Home canning meat… people’s first reaction is to turn their heads to see where the banjo music is coming from.
Their second reaction is to be worried about the safety of home-canned meat, but in fact, meat is very safe to home can with the correct procedures. For the record, it’s the innocent-looking veggies that are the problem. “The item causing most botulism cases in the continental US is home-canned, low acid vegetables.” 1
You obviously won’t want to can meat intended for the grill or for the Sunday roast, but it’s a great way to store meat to be used in soups, stews, casseroles, risottos, curries, rice dishes, pasta and noodle dishes, etc.
For such dishes, it could be argued that canning is superior to freezing, because it doesn’t dry the meat out the way freezing can, doesn’t take up valuable freezer space, and is a pre-cooked (and no-thawing needed) ingredient ready to speed weeknight meals along.
Home canned meat can be extremely high quality, because it’s essentially meat that has been slowly braised to tender perfection inside the jar.
Be sure to freeze the meat stock from these jars when you open them for future use in something; it’s wonderful.
There are specific directions for various types of meat. Be sure to locate and use those when actually canning meat. Reputable sources for meat canning directions include Ball, Bernardin, the USDA, the National Center, University Extensions and reputable books such as So Easy to Preserve. Be cautious of advice from blogs that don’t draw on these as their sources; disregard as spurious any meat-canning advice (even from European jar makers) that doesn’t include the use of a pressure canner.
This is a general discussion and high-level review of the literature from reputable sources on the topic.
- 1 Processing method
- 2 How much meat per jar
- 3 Hot pack versus raw pack
- 4 Jar type
- 5 Packing liquid
- 6 Dry-canning meat
- 7 Exceptions for packing in thin liquid
- 8 Canning meat with bone-in, or boneless
- 9 Headspace
- 10 Low-fat meat is best for canning
- 11 You may can previously frozen meat
- 12 You don’t need salt to can meat
- 13 Getting fancy with your home canned meat
- 14 Further Reading
All home-canned meat is always pressure canned, no exceptions, ever.
How much meat per jar
Normally for canning meat the rule of thumb is roughly about 1/2 kg per 1/2 litre jar (1 pound per 1 US pint jar). It’s all going to depend, though, on how small or large you cut your pieces of meat. If you cut meat into largish chunks and pack very loosely, you might only get about 350 g (3/4 lb) per jar.
For ground beef (or other ground meat), the rule of thumb pretty much holds. That means that for taco fillings, macaroni, casserole recipes etc, or any recipe whose first step calls for you to take a pound of ground beef and brown it… it means you can skip the thawing and browning (and cleaning the frying pan) steps and just open the jar. On a crazy, busy weeknight, little time savers like that, let’s face it, can make the difference between a quick but healthy meal cooked at home, or, unhealthy, fattening delivery food.
Hot pack versus raw pack
When canning meat, the big question you may face is: raw pack versus hot pack.
Hot pack is a bit more work – it requires that you brown or pre-cook the meat a bit first in some way.
But, the processing pressure and time will be the same for both, and either way, when you open the jar for use, the meat is considered fully cooked.
The National Center for Home Food Preservation says on their blog,
A raw pack means that you will simply cut the pork into strips, cubes or chunks, add salt to jars if desired, and then fill jars with the small pieces of pork until 1-inch (2 to 3 cm) headspace remains. Liquid that is naturally stored within the meat will exude when heated, but sometimes there is not enough liquid to fully cover the meat, which can lead to discoloration of the uncovered portions. A hot pack calls for precooking the meat and then adding boiling broth, drippings, water, or tomato juice after filling the jar with the meat, better ensuring that it will be fully covered after the canning process. The choice between a raw pack or a hot pack is up to you….”2
- You can fit more in the jar, because the meat has done some of its shrinking during the precooking;
- Gives you a chance to sear or brown the meat, developing flavour caramelization on the surface of the meat;
- Some don’t like the texture of hot pack with all meats: they say that with more delicate meats such as chicken, browning it first can make it stringy.
Note: for any ground meat, of any kind, there is no choice: you must do a hot pack, either by sautéing the ground meat first, or, shaping it into patties and sautéing those. The reason is density: raw packed, ground meat would clump and prevent an even heat flow through the jar. You don’t fully cook the ground meat; just sautée it enough that it won’t form one huge dense mass in the jar. Patties or meatballs are fine (they allow heat flow around and between them.) Here are full directions for ground meats.
- Saves you prep time;
- The meat will shrink during processing, and may leave your jars looking 1/4 empty;
- The meat may exude more excess fat during processing. That excess fat may float to the top of jars looking unsightly and could go rancid over time. (That being said, you’d be surprised how much fat there is even in extra-lean ground beef);
- Some people say that jars that had raw-packed meat in them are harder to clean afterward.
North and South Dakota Extension Services note that raw-packed meat should be packed loosely:
When filling jars with raw meat, do not tightly pack the jars. Filling the jar loosely is referred to as a loose pack. After placing raw meat in the jar and grasping the jar with one hand, firmly tap the bottom of the jar with the palm of your other hand. You also can place a folded dish towel or pot holder on your counter and firmly tap the jar on the towel or pot holder. Continue to add meat and tap the bottom of the jar until the desired head space is reached. Do not press the meat tightly into the jar.”3
Some people say they find straight-sided jars easier to work with when canning meat. For instance, meatballs and patties may be best, just for ease of work, packed into straight-sided jars. The Putting Food By authors say, “In straight-sided pint jars. Pack hot patties (in layers) or hot precooked meatballs…”4
But there’s no requirement or recommendation one way or the other for straight-sided versus shouldered jars; it really is your preference.
As the packing broth for wet-packed meat, the USDA allows for “boiling meat broth, tomato juice, or water.”5. (Note that despite the placement of the commas, it’s certain that the adjective “boiling” is meant to apply to all three options.) For chicken or rabbit, they recommend “hot broth”. (( USDA Complete guide to home canning. 2015. Page 5-5 )).
Dry-canning means no canning liquid added to the jar.
The USDA Complete Guide (2015) allows for the dry-canning of raw-packed strips or cubes or large pieces of meat.
Note that dry-canning of ground meat is specifically and explicitly recommended against, whatever you see on the Internet.
Many people feel that the quality of meat packed with a liquid in the jar is higher than dry packing it.
Exceptions for packing in thin liquid
Meat, unless you are using dry packing when lab tested directions allow it, should always be packed in a liquid, and that liquid should be unthickened.
The private sector labs of Bernardin and Ball, however, list some tested exceptions. Here’s a few that we know of so far:
- The Ball / Bernardin Complete Book (2015) allows the canning broth for cubes or strips of meat to be slightly thickened with Clearjel. “If desired, ClearJel can be used to lightly thicken the broth in this recipe.”6 Sadly, they don’t say what they mean by “slightly.”
- The Ball Blue Book (37th edition, 2014) allows for packing spareribs in a barbeque sauce made from a Ball barbeque sauce recipe (page 89 of the same edition).7
Canning meat with bone-in, or boneless
The USDA Complete Guide says, of chicken and rabbit, “Can with or without bones.”8
The guide gives two separate processing times for chicken and rabbit bone-in or boneless.
(Note: times above are for weighted-gauge, see USDA Complete Guide 2015 page 5-5 for dial-gauge times.)
For bear (sic), beef, lamb, pork, veal and venison, the USDA Complete Guide (2015) says, “Remove large bones.”9 For these meats, there are no separate processing times for bone-in or boneless.
The Ball Blue Book (37th edition, 2014, page 89) has you de-bone spareribs before canning them. As is often the case with the Ball Blue Book, no reason is given.
Penn State Extension suggests the following headspaces for meats:
Allow one inch (2 cm) headspace for red meats and 1¼ inch (3 cm) for poultry.”10
The USDA Complete Guide (2015, page 5-5) also suggests the extra 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) for poultry (and rabbit), for both hot pack and raw pack: “leaving 1-1/4 inch (3 cm) headspace.”11
Low-fat meat is best for canning
You don’t want to can meat with more fat on it than you can help. It causes quality problems in two ways.
The first is that of the jar sealing. Fat can rise up on the rim of a jar, and prevent the seal from taking place. The University of Alaska says,
Trim meat of gristle, bruised spots and fat before canning. Too much fat left on meat can lead to sealing failures.” 12
The second is that fat can go rancid in storage, and excess fat just increases that possibility. The National Center for Home Food Preservation notes on its blog,
Remove excess fat, as it goes rancid most easily…”13
And it notes again in its self-study course,
The presence of oxygen causes several types of chemical changes in food. Oxygen causes changes in the unsaturated bonds of a fat or oil. The result is oxidative rancidity that spoils food with off-flavors and off-odors. Moderate heat will increase the rate of oxidative rancidity changes. The shelf life of home canned meats stored at room temperature will limit its shelf life. Cold temperatures slow down the rate of rancidity, but even freezing temperatures will not completely prevent oxidative rancidity.” 14
Note that as everything in life, there’s an exception, which is venison. You may have noted that the USDA directions actually tell you to ADD fat to ground venison. “With venison, add one part high-quality pork fat to three or four parts venison before grinding.” 15
Which just goes to show how exceptionally lean and dry venison can be, and why cooks have traditionally always larded it.
You may can previously frozen meat
Previously frozen meat may be canned. North and South Dakota Extension Services advises to just ensure that it is completely thawed first, then proceed with your canning directions. 16
The University of Minnesota extension says,
Is it safe to can thawed frozen meat? Yes, as long as the meat has been thawed in the refrigerator. Refrigerator Thawing: Allow 24 hours for every 5 pounds of meat. Once thawed, can the meat within 2 days. When ready to can, do not let thawed meat remain at room temperature for more than 2 hours.” 17
And in case you were wondering, the University of Alaska assures us that even previously frozen walrus may be canned. 18
You don’t need salt to can meat
The National Center for Home Food Preservation says in a FAQ,
Is it safe to can meat and poultry without salt? Yes. Salt is used for flavor only and is not necessary for safe processing.” 19
The University of Alaska Extension explains, “Salt and Marinades: Salt and marinades are optional because the heat of the canning process preserves the meat.”20
Getting fancy with your home canned meat
As a packing broth for wet-packed meat, the USDA allows for “boiling meat broth, tomato juice, or water.”21 (Note that despite the placement of the commas, it’s likely certain that the adjective “boiling” is meant to apply to all three options.)
You may see people saying they fill a jar with plain boiling water and then toss a boullion cube or some bouillon powder into the jar before putting the lid on. It’s almost certainly better to first dissolve completely the bouillon cube (or powder) in boiling water in a measuring jug, and then add that to the jar. As cooks, we’ve all seen bouillon cubes that didn’t completely dissolve, or bouillon powder that clumped, and you don’t want spots of density issues in your jars, let alone unsightly mystery lumps in your jars.
As for adding a tablespoon of wine, vermouth, sherry to the canning water? You will probably never get an “okay” on that from all USDA Extension Agents, as they are not authorized to allow for the slightest deviation from lab-tested procedures, perhaps largely in case people then do other modifications. Here’s a Penn State Extension response to someone about adding a bit of red wine vinegar to a jar of meat:
A client called and wanted to know if he could can meat with a more tender result by adding some red wine vinegar in place of all water for the liquid. Can it be used? Would the meat texture break down and become too mushy? Adding vinegar might make the meat more tender although the extremely long heating times should make a tender product. Although adding vinegar will not make this product become unsafe, we do not recommend that consumers modify the recipes in the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning. Some other modification that a consumer might make could cause the product to become unsafe to eat.”22
That being said, Wisconsin Extension is less hard-core. Barb Ingham from Wisconsin says, “You may however safely can meat without added salt, and you may safely add seasoning such as a garlic clove, onion, or herbs to each jar.” 23
Some people occasionally add a bay leaf on the basis that dried herbs are said to always be safe.
Penn State Extension. Canning Meat with Added Vinegar. Accessed January 2015.
Rayner, Lisa. The Natural Canning Resource Book. Flagstaff, Arizona: Lifeweaver LLC. 2010. Page 35. ↩
Hertzberg, Ruth; Greene, Janet; Vaughan, Beatrice (2010-05-25). Putting Food By: Fifth Edition (p. 193). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. ↩
Kingry, Judi and Lauren Devine. Ball / Bernardin Complete Book of Home Preserving. Toronto: Robert Rose. 2015. Page 397. ↩
Ball Blue Book. Muncie, Indiana: Healthmark LLC / Jarden Home Brands. Edition 37. 2014. Page 99. ↩
National Center for Home Food Preservation Self Study Course. Module 1. Introduction to Food Preservation: Why We Preserve Food. Accessed March 2015. ↩
Ingham, Barb. Safe Preserving: Canning Meat. Blog entry 9 October 2013. Accessed September 2015 at https://fyi.uwex.edu/safepreserving/2013/10/09/safe-preserving-canning-meat. ↩