Good Life

Eats & drinks | Enjoy fruits (and more) of your labor by canning

Catherine Cutter, Penn State Food Safety extension specialist, works on one of the food preservation recipes during a 2011 workshop at Penn State.
Catherine Cutter, Penn State Food Safety extension specialist, works on one of the food preservation recipes during a 2011 workshop at Penn State. Photo provided

The following column ran in July 2009 after a workshop that took place in the Foods Lab at Penn State. It is timely now, with summer produce peaking. While there are currently no hands-on workshops offered, information about canning is available at the Home Food Preservation web site, with updated fact sheets: . Dr. Luke LaBorde explained that, “Telephone questions can be routed through local extension offices to an email hotline that goes to the experts that are remaining in the field and here at UP. We are committed to the subject, but trying out new strategies to be more efficient.”

Martha Zepp stood at the stove, adjusting the jigglers on the pressure canner. Participants in the canning workshop stood a respectful distance back from the hissing appliance, carefully out of range of shooting steam. They watched the master.

Cooperative extension agents from across Pennsylvania participated in a two-day home preservation training workshop on campus recently to better prepare for what is expected to be a lot of questions from first-time canners this summer. This spring’s increased interest in home gardening is blossoming into a revival of home canning methods — and some of those methods have been revamped.

Martin Bucknavage, Luke LaBorde and Catherine Cutter, of Penn State’s College of Agriculture Food Science department, organized the workshop. A day of lectures about different aspects of home preservation was followed by a day of hands-on preparation of popular canned goods and then sampling and critiquing them.

Most of the participants were women and most serve as county agents that field questions when home food preservation methods go awry. Learning how to ask the appropriate questions in order to identify the source of the problem is critical.

“A sealed jar is not a safe jar,” stressed Zepp. “If someone has a problem you just keep asking questions to see how they did it. Terminology is key. ‘Process’ — what does that mean? Different things to different people. Find out exactly what the caller did.”

Zepp, clearly the “go-to” gal in the circle of extension agents, has had many a year of canning practice in Lancaster County where she has been a consultant to the extension office there as well as a partner in developing Cooperative Extension’s “Let’s Preserve” series. Nancy Wiker, also an agent at the Lancaster extension office, helped to plan the workshop with Zepp and facilitated throughout.

Home food preservation is a skill that used to be learned at home but later was codified as home economics. The women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s created a shift in terminology — and thinking — to rename that branch of domestic arts family and consumer science, with an emphasis on consumption. The pendulum is swinging back now, and an interest in how to run a household sustainably and economically is in vogue. People are growing and want to preserve their own food. How to do that safely is a key issue.

Workshop participants had fun preparing the products together and then sampling the full range. Strawberry jam variables included the standard one made with sugar and powdered pectin, one made with Splenda and two freezer jam varieties. Canned marinated peppers were much better when they were skinned after roasting. Beef and chicken canned hot pack and cold pack, with and without salt, illustrated a viable convenience food. Bread and butter pickles are easy to make in a few hours. Hot packed and raw packed tomatoes showed a world of difference and two salsas demonstrated that fresh tomatoes make a world of difference in a salsa.

The extension agents left with renewed resolve to serve the public by answering their home food preservation questions. Call them for advice.

Home food preservation resources are listed at, which has links for many sites that run the gamut from tips to complete online training videos from the National Center for Home Food Preservation. Print resources are available from the Penn State Cooperative Extension office in your county or contact the PSU Publications Distribution Center at 865-6713 or