What Mountaineering Accidents Can Teach Us About Food Preservation

Would you eat pickles made by these two?

Each year the American Alpine Club publishes a book detailing all the mountaineering accidents in North America. The club’s goal is simple, as they put it, “to help you learn from the mistakes of others.”

I’ve often thought that the same approach should be applied to many of the activities we love in the homesteading movement, especially food preservation. Now, I think that home food preservation is very safe. Indeed, it’s much healthier than eating commercially processed foods. But I find mistakes to be one of the best ways to learn. In the case of food preservation, like mountaineering, I’d prefer to learn from the mistakes of others rather than experience them myself.

As it turn out, food safety scientists do keep a close eye on, especially, botulism. With the increased popularity of home canning there have been a few botulism outbreaks in recent years. Botulism is very rare, but you definitely do not want to get a case of it (just read about the symptoms and treatment here if you don’t believe me). Periodically, the Center for Disease Control publishes a review of all the cases. The last one looked at botulism incidents between 1990 and 2000.

The CDC’s botulism review is informative. The majority of cases in the US are related to traditional meat fermentation practices of the Inuit in Alaska, compounded by the inappropriate use of modern materials such as plastic and glass. The leading cause of botulism in the lower 48 is, however, improper home canning. All incidents were low-acid foods, such as asparagus, canned without following proper procedures. I suspect most of these cases were people using a boiling water bath instead of a pressure canner. Other home cases involved storing low acid foods at room temperature (which is just plain dumb).

Four cases that stand out are related to storing garlic in oil at room temeprature. The National Center for Home Food Preservation now recommends the following if you want to preserve garlic in oil:

Garlic-in-oil should be made fresh and stored in the refrigerator at 40°F or lower for no more than 7 days. It may be frozen for long term storage for up to several months. Package in glass freezer jars or plastic freezer boxes, leaving ½-inch headspace. Label, date and freeze.

The take home from the botulism review is that the problem is rare and that home food preservation is very safe assuming you follow standard procedures, most notably using a pressure canner to can low acid foods. None, zero, zilch of the incidents were related to high acid foods such as jams and jellies.

Now go pickle something (and you won’t need a pressure canner to do that!).

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13 Comments

  1. I decided to freeze my excess garlic in olive oil in a squat 1/2 pint canning jar. I had to use superwoman strength and a sharp knife to get it out. I felt I was in real danger each time I tried to hack out any of the contents! I am totally serious. It gets rock hard! I am not sure what the solution is. Maybe you have a suggestion?

    Did you read my post about the #10 can that was swollen that I decided should be opened? I posted it yesterday. It was horrid.

    • No suggestion for the garlic in oil problem, sadly. It may just be a preservation project that just doesn’t work in a home kitchen.

      And just took a look at your #10 can post. Very funny!

  2. A good reminder about safe canning practices. I have talked to different people in the past and one let the canner go without any specific timer to process??? The other canned all their green beans using a boiling water bath. I think the reason they got away with that is because they cooked the beans after opening the cans for another hour or so. We’ve pressure canned everything for 20 years and haven’t had a single problem. Thanks for the post!

    livininthegreen.blogspot.com

  3. Hey Practical Pars: If you’re okay with plastic, I highly recommend freezing the garlic in a plastic bag – flatten out the bag before you throw it in the freezer, and then you can wham it against the counter to break off chunks. Otherwise, I would dehydrate garlic in the oven.

    I’m a big fan of freezing. The only thing we preserve are jams. We have a chest style freezer in the garage – very energy efficient and holds plenty of stuff. We’ve fortunate to have a solar array w/ battery backup in case we lose power. Even when it’s become unplugged, however, it’ll go for a good 36 hrs without any problems because it’s so efficiently insulated.

    • Rena,
      I am not a fan of plastic because it is porous, but sometimes it just works best. That is a great idea. I took the jar from the freezer once I had forgotten what was in it. I opened it to try and figure out what it was. As soon as it thawed, three flies got into it. No problem. Now I know what attracts flies. I don’t have my glasses on, so I hope this is intelligible. (hair color time)

    • Mr. Homegrown,
      Yes, I only use freezer bags in the freezer. However, freezer bags are still more porous than canning jars used with the canning lids and rings. I put about six quarts of pecans in jars in the freezer. There is never any freezer burn or a bit of frost on anything in jars.

      When I freeze free or lowcost quality bread, I put the double-wrapped-from-the-bakery loaf, two of them, into one two-gallon freezer bag. Of course, I eat those faster than jars of pecans.

      Of course, I only use Ball Canning/Freezing jars, basically jars with straight sides and no shoulders…wide mouth jars.

  4. My dad does no boiling ‘pickling’.. if it’s highly acidic would that prevent spoilage/food danger? An example is every summer he makes pickled plums (the VERY sour japanese plum, though it’s in the apricot family, known as ume). He uses shiso leaves, goes easy on the sugar, and layers these with the plums after they’ve been slightly dried in the sun. This sits out on the counter for months, and all the liquid comes out. He eats the jars of ume into the next season all year round. Another thing he did was soak garlic cloves in vinegar. They turned bright blue, and was also eating them for months. I’m a bit cautious and concerned but he seems to know what he’s doing?

  5. I assume the plums are lacto-fermented, i.e. in a salt brine. If so, the lacto-fermentation process creates a highly acidic environment that prevents spoilage. Garlic in vinegar should be ok–the problem is garlic in oil. For long term storage of pickles they should be processed in a boiling water bath canner or refrigerated. This is to prevent mold, yeast and bacteria that causes spoilage. Botulism does not happen in an acidic environment.

  6. You could do the freeze-in-ice-tray thing, so that you can take out small portions. I use that method to freeze all kinds of stuff-herbs in water, tomato paste,grated ginger,etc. It could be worth a shot :)

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