By Cat Holmes
University of Georgia
Since the National Center for Home Food Preservation Web site (www.uga.edu/nchfp/) was unveiled a year ago, food scientists from the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences have fielded all kinds of questions from home canners, freezers and picklers all over the country.
Pink pickles may not seem a serious problem. But many queries point to life-threatening or at least illness-causing situations, said Elizabeth Andress, a UGA Extension Service food safety specialist.
"The most common and serious mistake home canners make is using boiling water to process vegetables," Andress said. "It takes temperatures above 212 degrees to destroy harmful organisms, and this requires pressure canning for a known period of time. Boiling doesn't take enough time to destroy the bacteria that cause botulism."
Don't think that because some people inject Botox (botulinum toxin A) into their foreheads and frown lines to prevent wrinkles that botulism isn't serious, Andress said.
Botulism is still food poisoning. And it's fatal 30 percent to 40 percent of the time. The same neurotoxin that paralyzes muscles, erasing frown lines, can paralyze the respiratory muscles when it's eaten, making it impossible to breathe.
All it takes is a jar of improperly processed or pickled okra or string beans.
Why would people take a chance? Because their mother did it that way and their grandmother before that, and they've gotten away with it, Andress said.
Another factor is fear: Pressure cookers still scare many home canners. Visions of boiling-hot green beans or tomato sauce spattering the walls and ceiling, with third degree burns thrown in, keep folks away from pressure canners.
But that's all in the past, Andress said.
"Pressure canners have advanced significantly in the past 20 years," she said. "Locking mechanisms will not allow you to open it if the pressure is too high, so the days of food flying everywhere are over. And if the steam builds up too much, a valve will open up to release pressure."
Along with techniques, the NCHFP Web site features a number of recipes, including spiced crab apples, watermelon rind preserves and golden pepper jelly.
"The trend in home food preservation today is toward specialty items," Andress said. "People aren't doing the huge quantities they did in the past. They're making pickles and relishes and jams, and often these are for gifts."
And in case you're curious, overmature dill or yeast growth can cause pink pickles. The former is harmless, and the latter is not. So, if you see yeast growth (cloudy or slimy pickles), discard the pickles.
No, don't use aspirin in canning. It can't be relied on to prevent spoilage or to give satisfactory products. Adequate heat treatment is the only safe procedure.
And finally, to prevent "cobby" corn, after blanching the ears for the recommended time, chill them immediately with ice water until the cobs are completely cold. Partially thaw the ears of corn before you cook them.
(Cat Holmes is a science writer for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)