Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Canning Meat: Where Science Meets Patience

Canning is one of those fading kitchen arts that risks being underutilized to point of extinction, tossed to the side to make room for the "quick and easy." But canning can be incredibly rewarding, and it can free up significant space in your freezer. So let's take a few minutes and learn about canning meats.

My almost-90-year-old grandmother still tends a vegetable garden in upstate New York, and what she doesn't eat fresh from that garden she cans. When my dad harvests deer from her fields, he, too, cans most of the meat. This is why I treasure the canning process.

This past weekend, I collected about 12 quarts of stew meat cuts while butchering my elk. I'll freeze a couple quarts, and I'm canning the rest this evening. In fact, as I'm writing this post, I'm waiting for my pressure canner to slowly calm down after a lengthy canning process.

If you've never canned anything before, you'll need a few items: a 22-Quart Pressure Cooker/Canner, a Canning Jar Lifter and some canning jars. And I highly recommend these two reading resources: Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving and the Web site, National Center for Home Food Preservation.

But the most important tool in the kitchen for this process is a touch of patience.

To can your game meat, decide if you want to "hot pack" or "raw pack." I suggest "hot packing" venison stew chunks because it's about the safest way to can meat, especially game meat that has been in the field and butchered at home.

A "hot pack" essentially means pre-cooking the meat before you can it, and "raw pack" is just what it sounds like, packing raw meat into the jars and then canning it.

To get started, heat up your frying pan with a little oil and start sauteing a quart-sized jar's worth of meat until it reaches an internal temperature of 135 degrees F. Fill your hot jars with the meat, loosely (note: canning meat does not require sterilized jars, like canning vegetables. In most cases, jars fresh out of the dishwasher cycle will work perfectly). The jars should be hot, however, because you'll be adding hot liquids to them and you don't want them to break.

Add a teaspoon of salt per one-quart jar of meat and then pour hot water, tomato juice or broth over the meat, leaving about an inch of head space. Screw on the lid until tight by hand (don't over-tighten!).

A 22-quart pressure canner will hold five quart jars per canning session. Fill your pressure canner with 2-3 inches of water and bring to a simmer. Place five filled jars in the canner, with the provided canning rack at the bottom of the pot. Make sure none of the jars are touching each other or the sides of the canner.

Close and lock the lid according to your manufacturer's guidelines. Leave the weight off the pressure valve for now. Bring the burner up to a medium-high and wait until steam pours out of the pressure valve at a steady pace. Let the steam vent for 10 minutes, which removes the excess air from the canner and allows the meat to cook at a higher than normal temperature.

After the steam has vented for 10 minutes, place your weighted pressure guage over the pressure valve. Use the right weight for your altitude, jar size, style of pack and cut of meat (Generally, it's the 10 lb. weight if you live between 0-1,000 feet and the 15 lb. weight if you live above 1,000 feet). Again, refer to the mentioned resources and your manufacturer's specifications.

Let the pressure build again, maintaining at least a medium boiling temperature, until the weighted gauge begins to rock steadily. At this point you begin timing your canning process. Again, depending on your jar size and cut of meat, you'll likely be canning for 75 minutes for pint jars and 90 minutes for quart jars.

Maintain a steady temperature, and only adjust the temp lower if the gauge is rocking violently. After you've timed your canning process, turn off the heat and let the pressure canner return to normal on its own. Do not try to quicken the process by removing the gauge prematurely, and definitely don't open your canner until you can safely remove the guage and let the canner sit for an additional two minutes, venting through the open valve. Remove the lid slowly and let the jars cool to room temperature at their own pace. Within a couple hours, you may hear a distinct "popping" noise that indicates your canning was successful and lids are sunk in tightly.

After the jars have completely cooled, you can rinse off their sides and store them in your cupboard!

I love using canned venison for my Sloppy Doe's recipe.

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