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Friday, June 3, 2011

How to Pressure Can Meat

Original Article

This is the way I wish I had been told to can meat. 

First - it's easy. The "hardest" part is watching that canner and convincing yourself that it honestly will not blow up. The best part is having home-made stew on the table in ten minutes.

There are two ways to pressure can meat - raw pack and hot pack. Hands down, raw pack is easiest.

Super simplified method of raw pack canning meat - Fill clean (not hot and sterilized) jars with cold, raw meat. No water. No broth. Spices optional. Add heated lids, and put on rings hand-tight. Put lid on pot. Vent. Process. Turn off heat and let pressure drop to zero. Remove weight. Remove lid. Remove jars from canner. Carefully place on teatowel, not cooling rack, on the counter. Cool overnight. Remove rings, wash jars, label lids and put away.

Of course, there's more to it than that.
This was me trying to can beef in slices instead of chunks. Turns out that it doesn't work nearly as well - perhaps if I had wide mouth jars. The meat ended up shredding when it came out of the jar, while chunks keep their shape much better. Still tasted fine, though. I haven't really found a way to "ruin" meat, as long as it was processed correctly. Raw or cooked beef, pork, ham, chicken, turkey - it all comes out delicious and tender.
 I put some vinegar in the water for the lids, and I use that, with a clean cloth, to wipe the rims. Having the rims super clean helps achieve a proper seal.
 I bring the lids to a boil and then turn the heat off, and I let them set while I fill up the jars. Lids used to have to be boiled for five minutes, but it seems that tests have shown that they actually seal better when they're just heated in hot water.
 The meatballs in this picture are cooked and then cooled in the fridge. Ground beef must be cooked before processing. Because it has been cooked and will yield no broth of its own, broth or tomato sauce MUST be added.

The raw meat, though, needs no liquid. It seems strange to do this the first time, but it's true. Raw meat plus optional spices - I usually put 1/2 teaspoon each of salt, onion and garlic, as well as a few twists of the pepper mill.
 I LOVE this little magnetic lid lifter! Get a canning kit. You can get them as inexpensively as this plastic one (which I have) or as expensive as this metal one (which I want). But definitely get one, if only for the lid lifter and jar lifter!
 How tight do the rings go on? HAND tight. When I used to put them on finger tight, I had more failures than I do now. Hand tight, not finger tight or wrench tight. :D
 Fill the canner with water just to the line marked in it. I think that's about 3 quarts of water - I fill my kettle and pour it in twice. Then put in the jars.  Very important - the jars and the water need to be at the same temperature. Hot jars in cold water or cold jars in hot water = broken jars.

Oh - if you have hot water, add a splash of vinegar to the water. It will keep the calcium deposits off your jars. However, if you forget, the calcium washes off after the jars are cool.

 Make sure you have a second rack because it's plain silly to just can nine pints. I tried improvising but in the end I bought a new Presto rack. Set it on top of the bottom jars. Then repeat. With my canner, two layers of pints brings it to the top of the canner.  If I had another rack, I could probably triple layer half-pints, but I've never tried that.

My 23 quart canner will hold 7 quarts, or it will hold two layers of 9 pints each, or it will hold three layers of 11 half-pints each. Seems counter intuitive, but I can clearly process 8 quarts worth of food if I use pint jars or 8 1/2 quarts if I use half-pints, so don't be afraid to use small jars if that's what your family will use.
 The following picture was taken AFTER I had brought the entire thing up to boil and then vented for TEN FULL MINUTES. (Different canners have different venting times, so read your manual). My manual says to then put the weight on and heat "at a reasonably high temperature." What is that supposed to mean? I've found that 9 is just about perfect. At 8, the pressure lock won't come up, but at 10, it splutters madly and loses too much water.

It is very, very, very important to follow your manual's directions and vent the canner. I came across a website that was purporting to teach people how to can, and the writer said, "Oh, I forgot to vent again." Arrgh!

If you do not vent properly, you have no way of knowing that the entire contents of your canner are at the same temperature and pressure. This can lead to improperly processed food. Improperly processed food can kill you.

You want a scary feeling? Opening up your canner and finding just a tiny bit of water at the bottom. If that ever happens, you're probably putting the heat too high. The food is fine, as long as there is still SOME water in there. But don't do it again.
 Pressure is climbing. When it gets to 10, the weight starts rocking. If you're NOT using a 3 piece weight, at PSI 11, you start watching it like a hawk and adjusting the heat constantly to keep it at 11. For an hour and fifteen minutes. Pain in the patooshy, let me tell you. Get a 3 piece weight.

Do I cook the meat when I'm ready to use it?
The meat is fully cooked - and incredibly tender and rich-tasting - when processing is finished. Official word is that, in order to protect against botulism, you should boil all home-canned foods for ten minutes after opening.  I'll admit that I don't always do that - I sometimes mix our turkey and pork with mayonnaise and relish. Still, I really should.

Ready-to-eat: Home-canned chicken, home-canned broth and some vegetables (ignore the barley, and the oats in the back):
Becomes this in about twenty minutes (white puffs are dumplings).

What temperature should everything be at?
When I put my jars in the canner, everything is at room temperature except the meat itself, which I keep in the fridge until it is ready to go in the jars. Many people complain about cracking jars because of temperature shock and I am too cheap frugal and lazy efficiency-minded to want broken jars in my canner.

How much water or broth should I add?
For raw pack, none. If the meat going into the jars is RAW, you do not add any liquid. It will create its own. It may, or may not, be enough to fill the jar and that's quite fine. Most of my jars of raw packed meat have an inch or more of empty space.

Is the meat safe if not a full jar of broth forms?
Yes. All of the canning guides agree that the meat is still safe, as long as it has been properly processed and the jar has sealed. The meat that is not covered with liquid might discolor a little as it sits in your cupboard, but it's still safe.
What times do I process?
The only really safe answer here is - consult a modern, up-to-date canning book. However, the general rule of thumb that I follow is 75 minutes for pint jars and 90 minutes for quarts. Bone-in chicken is slightly different (less time) as is seafood (more time). Otherwise, cooked and uncooked beef, pork, poultry, venison are all processed the same. 
Anything with meat in it, I process for that amount, although soup (less than 50% meat and vegetables to broth) can be done for slightly less time.

What PSI do I use?

That's impossible to answer. You'll need to know your altitude and check a canning manual. We're at sea level, so I use the 10 PSI weight for everything that I currently can.

One thing I can tell you, though - the PSI does not change according to the size of the jars, or how many jars you're processing

What's different if my meat is already cooked?
If the meat is already cooked (like a baked ham or roasted turkey), you will need to add broth to fill the jar. If the meat and broth are hot, then you'll have to make sure everything is hot - which I find to be a royal pain in the patooshey.  When I do it, I treat the cooked meat just like raw meat and I warm up the de-fatted broth just enough to pour it into the jars. That may not pass muster with the safety people, though. I have never seen anyone address this - they all say to add the just cooked, hot meat to hot jars and fill with hot broth. I don't have a stove big enough to hold all of those pots!

At any rate, the time and the pressure remain exactly the same. In fact, the picture above shows cooked meatballs and raw beef going into the same canner load.

How tight do I put the lid on?
"Hand-tight".  When I first started canning, I was not tightening the rings enough and I had more seal fails than I do now. Now, that doesn't mean getting out the wrench. Tighten it firmly with your hand. If you're using Tattler reusable lids, though, follow their directions - I haven't used them yet, but I know they're slightly different.

My canner is making a lot of weird noises and doing weird things!
So does mine. Sometimes I stand beside the fridge and peek at it around the edge, because I think all of that pinging and hissing and rattling just cannot be good. I hear sounds that are exactly like what I expect an exploding jar would do. The jar pings. The various seals hiss and splutter and spit water. So far nothing has exploded. But what a dreadful racket it makes!

Can I leave the room/house when it's processing? Can I turn the heat off at the end of processing and go to bed?
No to both. Well - you can go quickly to the bathroom IF you have a 3 piece weight. If you're relying on the gauge, you're going to have to keep your eye on that thing the entire time. You want to keep that thing in visual range (gauge) or at least earshot (weights) the entire processing time.

At the end of processing, it is VERY tempting to turn it off and go to bed, especially if you're canning at night. I know. When I'm canning, I'm rarely finished before 11:30 and I'm tired. However, you can't do it. If you think you won't be able to stay awake to finish the processing, don't start.
Turn off the heat.
Wait for the pressure to hit zero. It'll keep rattling and hissing as the pressure drops. While you're waiting, put clean, dry dishtowels on your counters - one for the lid and one for your jars.
Pressure is zero? Wait FIVE minutes and remove the weight (I ALWAYS use oven mitts just in case there's an escape of steam). Do not remove that weight until the pressure is definitely, completely at zero.
Because the weights are small, I always drop them immediately into my canning kit box. That way, I don't lose them.
No hissing? Wait FIVE minutes and turn the lid to unlock it. Lift the lid, tilting it AWAY from your face. (Get just one steam burn on your hand and you'll never be tempted to tilt it toward your face!)
If you're nervous at all, unlock the lid, crack it to let steam escape, and then wait FIVE minutes before removing it. I've never done that, though.

Remove the lid and place it either in your empty sink or on a clean dishtowel. Do NOT rest it on the stove or anywhere you might bump it. It is HOT. In addition, while it's hot, it can be dented and ruined if you drop it. If you dent and ruin your lid, you will cry many tears.
Use a jar lifter to remove your jars from the canner. (The curved end is to grab the jars, and the flat end is to hold. Please don't ask why I consider this an important point.) Wear oven mitts.  Place them on a clean teatowel, close together but not touching. Make sure they're in a draft-free place so that the temperature doesn't drop too quickly. If you have double-racked, use tongs to remove the top rack.

DON'T let your skin touch the canner, the lid, the rack, or the jars. They are all incredibly hot and will burn you very, very badly.

Do not tighten the rings. Do not touch the lids. Do not, for the sake of all that's holy, turn the jars upside down. Do not disturb them, if at all possible, for twelve hours.

In the morning (preferably 12-24 hours later, but I have preschoolers), remove the rings, wash the jars and lids with a clean cloth, dry them, label them and put them into storage. It's okay to give them a good scrub if they're dirty. If the lids come off, it was a bad seal. Mr D tests some of my jars at random by lifting them up by the lids.

The food is still boiling INSIDE the jars!
Yes - that can happen for up to an hour after the jars are removed. Just enjoy it, because it's pretty cool. Every single time I have had a bubbling jar, it has sealed beautifully. If some jars are bubbling and some are not, take note of which one - I've always found that the non-bubbling ones don't seal right.

My lids sealed, unsealed and sealed again!
That has happened to me and it's rather worrying when it happens. However, the jars sealed just fine.

An hour has gone by and some of the lids are still unsealed.
That's not a good sign. I know the experts say that you should give it twelve hours or more, but I've not once had a jar seal after an hour. Tap the lid and see if it goes down - if it does, that still counts as sealing. Make note of which one(s) are still unsealed. They'll need to go in the fridge after about twelve hours and be used right away.

Rings off or on?

Off. Definitely off. If a seal fails and you have the ring OFF, the lid will pop off and you'll, be able to see. It won't make a mess, it will just pop up and off slightly. This is also, by the way, a reason not to stack filled jars. If a seal fails and you have the ring ON, your jar might explode. Or worse, you could eat the food without realizing that the lid hadn't sealed.

My canner makes a ton of weird noises.

Let me guess? Cracking, banging, rattling, hissing ... am I close? Mine is dreadfully noisy. Many times I've heard sounds that made me think something had exploded inside, but everything is always fine. It's noisier when I double stack.

Will the meat be cooked when I'm done?

After processing for 75-90 minutes at 10 PSI or more, I can promise you that your meat is completely cooked and fork tender. The cheapest, toughest stew beef will come out incredibly tender but still firm enough to hold its shape in a stew.

How much time should I set aside?

If I put the kids to bed at 7 and have everything completely ready to go, I can fill the jars, load the canner, process, cool down and have them out by 10. If I have to go hunting for anything, or if anything delays me, I'm more likely done at 11. That's for a canner full of meat, with pint jars. So 3-4 hours. It's not 3-4 hours of work, though. I'm writing this while my meatballs in pasta sauce are processing.

Do you have any other questions? Even if you think it's a stupid question - it's probably something I thought when I started doing this!


  1. Thank you for a great article. I'm looking forward to canning several meats very soon.

  2. Can Beef Ribs be canned with the bone left on doing the raw pack method?