I recently participated in my first web-based seminar, or webinar, while visiting my mother in Kentucky.
I signed up for Home Canning 101 offered through The Chattery, a local nonprofit learning collective that hosts online classes covering an array of topics, from watercolor painting to strategies for startups to food preservation and more.
For me, canning felt like a practical skill. I had begun gardening this summer, and while my corn and squash crops fizzled, by late August I was wealthy with tomatoes.
Besides, I was already somewhat familiar with canning, having watched my mother do it as a child. By sealing food in airtight containers, you can extend its shelf life from one to five years.
As I arranged my laptop (all I'd need for the class) at my mother's kitchen table, I flashed back to the many times I'd sat in this very spot as a child, squashing garden tomatoes while my mother boiled jars to can sauce.
"Why didn't you ever teach me to can?" I asked her minutes before the class started.
"You were too young to lift jars into the pot yourself," she told me. "It would have been kind of dangerous."
Two hours later, I saw her point. Canning — though not difficult — can be kind of dangerous when done improperly.
The Chattery's Home Canning 101 class is led by June Puett, family and consumer sciences extension agent with the University of Tennessee. Nine others had registered for the class, though only two of us participated in real time via Zoom. Afterward, a link to the class recording was emailed to all who registered, along with a number of other resources, including recipes and more instructional videos.
The ability to view the link anytime was convenient, especially should a person not be able to attend during the scheduled class. But, to me, the benefit of a live webinar is the opportunity to interact with an expert. Otherwise, I thought, why not just watch a free YouTube video?
"True of false," June asked from her kitchen, "your grandmother's canning recipe is the best one to use?"
The answer, we learned, is false. In 1994, she explained, the USDA restructured its canning guidelines after new research deemed previous methods unsafe. In fact, guidelines are regularly updated, which is why June suggested downloading the USDA's free "Complete Guide to Home Canning" (most recently revised in 2015) rather than purchasing "of the moment" manuals.
Next, she covered the two methods of canning, showing us the equipment needed for each.
"It's a common myth that if the jar says 'Mason,' it's safe for canning," June said as she held items up to her camera.
During the canning process, jars must withstand high heat in order to create a vacuum seal. The "water bath" method submerges jars in boiling water reaching temperatures of 212 degrees F. Pressure canning, on the other hand, requires special kitchen cookware and uses steam to push out air which can reach 240 degrees F. Glass that is too thin will shatter, so a person should always buy jars labeled "for canning," we learned. Moreover, never try to recycle glass mayo or mustard jars to can. "They just can't withstand the thermal impact," she said.
But the biggest risk in improper canning is botulism, a rare but potentially deadly condition caused by foodborne bacteria. In order to avoid harmful bacteria of all sorts, a number of safety protocols must be in place, including proper sanitation of equipment, removal of air bubbles from liquid and, perhaps most importantly, understanding the difference between high- and low-acid foods, which grow bacteria at different rates.
Lucky for me, June shared after I told her about my garden, tomatoes are a high-acid food, meaning they are less likely to grow pathogenic bacteria than meats or vegetables. Furthermore, she said, "You should call Greg. He's your extension agent in Polk County and can help with your garden next year."
The UT Extension office tests soil for free and can provide information on how to amend it to grow any number of plants — corn or squash, for example.
This tip alone, I felt, more than made the webinar's $13 registration fee worth it.
Overall, The Chattery's Home Canning 101 was an information-packed primer on the subject, so much so that I barely noticed two hours had passed.
Should you be inspired to sign up for one too, my advice is to make the most of your webinar by attending in real time, easily the next best thing to in-person instruction.
Learn more about The Chattery's online classes at thechattery.org/classes.