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Because of so-called reality TV programs, most of us have seen families who believe life as we know it is soon coming to an end and because of that have squirreled away a lifetime supply of rice and dried beans. Whether you’re planning for such an eventuality or just want the convenience of canned meats without sacrificing the quality of a homemade meal, canning meats will add substantially to the versatility of the dishes you’re able to prepare from pantry staples.

Twice in my life I’ve lost power for two weeks at a time due to ice storms and falling trees breaking down power lines and three times I’ve lost huge quantities of food when a freezer stopped working. In fact, not long ago a power surge during a thunderstorm blew a thing-a-ma-jig in my refrigerator/freezer and I threw out an enormous amount of food that spoiled before I could get a repair man out to replace it. One thing I’ve learned from those experiences is that canned and dried food will last whereas frozen foods are only good so long as the freezer works.

Jars were patented in 1858 but not widely used for quite some time. Once the knowledge and materials for home canning became widespread, say early 20th century, canning became the method of choice in preservation for many housewives. One could purchase canned meats as well as vegetables and fruits so thrifty homemakers wanted the convenience of canned foods but at what they considered a more reasonable price and better quality so the art of home canning became all the rage.

In late summer and early fall, when back-yard poultry producers thinned their flocks for the coming winter, canning the chicken meant having ready-to-eat meat for winter whereas before they had suffered a loss. Making the chicken into soup and canning the prepared soup meant a hearty and delicious meal could be table ready in a matter of minutes and it was of better quality, meatier, and more economically feasible than “boughten” soup.

Poultry was canned using both the hot pack and raw pack methods in a water bath in the early 20th century. Homemakers were told to process jars of partially cooked chicken in a water bath for 3 to 3 ½ hours or raw packed chicken for 3 ½ to 4 hours. A homemaker can reduce that time to 75 to 90 minutes by using a pressure canner.

Success for those early canners meant having a full understanding of how the water-bath worked and lots of time to devote to the canning process.

“The cooking (sterilizing) is done in what is known as the waterbath canner—any kind of a metal vessel that can be placed over a stove, range or gas burner. A bucket, lard can, wash boiler or any similar vessel having a tight-fitting lid may be used. It must be deep enough so that the water will be at least an inch above the tops of the jars, and a false bottom should be provided to keep the jars from coming in contact with direct heat, also to provide a better circulation of the water, and a more even temperature.”

By the 1920’s, home economists were instructing homemakers in the use of pressure canners and evaluating the quality of the chicken after various cooking times using one.

“For example, in canning chicken (cut into pieces as usual, i.e. breast, leg, thighs, etc.) in a pint jar, at a pressure of 15 pounds (retort temperature 120 C.), it takes about 40 minutes for the temperature in the center of the jar to reach the boiling point, and about 60 minutes for it to reach the temperature of the steam in the cooker. Our experience is that the chicken is usually “done” at the end of 30 minutes at 15 pounds, or at least it is done by the time the pressure has fallen to the zero point and the jar is ready to be taken out.”

The authors added a footnote to protect themselves from angry homemakers who, for whatever reason, had their jars spoil after processing for that cooking time. “This does not mean that we recommend 30 minutes as a sufficient processing period in canning chicken at 15 pounds pressure. As a matter of fact, we consider that a process of 60 minutes is much safer…”.

I have always felt the suggested processing times were somewhat longer than absolutely necessary for most foods. Years ago, the first time I canned corn I processed it the full time as recommended for my pressure canner, and I considered it a dismal failure – the corn was hardened in the jars more like cold polenta than creamed corn.

Processing times can vary for several reasons, especially altitude. Turn of the century home economists pointed out variants included the size of the piece of meat being canned, the shape of the meat, the amount of bone in the meat, and whether the meat came from an older and tougher animal or one butchered in its prime. It is still impossible to find any one magic moment when everything is perfectly done for every home canner because there are just too many variables and “the powers” who write the instructions aren’t leaving anything to chance – better to overcook and be a little dry than undercook and deal with the possibility of spoilage and food poisoning.

On my first attempt at canning ham chunks I processed the pint jars the recommended 75 minutes at 15 lbs. pressure and found the finished product to be quite flavorful but somewhat dry. For subsequent batches I adjusted the processing to 10 lbs. of pressure for 60 minutes. Every jar sealed and if they remain sealed over time, I will continue to do so.

“Care should always be taken, not to cook longer than is really necessary, since flavor and juiciness are sacrificed as the cooking period advances, even when the meat is not allowed to become hard or dry.”

My raw-pack chicken breast is very tasty and remains moist when processed a full 75 minutes so I will probably continue doing them somewhere between 65 and 75 minutes for the pints. As with the home economists, however, I’m adding a disclaimer – experiment and use your own judgment when trying this yourself.

SEE: Successful Back-Yard Poultry Keeping. 1902. Journal of Home Economics. 1921.