the jars sealing makes me giggle. Every. Single. Time. 🙂

I welcome ANY questions you may have regarding water bath canning, pressure canning, dehydrating, vacuum sealing, and freezing food. You can leave a comment/question below or send it to my Facebook page and I will answer!

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