Around the end of October a few years ago while planning a dinner, I searched through my somewhat disorganized freezer and found, buried in the bottom, a plastic bag of freezer-burned venison. Disgusted, I carried the icy block to the trash. Not only had all that delicious meat gone to waste, but it had also taken up precious space in my tiny freezer.
Luckily, I found a solution to the issue of failed venison storage from years past. A North Carolina friend of mine taught me the wonders of canning meat by using a pressure canner. The canning process was not a new thing to me. At a young age, I watched my mother and grandpa can tomatoes, peaches and applesauce. Later, when I married and had a house and garden of my own, I carried on the family tradition, canning salsa and peppers every year, using grandpa’s old Ball Blue Book of Canning and processing the food in hot water baths.
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I had never even considered pressure canning. My mother had always warned me of the horrors of pressure canners. “Grandma had a pressure canner blow up once in her kitchen. Food spewed everywhere. They are so dangerous,” she said. Against the wishes of my mother, I ordered a pressure canner and bought new jars, lids and bands. All I had to do was wait for the first successful hunt of the season.
Prep For Success
Pressure canning is truly an easy process so long as you diligently follow all the steps and are careful not to leave anything out. Be sure to read all of the instructions that come with your pressure canner before you begin. If you are new to canning, you will also need to learn how to prepare the jars, bands and lids. I prepare my jars in the dishwasher, on the sterilize mode, with nothing else inside. By keeping it closed until I am ready to use each jar, they remain hot, clean and out of the way. Lids and bands are placed in a bowl of hot water on the counter near my work area.
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Although mason jars and screw bands may be reused, you will need to use new lids each time. The pressure canner is prepared by filling it with room-temperature water up to the line noted in your manual. Be sure to place it on a level cooking surface. Preparation of the meat is the most labor intensive part. Trim away as much gristle and fat as you desire from your raw, cool meat. Then cut the meat into 1-inch cubes or strips. Once cut, rinse the meat in a strainer under cold water to remove any hair and then let it drain.
Fill ’Em Up
Now you can start filling the jars. Pack the prepared meat into hot quart jars (remove them one at a time from your dishwasher), leaving 1 inch of headspace from the mouth. Occasionally you may notice a large empty pocket in the jar. Pack the meat down with the back of a wooden spoon or tart shaper to remove these excess air bubbles. Drop about a 1/2 teaspoon of non-iodized salt (to prevent clouding) and a 1/2 teaspoon of Mrs. Dash (or any other seasoned salt) into the jar. Do not add any liquid.
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Once the meat is packed firmly inside, assemble the lid on the jar. Wipe around the jar rim with a clean, damp cloth making sure there is no meat or grease that will interfere with a proper seal. Place a warmed lid on top and screw on the band, finger-tight. Carefully place the jar inside your preheated pressure canner. Repeat this with the rest of the jars, and do your best to make sure they are not touching inside the canner.
Seal The Meals
With your pressure canner full, it is time to start the actual canning process. Following the directions that came with your pressure canner, making sure you do not miss a step.
1. Fasten the canner lid securely. Leave the pressure regulator off the vent pipe.
2. Turn the heat setting on your stove to its highest position. Heat until the water boils and steam flows freely. While maintaining the high heat setting, let the steam vent continuously for 10 minutes.
3. Put the pressure regulator on the vent pipe and wait for the canner to pressurize.
4. Start timing the process when the pressure reading on the dial gauge indicates that the recommended pressure has been reached.
5. Regulate the heat under the canner to maintain a steady pressure at or slightly above the correct gauge pressure.
6. It is extremely important to maintain a constant pressure with your canner. If the pressure starts to rise, lower the heat. Likewise, if it lowers, bring the heat back up. This is important for the safety of the food.
7. When the timed process is completed, turn off the heat. Carefully lift the canner and remove it from the heat source. Let the canner cool down naturally.
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8. Once the pressure has returned to zero, remove the pressure regulator. Wait about five minutes and then carefully remove the lid.
9. Remove the jars one at a time using a jar lifter, being cautious not to tilt them. Carefully place them directly onto a towel, leaving at least 1 inch of space between the jars during cooling.
10. Do not disturb the jars while they cool for at least 12 hours (I leave them overnight). You will hear a popping sound as they cool and seal. Do not tighten ring bands on the lids or push down on the lid until the jars have completely cooled.
11. After they have cooled, remove the bands from sealed jars. They can be used again, and this prevents them from rusting.
12. Wash jars to remove any residue.
13. Label jars and store in a cool, dry place out of direct light.
I process my jars at 11 pounds of pressure for 90 minutes in Ohio, at sea level. You will need to check the chart that comes with your pressure canner and process according to your altitude.
There you have it! Now you have canned your venison. Rather than taking up space in the freezer, it can be stored on shelves in your pantry. When the meat is processed, it mixes with the salt and seasoning and creates its own juices. Dinners will be as simple as opening one or two jars and heating them up.
My father-in-law always says that a “recipe is only a guide for your imagination.” There are many ways that you can serve your canned venison. Hopefully someone in my family will tag a deer this year. I am looking forward to restocking my shelves and enjoying some easy-to-fix venison dinners. It’s a great feeling knowing that I won’t have to find room in the freezer to store more meat this year, although I could throw out those sugary freezer pops that slid to the bottom.
Now, I know there are some of you out there who may say, “Oh, what about the tenderloin?” I never can that, it is usually cooked the evening of the hunt, or the next day. I like to cut the meat into cubes and use it in a tasty ragout.
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This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Winter 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.