Meat is one of those things that people tend to be the most scared to try canning. Food poisoning can be a very serious matter. I don’t blame anyone who approaches preserving meats with trepidation. I was the same way when I first started canning! My biggest fear was that I would do something wrong and make my family sick because of a tiny mistake. It really was a step of faith for me when I opened that first jar of home canned meat, heated it up, and took that first bite. As a matter of fact, I didn’t let my family try any until the next day just to make sure I didn’t get sick through the night. It was that serious to me.
Why so much anxiety? In one word: Botulism.
Botulism is a rare, but serious illness caused by a germ called Clostridium botulinum. The germ is found in soil and can survive, grow, and produce toxin in a sealed jar of food. This toxin can affect your nerves, paralyze you, and even cause death. Even taking a small taste of food containing this toxin can be deadly.
Botulism is a medical emergency. If you have symptoms of food borne botulism, seek medical care immediately.
Symptoms may include the following:
- Double vision
- Blurred vision
- Drooping eyelids
- Slurred speech
- Difficulty swallowing
- Dry mouth
- Muscle weakness
I start off with this information not to scare you, but to inform you of just how dangerous it can be if you take short cuts when canning meat and other foods. It isn’t worth the risk to skip steps trying to save time or money.
With that said, home canned meat has been one of my favorite things to learn to preserve. With experience I’ve gained confidence, and I’m no longer afraid that I might poison my family because I know what to do and what not to do in order to be safe. I want to encourage you that with the information I’ll be sharing here, you too can have the confidence to can meat without fear!
There are very specific steps to take and a few precautions to follow, but as long as you stick to these guidelines you can be sure that your meats will be safe to enjoy.
Let’s go over 23 things you need to know to can meat safely!
1. First and foremost, you absolutely must use a pressure canner. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me if it’s okay to can meat in a water bath canner. Meats are low acid foods and require temperatures higher than boiling to kill dangerous bacteria. Pressure canning is the only safe method of canning meat.
A pressure canner is NOT the same as a pressure cooker, by the way. There are, however, pressure cooker/canners, such as the All American brand, which will do both. Never try to can in a standard pressure cooker.
2. Always follow an approved recipe for canning meat. Never try winging it on your own. There is a science behind the processing times and pressures necessary for killing bacteria. The Ball Blue Book Guide To Preserving is a great resource for tested and approved canning recipes.
3. Make sure your canner is in good working order. Before you even get started canning, go over all of the various parts of your pressure canner to make sure nothing needs to be replaced. It would be a bummer if you had a malfunction in the middle of processing your jars.
Turn the lid upside down and inspect all of the holes for blockage. Clean the vent by running a string or pipe cleaner through it to clear the airway. If you have an older model canner with a dial gauge, have it checked at least once a year for accuracy. Your county extension agent should be able to help with that. If your canner has a rubber gasket, make sure it isn’t cracking or otherwise damaged. Replace anything that needs to be replaced before you use the canner any more. A faulty gauge could mean you aren’t reaching the correct pressure which puts you at risk of food poisoning.
4. Only use jars in tip-top shape. Older canning jars are fine to use as long as they aren’t damaged. Always look over your jars before you begin canning, making sure there aren’t any nicks, chips, or cracks in the rim of the jar or elsewhere. Even the tiniest chip in the rim of the jar can prevent the lid from properly sealing.
Also, don’t try to reuse old spaghetti or mayonnaise jars when pressure canning. I have had success using these types of jars in the water bath canner, but they might not hold up in a pressure canner.
5. Proper sanitation is a must. As with any time you are preparing food, it’s important to be careful not to expose your meat or equipment to bacteria or cross-contaminates.
- Always begin with fresh meat, or meat that has not been thawed for longer than 2 days.
- Keep meat as cold as possible until you’re ready to start canning it.
- Remove any bad or bruised spots from the meat before canning.
- Wash your jars and lids in hot, soapy water. You can run the jars through a dishwasher if you’d like. Keep them hot until you’re ready to fill them with meat.
- Sanitize all cutting surfaces before you prepare your meat.
- Wash your hands well before handling the food, and after touching raw meat.
- Process meat as soon as the jars are filled. Only fill enough jars for one canner load at a time.
6. Remove as much fat as you can from the meat. Trim the fat and gristle from chunks of pork, beef, chicken, venison, etc, and drain as much grease as possible from meats that you brown before canning. Fat can actually climb the sides of the canning jar and interfere with the lid’s seal, potentially causing seal failure down the road and spoiling your meat. Get as much of that fat removed as possible. If you notice a layer of fat on the top of your meat after your jars have cooled, don’t be alarmed– a little is okay. Just be sure to check the lids to make sure they’re still properly sealed before you consume the contents. You should not be able to remove the lid easily without the use of a tool to help pry it off.
Note: while you’re trimming the fat you should also cut the meat into uniformly sized pieces, so that they are all heated equally.
7. When filling jars always ensure proper headspace. Every approved canning recipe includes a specified headspace- the amount of space between the food and the rim of the jar. For meats this is typically one inch.
It’s important that you measure headspace closely. If too little headspace is allowed, the food may bubble out of the jar during processing, leaving food or grease on the rim of the jar and preventing a proper seal. If there is too much headspace, any meat sticking out from the liquid in the jar could possibly discolor, and/or the lid may not seal properly because all of the air wasn’t driven out of the jar.
8. Don’t over-pack the jars. Packing meat too tightly in the jars can cause them to boil over during the canning process. When filling jars with raw meat, a loose pack is recommended for best results. Firmly tap the bottom of the jar with the palm of your hand, or place a towel on the counter and tap the jar on the towel to cause the meat to settle. Never press or cram meat into a jar.
9. Remove air bubbles before canning. When canning meat in a brine or hot liquid, use a plastic or wooden utensil such as the back of a wooden spoon to poke around in the jar and remove any air bubbles trapped between the pieces of food. This will ensure that your jars are heated adequately throughout and allows for proper headspace.
Don’t ever use a metal utensil, steel wool, or wire brushes on canning jars. These will scratch the glass and cause etching, which can weaken the jar and potentially cause it to break during the canning process.
10. Clean the rim of the jar well before affixing the lid. Any particles of food or droplets of grease remaining on the rim can prevent the lid from sealing properly. It’s imperative that the rim be wiped clean and every particle removed. I’ve found that using a cloth dipped in white vinegar is the best way to cut grease and ensure a tight seal.
11. Never reuse metal lids. It can be tempting, especially if they appear to be in good condition. But standard metal canning lids are not designed to seal more than once. Even if you do get a good seal after 24 hours of cooling, there is a good chance the seal will fail several weeks or months down the road, exposing your meat to air and causing it to spoil.
If you’d like to save money on lids, invest in good quality re-usables such as Tattler Canning Lids, which are designed to be used indefinitely.
(Screw bands are okay to reuse as long as they aren’t rusty or bent.)
12. Follow the manufacturers directions for your specific canner. This is extremely important. Not all canners work exactly the same way, so it’s important that the steps you take are as directed for your particular pressure canner. If the canner you have is quite old, you might be able to find directions for it online. Or you can contact the manufacturer and request a manual if you don’t have one. If it’s so old that you can’t find a manual, it’s time to upgrade to something safer.
13. Be sure to adjust pressure at higher altitudes. If you live above 1,000 ft in elevation, you will need to add 5 extra pounds to the pressure called for in the recipe. For instance, if the meat recipe you are looking at says to can it at 10 lbs of pressure, you will need to increase that to 15 lbs of pressure*.
*Exception: If you are using an older model with a dial gauge use the following guidelines:
- 0 – 2,000 ft : 11 pounds pressure
- 2,001 – 4,000 ft : 12 pounds pressure
- 4,001 – 6,000 ft : 13 pounds pressure
- 6,001 – 8,000 ft : 14 pounds pressure
- 8,001 – 10,000 ft : 15 pounds pressure
14. Properly vent the pressure canner before you start timing. Most models need to allow steam to release or “vent” for 10 minutes before adding the weight and starting the timer (please refer to your owner’s manual for specific instructions). It’s important that the air is driven out first so that you don’t have air pressure as well as steam pressure inside, which would give you a faulty gauge reading.
15. Wait until you’ve reached the proper pressure before starting the timer. People mistakenly believe they can begin timing the canning process once the lid has been secured on the canner. Do not begin the timing process until the canner has had a chance to vent for 10 minutes, you’ve added the regulator weight, and the pressure on the pressure gauge is reading the appropriate pressure for your meat. Once the canner has reached the correct pounds of pressure according to your manufacturer’s instructions, you may begin counting processing time. Each specific recipe will tell you exactly how long you need to can your meat for, and at how many pounds of pressure.
16. Never walk away from a pressure canner while it’s over a heat source. This kinda falls under #11, but is worth re-emphasizing. You must keep a constant eye on the pressure gauge, and an ear out for the regulator weight (or “jiggler”), and adjust the heat accordingly. Allowing a pressure canner to greatly exceed the proper pounds of pressure can result in the lid blowing off the canner. Yes, it would be extremely hard to do this with all of the safety features built into newer pressure canners, but it is still a possibility. Keep an eye on it!
17. Never remove the pressure canner’s lid until the pressure has fallen back down to zero. Becoming impatient or forgetting to pay attention to the pressure gauge and removing the lid prematurely can cause a serious accident. Once the pressure has dropped to zero, remove the weight and allow the canner to rest for 10 additional minutes before removing the lid. Always remove the lid away from your face as there will be hot steam escaping.
Never try to cool a pressure canner down quickly; allow the temperature to drop naturally.
18. Use care when removing the hot jars from the canner. Never lift the jars by the lid, as this can cause seal failure. Never place a hot jar on a cold surface or in a cold draft or the glass will crack.
19. Always test the lids to make sure they’ve sealed properly. Once you’ve taken the hot jars out of the canner, allow them to cool for 24 hours before testing the lids. Never assume the lids have sealed without testing them to be sure. Unscrew the band and gently pull up on the metal lid. It should not come off. If it does come off, you need to put that jar in the fridge to be eaten right away, or freeze it. You can also reprocess the meat in a clean jar with a new lid, but the meat might not have a desirable texture and you will lose more nutrients as a result of the excess processing.
20. Remove bands and wipe lids clean before storing. Once your jars have cooled and you’ve tested the seals, remove the bands from the jars and use a clean cloth to wipe the lids clean. Oftentimes, grease or food particles which have escaped the jars during the canning process will adhere to the lids and cause rust to develop over time. Rusty lids compromise the safety of your canned meat. Wipe the lids clean and dry them thoroughly.
You can store the jars without the bands, but if you prefer to keep the bands on your jars wash and dry them before screwing them back on. Be forewarned, bands left in place may become corroded, making the jars difficult to open.
21. Properly store your home canned meats. Canned goods need to be stored in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight. Light hastens oxidation and destroys vital nutrients. A damp environment will cause the metal lids and bands to rust and corrode, potentially ruining a good seal and spoiling your food.
It is best not to stack jars directly on top of each other. Instead, put a piece of cardboard between layers. This will help prevent damage to the lids on the bottom row.
22. Examine home canned meat before consuming it. Although botulism cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted, there are still a few things to look out for to make sure your canned goods are safe to eat.
- First and foremost, it is imperative that the meat was canned for the appropriate time and at the correct pressure using a pressure canner. If there is any question whether or not it was done properly, don’t eat it.
- If the lid is bulging, leaking, swollen, or otherwise damaged, throw the contents away.
- If the jar is cracked or otherwise damaged, throw the contents away.
- If the jar spurts liquid or foams when opened, throw the contents away.
- If the meat is discolored, moldy or smells bad, throw it away.
- It’s best to follow the rule: “If in doubt, throw it out.”
23. Always re-heat meat for 10-15 minutes before consuming it. Bring it to a boil over the stove, or you can add the meat to a baked dish and heat it thoroughly in the oven.
Other answers to common canning questions:
Q: How long will home canned meat stay good?
A: It is best to consume home canned meats within one year for best flavor, texture, and nutritional value. However, home canned foods will stay good for several years as long as they are stored properly and the seal remains in tact.
Q: Do I have to add salt to meat before canning it?
A: No. Salt is only added for flavor. It has nothing to do with preservation.
Q: What if I canned at the wrong pressure?
A: If you canned at a pressure higher than recommended, your food will likely still be safe to eat (though you may have lost liquids from your jars as a result). If you canned at a pressure lower than recommended, the food will not be safe to eat. If you discover the mistake right away, you can reprocess your jars in the pressure canner at the correct pounds of pressure and time. If it has been over 24 hours, I would recommend tossing that food– better safe than sorry!
Q: What if I lose power in the middle of canning, or the pressure drops temporarily?
A: “If at any time pressure goes below the recommended amount, bring the canner back to pressure and begin the timing of the process over, from the beginning (using the total original process time). This is important for the safety of the food.” ~National Center for Home Food Preservation
Q: Is it safe to can on a flat/glass top stove?
A: Your pressure canner may have come with a warning that your canner is not to be used on a flat/glass top stove. This is more of a liability issue for your manufacturer than a canning safety issue. Canners are very heavy when they are filled, and if you drop the canner or slide it on your flat stove-top, you risk cracking or otherwise damaging it. I’ve been canning on a flat-top stove for 7 years now, and have never had a problem. You just have to be careful with the heavy canner. I would not recommend canning on a flat-top stove in anything larger than a 21 qt canner. Anything bigger will be too heavy. If you’d rather not risk damaging your stovetop, a 2-burner propane camp stove is a good alternative.
If you are using an older canner make sure the bottom is completely flat. If it is concave, or doesn’t sit flat on your stove-top, then it will likely have a hard time reaching and maintaining proper pressure, and thus wouldn’t be safe to use.
Q: What if I lose liquid from the jar during the canning process? Is it okay if the meat is sticking out from the liquid?
A: The loss of a little bit of liquid happens sometimes. It’s okay if some meat is sticking up out of the liquid. If you’ve lost a lot of liquid you’ve either over-stuffed your jars, left too little headspace, allowed the pressure to fluctuate dramatically, or you may have removed the lid from the canner too quickly (see #17 above).
Q: Is it safe to can meat from the freezer?
A: Yes, but it must be thawed no more than 2 days.
Q: Is it safe to can meats in sauce or gravy?
A: It is safe to can meat in sauces, such as spaghetti sauce and sloppy joe mix. Approved recipes are always best, as seasonings can become stronger over time and may change the flavor of your product.
It is not safe to can meat in anything too thick to get heated adequately in the center of the jar during the canning process. It is not recommended to can in gravies thickened with flour.
Q: Is it safe to season meat before canning it?
A: Yes, you can season meat before canning it. But again, seasonings get stronger and spices get spicier during the canning process. It may not taste the same as it does when you season the meat the same way and cook it instead of canning it. You can always add seasonings to the meat when re-heating it.
Q: Can I can organ meat?
A: You can, but the flavor is very strong and undesirable. Definitely don’t can organ meat with non-organ meat or the flavor will be ruined.
Keep all of these recommendations in mind and follow an approved canning recipe, and enjoy a pantry stocked with wholesome, convenient meats ready to heat-and-eat!