Principles of Canning and Preserving Food

In the preservation of foods by canning, preserving, etc., the most essential things in the processes are the sterilization of the food and all the utensils and the sealing of the sterilized food to exclude all germs.


Over one hundred years ago François Appert was the first to make practical application of the method of preserving food by putting it in cans or bottles, which he hermetically sealed. He then put the full bottles or cans in water and boiled them for more or less time, depending upon the kinds of food.

In Appert’s time and, indeed, until recent years it was generally thought that the oxygen of the air caused the decomposition of food. Appert’s theory was that the things essential to the preservation of food in this manner were the exclusion of air and the application of gentle heat, as in the water bath, which caused a fusion of the principal constituents and ferments in such a manner that the power of the ferments was destroyed.

The investigations of scientists, particularly of Pasteur, have shown that it is not the oxygen of the air which causes fermentation and putrefaction, but bacteria and other microscopic organisms.

Appert’s theory as to the cause of the spoiling of food was incorrect, but his method of preserving it by sealing and cooking was correct, and the world owes him a debt of gratitude.

In their investigations scientists have found that if food is perfectly sterilized and the opening of the jar or bottle plugged with sterilized cotton, food will not ferment, for the bacteria and yeasts to which such changes are due can not pass through the cotton. This method can not be conveniently followed with large jars.

Canned home grown Jalapeno Peppers

Bacteria and yeasts exist in the air, in the soil, and on all vegetable and animal substances, and even in the living body, but although of such universal occurrence, the true knowledge of their nature and economic importance has only been gained during the last forty years.

There are a great many kinds of these micro-organisms. Some do great harm, but it is thought that the greater part of them are beneficial rather than injurious.

Bacteria are one-celled and so small they can only be seen by aid of a microscope. The process of reproduction is simple and rapid. The bacterium becomes constricted, divides, and finally there are two cells instead of one. Under favorable conditions each cell divides, and so rapid is the work that it has been estimated that one bacterium may give rise, within twenty-four hours, to seventeen millions of similar organisms. The favorable conditions for growth are moisture, warmth, and proper food.

Yeasts, which are also one-celled organisms, grow less rapidly. A bud develops, breaks off, and forms a new yeast plant. Some yeasts and some kinds of bacteria produce spores. Spores, like the dried seeds of plants, may retain their vitality for a long time, even when exposed to conditions which kill the parent organism.

Yeasts and nearly all bacteria require oxygen, but there are species of the latter that seem to grow equally well without it, so that the exclusion of air, which, of course, contains oxygen, is not always a protection, if one of the anaerobic bacteria, as the kinds are called which do not require oxygen, is sealed in the can.

Spoiling of food is caused by the development of bacteria or yeasts. Certain chemical changes are produced as shown by gases, odors, and flavors.

Bacteria grow luxuriantly in foods containing a good deal of nitrogenous material, if warmth and moisture are present. Among foods rich in nitrogenous substances are all kinds of meat, fish, eggs, peas, beans, lentils, milk, etc. These foods are difficult to preserve on account of the omnipresent bacteria. This is seen in warm, muggy weather, when fresh meat, fish, soups, milk, etc., spoil quickly. Bacteria do not develop in substances containing a large percentage of sugar, but they grow rapidly in a suitable wet substance which con[7]tains a small percentage of sugar. Yeasts grow very readily in dilute solutions containing sugars in addition to some nitrogenous and mineral matters. Fruits are usually slightly acid and in general do not support bacterial growth, and so it comes about that canned fruits are more commonly fermented by yeasts than by bacteria.

Some vegetable foods have so much acid and so little nitrogenous substance that very few bacteria or yeasts attack them. Lemons, cranberries, and rhubarb belong to this class.

Temperature is an important factor in the growth of bacteria and yeasts. There are many kinds of these organisms, and each kind grows best at a certain temperature, some at a very low one and others at one as high as 125° F., or more. However, most kinds of bacteria are destroyed if exposed for ten or fifteen minutes to the temperature of boiling water (212° F.); but, if the bacteria are spore producers, cooking must be continued for an hour or more to insure their complete destruction. Generally speaking, in order to kill the spores the temperature must be higher than that of boiling water, or the article to be preserved must be cooked for about two hours at a temperature of 212° F., or a shorter time at a higher temperature under pressure.

Yeasts and their spores are, however, more easily destroyed by heat than bacteria spores. Hence, fruits containing little nitrogenous material are more easily protected from fermentation than nitrogenous foods in which in general fermentation is caused by bacteria. Of course, it is not possible to know what kinds of organisms are in the food one is about to can or bottle; but we do know that most fruits are not favorable to the growth of bacteria, and, as a rule, the yeasts which grow in fruits and fruit juice can be destroyed by cooking ten or fifteen minutes at a temperature of 212° F. If no living organisms are left, and the sterilization of all appliances has been thorough, there is no reason why the fruit, if properly sealed, should not keep, with but slight change of texture or flavor, for a year or longer, although canned fruits undergo gradual change and deterioration even under the most favorable conditions.

When fruit is preserved with a large amount of sugar (a pound of sugar to a pound of fruit) it does not need to be hermetically sealed to protect it from bacteria and yeasts, because the thick, sugary sirup formed is not favorable to their growth. However, the self-sealing jars are much better than keeping such fruit in large receptacles, from which it is taken as needed, because molds grow freely on moist, sugary substances exposed to the air.


Every housekeeper is familiar with molds which, under favorable conditions of warmth and moisture, grow upon almost any kind of[8] organic material. This is seen in damp, warm weather, when molds form in a short time on all sorts of starchy foods, such as boiled potatoes, bread, mush, etc., as well as fresh, canned, and preserved fruits.

Molds develop from spores which are always floating about in the air. When a spore falls upon a substance containing moisture and suitable food it sends out a fine thread, which branches and works its way over and into the attacked substance. In a short time spores are produced and the work of reproduction goes on.

In the first stages molds are white or light gray and hardly noticeable; but when spores develop the growth gradually becomes colored. In fact, the conditions of advanced growth might be likened to those of a flower garden. The threads—mycelium—might be likened to the roots of plants and the spores to the flower and seeds.

Mold spores are very light and are blown about by the wind. They are a little heavier than air, and drop on shelves, tables, and floor, and are easily set in motion again by the movement of a brush, duster, etc. If one of these spores drops on a jar of preserves or a tumbler of jelly, it will germinate if there be warmth and moisture enough in the storeroom. Molds do not ordinarily cause fermentation of canned foods, although they are the common cause of the decay of raw fruits. They are not as injurious to canned goods as are bacteria and yeasts. They do not penetrate deeply into preserves or jellies, or into liquids or semiliquids, but if given time they will, at ordinary room temperature, work all through suitable solid substances which contain moisture. Nearly every housekeeper has seen this in the molding of a loaf of bread or cake.

In the work of canning, preserving, and jelly making it is important that the food shall be protected from the growth of molds as well as the growth of yeasts and bacteria.

To kill mold spores food must be exposed to a temperature of from 150° F. to 212° F. After this it should be kept in a cool, dry place and covered carefully that no floating spore can find lodgment on its surface.


To sterilize a substance or thing is to destroy all life and sources of life in and about it. In following the brief outline of the structure and work of bacteria, yeasts, and molds, it has been seen that damage to foods comes through the growth of these organisms on or in the food; also that if such organisms are exposed to a temperature of 212° F., life will be destroyed, but that spores and a few resisting bacteria are not destroyed at a temperature of 212° F., unless exposed to it for two or more hours.

Bacteria and yeasts, which are intimately mixed with food, are not[9] as easily destroyed as are those on smooth surfaces, such as the utensils and jars employed in the preparation of the food.

Since air and water, as well as the foods, contain bacteria and yeasts, and may contain mold spores, all utensils used in the process of preserving foods are liable to be contaminated with these organisms. For this reason all appliances, as well as the food, must be sterilized.

Stewpans, spoons, strainers, etc., may be put on the fire in cold or boiling water and boiled ten or fifteen minutes. Tumblers, bottles, glass jars, and covers should be put in cold water and heated gradually to the boiling point, and then boiled for ten or fifteen minutes. The jars must be taken one at a time from the boiling water at the moment they are to be filled with the boiling food. The work should be done in a well swept and dusted room, and the clothing of the workers and the towels used should be clean. The food to be sterilized should be perfectly sound and clean.

As in this bulletin we have only to do with fruits, it will not be necessary to say anything more about long cooking at a high temperature.

In canning fruits it is well to remember that the product is more satisfactory if heated gradually to the boiling point and then cooked the given time.

This article was taken from:



Publication date: 1917