Forgotten Knowledge on Canning – Harold

By Harold, Editor At Largecauldron

When I was just three years old, we moved from a house in our little home town to a larger home on one acre of ground on the outskirts, about a half mile walk.  It came with a big house, a barn, smoke house, with root cellar underneath, and the remnants of a sadly neglected fruit orchard, since the property had sat vacant for twenty five years – Dad got it for the back taxes.They traded our little house in town we were buying for the property.

It had large piles of junk and we painstakingly picked out all of the metals from the piles including the empty tin cans which we had to cut out the other end and flatten them for the scrap dealer to pick them up.  This was for the WWII scrap drive. 

In the process we found stored in the root cellar a very large cast iron witch’s type cauldron, with lid, which was suspended on three chains from an open top tripod.  It did not get scrapped, but after a careful cleaning and sterilizing my mother used it in the yard in fair weather for everything from boiling laundry to making soap, cooking and canning. 

In cooler weather there was a breezeway between the house and the smokehouse which we enclosed, except for the south end which had a flagstone floor.  Dad had the local sheet metal mechanic to fabricate a smoke hood and vent pipe, so we could use it inside in foul weather.  After a couple of years we ran out of cobs and wood scraps to fuel the fire and Dad had an oil burner ring from a furnace given to him and we placed this under the kettle, raising it on bricks until the bottom most part of the kettle was nestled in the ring.  We fed fuel from a five gallon can of kerosene and with the valve we were able to better control the heat.  I was about six or seven when I became the chief fireman and kettle tender, the war was over and things had eased as far as supply of goods was concerned. 

Mom had been canning in the kettle after the sheet metal mechanic fabricated a rack to set the bottles on and she decided to start canning meat, pork, mixed domestic and wild boneless rabbit, squirrel and chicken pheasant mixed.  She would only use the half gallon heavy green glass Mason brand jars with the zinc plated caps with replaceable rubber seals.  I believe she got her information on canning from the McNess products dealer, since her mother nor sisters ever canned meats. 

We could not afford a pressure canner even though Dad had traded skilled carpentry service for an old Presto pressure cooker and I doubt if they ever made one back then that would handle half gallon jars.  She would place them in the water bath and I would bring the temperature up to boiling until she told me they had cooked sufficiently and then I would place the heavy fifteen pound cast iron lid on the kettle.  She told me to let her know as soon as the steam and pressure lifted the lid a little bit and let the pressure escape.  She would then count the times it raised and when the time came would have me turn off the fire and let it cool down sufficiently to remove the jars and check the lids for tightness and the dimple in the top that we checked with a straight edge since the heavy zinc caps did not dimple as deep as modern two piece lids do. 

To the best of my memory she never lost a jar preserved with this method and it was only after reading the treatise by servantheart on pressure canning with her emphasis on proper pressure and time interval that my memory awakened and realized that was what my mother had been doing with this primitive method of pressure and time interval regulation.  Such a strange world indeed to figure this method was tried and true before the advent of pressure canners.  I always knew she had successfully canned meats, but always thought it was by simple boiling water bath until servantheart posted that information.  I guess if I had no other modern way I would do it that way also. 

Sadly during the move out to the country in 1954, my younger brother let the cauldron roll out the back of the wagon onto the road and cracked it.  None of the weld attempts would hold up under the heat and pressure differences, so we sadly scrapped it.  So I gained something else from this even if it was only an explanation to a nearly forgotten mystery. 


Even though I had to dredge up memories from the past it proves without a doubt that the primitive methods did work just fine.  As an engineer, I have long known that we use pressure caps of around fifteen pounds on cars to raise the temperature of the coolant so the water does not boil away from the anti freeze which boils at a much higher temperature. 

Added to that my knowledge of the steam cycle and superheated high pressure steam.  I figured the McNess distributor must have been an engineer because he fixed mom up with the information and when we weighed the cast iron lid with the chicken scales it weighed exactly fifteen pounds, which was the pressure required to reach the proper temperature. This also leads me to believe that the weight was probably calculated when the lid was cast. 

This is not new engineering, since it dates back to the 1870’s when locomotive boilers were banded and clad with insulation and then jacketed to increase steam pressures for better performance.  Even the old Stanley Steamers had a boiler wrapped in music wire to contain the increased pressures.  Strange world huh. 

I am now trying to obtain an old kettle with lid and some of those green glass jars in quart size and my youngest daughter who is the canner in the family, but who has never canned meats is going to try and can some of the huge  premium chicken breasts we get from the local poultry processing facility.  I will try and keep you posted on the outcome.  Will probably be this winter sometime.

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