February 21, 2023
It was my then-future wife, Julia, who in 1993 not only first fed me home-canned venison, but also taught me how to put up my harvest. Under her tutelage, I discovered that while caring for and canning our wild-game meat can be time consuming, it carries with it the sense of a job well done—not to mention providing some of the finest wild edibles available.
However, canning wild game isn't without its challenges. Here, we'll take an in-depth look at what goes into properly and safely canning your harvest.
For many folks, the first question when it comes to canning wild venison is, "Why?" Obviously, one of the primary reasons for canning venison is the fact it tastes good. However, other factors also justify the time and effort spent.
First, it has a long shelf life. The National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) recommends using home-canned foods within a year, not due to safety but for the best in food quality. If jars are stored correctly—that is, in a cool (50 to 70 degrees), dark place—and the seal isn't compromised, the contents should remain safe for years.
Second, the origin is known, and it's healthy. When you can venison at home, you know exactly what's being processed, how it's being processed and that it's both nutritious and healthy. Third, canning at home is inexpensive. Yes, there are costs involved if you're starting from scratch. However, after the initial purchases—pressure canner, jars, rings, seals and a handful of other accessories—canning at home is essentially a time investment.
- Pressure Canner: Canners come in different sizes or capacities based on the amount of liquid each can hold, which then translates into the number of jars you can process at one time. All American, for instance, offers canners in sizes from 10-quart (7 pints) to a 41-quart behemoth holding 32 pints. Some canners use a weight to measure the amount of internal pressure; others, a needle gauge. Still others feature both. Most, if not all, canners include a canning rack that fits the bottom of the canner and prevents jars from sitting directly on the heated metal.
- Jars: Quality jars—like Ball, Mason or Kerr brands—in half-pint, pint and quart sizes are available. My wife prefers wide-mouth (as opposed to regular) jars when canning venison, as she feels it's easier to get the meat in and out of them.
- Rings and Seals: Both are used to seal the jars during the canning process, and then maintain that airtight integrity during storage.
- Accessories: This list includes a heavy-bottom stock pot for pre-cooking meats and broth, a jar lifter for removing hot jars from the canner, a minute timer, a seal magnet for pulling lids from their hot-water bath and a wide-mouth funnel for filling jars. Aside from the stock pot, all items above are available from All American Canner (allamericancanner.com).
First off, a warning: Pressure canning involves pressure, heat, steam and metal. The process requires your full attention. It isn't something you can walk away from, nor can you let yourself be distracted.
- Step 1: Wash and inspect the jars for any cracks or chips, even if they're new. Then, sterilize the jars using your dishwasher (hot, no soap), or by boiling lightly upside down in 2 inches of water. Keep the jars warm in a 140-degree oven until ready. At this time, put as many lids as you'll need into a shallow pan of simmering water. This cleans them and softens the lids, which then allows for a sure seal.
- Step 2: Cube venison into 1-inch pieces, place them in a stock pot and cover with distilled water. Season to taste. Bring the meat/broth mixture to a boil, turn the heat off and proceed to Step 3.
- Step 3: Using the wide-mouth funnel and a slotted spoon, fill the jars with the pre-cooked meat to within one inch of the top. Run a butter knife along the inside edge of each jar to release air bubbles. Cover the meat with hot broth, being sure to leave your inch of headspace. Wipe the rim of the jar, seat a lid and tighten the ring snug.
- Step 4: Put 2 inches of water in the canner, place the jars inside with your jar lifter, tighten the canner lid according to the directions and bring to a boil. Don't add the weight at this point; you'll do that later. Once the water reaches 212 degrees, the canner will begin to vent. Allow this venting to continue for 7 to 8 minutes, at which time you can place the weight on the vent stem and, with the first jiggle, begin timing. My wife cans most wild game at 10 pounds of pressure for 90 minutes. She looks for the weight to "jiggle" two to three times a minute. Too much jiggling and the heat is too high; too little and it's too low. Be sure to watch this closely.
- Step 5: The canning process should be done after 90 minutes, but do not remove the weight or loosen the lid. Turn off the heat and allow the pressure to drop to zero. Don't try to hurry the process. A gauged canner will read zero; with a weight, a light touch will result in a hiss, spit or sputter from the vent stem, meaning pressure remains.
- Step 6: With pressure at zero, open the canner and, with the jar lifter, remove the jars, setting each on a rack to cool. That clear, melodic tink sound you hear is the jars sealing. To be doubly sure they've sealed, press down on the center of each lid. They should be tight, with no flex.