‘Rebel Canning’ Is Having a Moment, Whether or Not It Should

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During the summer, countless gardeners are hard at work preserving the abundance they’ve grown and foraged. There are, of course, a number of ways to preserve home-grown foods, from freezing pureed vegetables in ice cube trays to dehydrating them into powder. But it’s old-school home canning that’s been having a particular resurgence of late, thanks in large part to its growing popularity on social media platforms like TikTok and Facebook.

Many canning enthusiasts are recent converts, folks who saw the supermarket scarcity at the beginning of the pandemic as a wake-up call to produce more of their own food. But whether they’re new to canning or have been doing it for decades, canners tend to dutifully follow extensive safety protocols established by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Unless, that is, they’re rebel canners. This self-described group of rule-breakers is dedicated to one very simple philosophy: your kitchen, your rules. In the kitchens of these so-called rebel canners, carrying on family traditions or learning how to preserve food in the event of a catastrophe is more important than government recommendations, even those generally intended to keep people safe.

Rebel canners represent a wide range of political ideologies and approaches to food preservation. Some are essentially doomsday preppers. Some are hippie homesteader types who have grown increasingly skeptical of the industrial food system. Others want to preserve the culinary traditions of their forebearers. Whatever their motivation, they have one thing in common: a belief that the USDA’s rules don’t apply to them.

For generations, home canning has followed a basic blueprint: glass jars and their metal lids are sterilized in boiling water, filled with strawberry jam, pickled vegetables, or whatever’s growing in the garden, and then sealed and immersed in more boiling water for an amount of time determined by the product’s acidity level; the higher the acidity, the less time is required. The USDA also recommends that low-acid foods, such as meat and green beans, only be canned under pressure. Pressure canners can boil water at higher temperatures than the typical pot on the stove, which means they’re more efficient at killing pathogenic spores like C. botulinum, the bacteria that causes botulism, a rare but serious illness that can result in death. The agency also recommends against canning certain foods, such as dairy and pureed squash, which are considered risky for a number of reasons.

How rebel canners deviate from USDA guidelines varies according to the canner. Some choose to make their pickles and jam using the “open kettle” method, in which hot product is packed into hot jars and sealed without further processing, something that the USDA does not recommend. Even though the agency cautions against canning dairy, many rebel canners report that they regularly can milk, sour cream, and cheese without adverse effects. Others choose to rebel by making up their own recipes instead of following those in established guides like the Ball Blue Book of Canning.

On her small sheep farm in Washington’s Selkirk Mountains, Milissa Chapman estimates that she cans upward of 2,000 jars of food per year, using the methods taught to her by her grandmother, who farmed in East Texas during the Great Depression. “I let the ancestors guide me, as they say,” Chapman says. “I don’t follow recipes, I use regular salt and not canning salt. I just can like I cook.” And while she raises sheep and dogs and goats and cans her own food, Chapman also shepherds the private and public arms of Canning Rebels, a Facebook group entirely devoted to these practices.

Chapman came up with the idea for Canning Rebels a decade ago, after seeing a spat over canning in another Facebook group where one member posted that she was planning to can butter, which the USDA says is unsafe. “These people just jumped on her, like she had stomped on somebody’s kitten,” Chapman says. “The comments were horrible. They said she was going to kill her family, that they were going to call CPS on her. It was just ridiculous.” Chapman decided to start her own group, mostly, she says, to “thumb [her] nose at all those horrible people.”

Ten years later, Chapman’s Facebook groups boast hundreds of thousands of members. There’s a public group, where the comments are much more likely to include admonishments from people who aren’t okay with unapproved canning practices, and a private group, where self-described rebel canners swap recipes and advice. Certain topics, like politics and religion, are strictly forbidden, and talking about either will get you swiftly booted from the group.

“I don’t care who you love, I don’t care who you pray to or who you don’t pray to, and I don’t care who you vote for,” Chapman says. “It’s nobody’s business, especially in a canning group. People say that’s why my groups are nice and mellow, because I’m a hard-ass and I don’t give second chances.” Her groups have company — there’s Totally Rebel Canning Recipes, which includes about 70,000 members, and Freedom Canners, with nearly 100,000 members, along with a slew of accounts on TikTok and YouTube dedicated to “rebel” practices.

Because rebel canners often thumb their nose at established, peer-reviewed recommendations from the USDA, home canning is a topic that can inspire passionate opinions online. Some people are deeply devoted to their beloved family recipes, even if they don’t quite align with USDA recommendations, while others are self-appointed food safety evangelists who can’t believe that anyone would risk their safety, and that of their family, with food that could potentially be tainted with botulinum toxin. Given that home canners have a wide range of political and religious beliefs, it’s perhaps not that surprising that even mundane conversations about the practical elements of canning can turn fiery.

The biggest point of contention is botulism, which a person can contract after consuming food contaminated with botulinum toxin. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are an average of 110 botulism cases reported in the United States each year, and a quarter of those cases are food-related. If it is treated properly and promptly, only about 8 percent of patients infected with botulism die. But even if it doesn’t kill you, botulism can produce lasting neurological symptoms, including paralysis, which is why regulatory agencies like the USDA go to such lengths to prevent people from consuming C. botulinum bacteria.

Chapman, for her part, has no patience for those she refers to as the “pearl-clutchers”: people who, in her estimation, think they know what’s best for everybody else and feel compelled to condemn others’ choices. Chapman governs her groups with a “your kitchen, your rules” philosophy. “You are free to do what you want in your kitchen, and I will not let anybody attack you for sharing that in my group,” she says. “But I will say that our members always try to explain the ‘why’ if they think something is a bad idea. They’re just not going to say you’re bad or evil if you do it a different way than the USDA says is okay.”

Still, Chapman insists that rebel canners are not anti-science. She says that she herself largely follows established practices, though she doesn’t use canning salt, a product made specifically for canning food, and doesn’t add vinegar or citric acid to tomatoes, which is recommended to ensure safe levels of acidity. “Science is fact-based, and canning rebels aren’t doing anything crazy. We are following scientific methods, we’re just also following our own recipes,” she says. “Some people say you can only use USDA-approved methods, and I think that makes us stagnant. If you only follow that book, you can’t create new recipes. Rebels are the future of canning because they respect the past.”

Diane Devereaux, a food preservation educator and writer who runs a blog called the Canning Diva, is a member of Chapman’s group. She’s been canning since she was 13, and spent more than a decade working in disaster management before deciding to go to culinary school. Now, she spends her time teaching and writing about gardening and home canning, and isn’t really sure why there’s so much controversy over rebel canning practices.

She’s quick to note that even if rebel canners are not explicitly following USDA guidelines or specific recipes created by the agency, they’re not necessarily doing something inherently unsafe. “The USDA guidelines haven’t changed since 1946. A lot of what you’re seeing is people experimenting, creating their own recipes, but they’re still following scientific principles,” Devereaux says. “Sometimes I get called a rebel because I push boundaries. There’s this misconception that science never changes, and that’s not true. Science is always evolving, and you should always be questioning and pushing limits.” She personally pushes those limits with caution, though, and frequently works with an independent laboratory to test new recipes to ensure that they do not result in unsafe levels of bacteria.

A lot of times, Devereaux says, canning “don’ts” are more about quality than safety. As an example she cites pasta, which the USDA says should not be included in home canned foods because it can impede the transfer of heat required to kill bacteria. She tried a recipe that involved canning pasta in tomato sauce, and sent it off to be tested. “The pasta didn’t yield any harmful bacteria, it didn’t inhibit the thermal transfer, but it was pretty much decimated,” she says. “It was just mushy and gross. Just because something can be done, doesn’t mean that you should. It’s not always unsafe, it’s just unpalatable.”

Carla Luisa Schwan, an assistant professor and food safety specialist at the University of Georgia’s National Center for Home Food Preservation, isn’t convinced that these “rebel” methods are rooted in science. Established in 2000, the NCHFP is widely recognized as one of the top home food safety organizations in the country thanks to its research on a variety of home food preservation techniques, including canning. “In 2000, researchers conducted a national survey, just to understand what methods people were using at home, and they found that a lot of those methods were unsafe,” Schwan says. “It was clear that there needed to be funding and people dedicating their time to researching these methods to provide safe information for people to use at home.”

As part of its research, the NCHFP has developed a slew of what it calls “approved” recipes, or recipes that have been thoroughly tested for safety, such as recipes for tomato-based taco sauce and mango chutney. Each recipe includes lengthy instructions for how the food should be prepared, packed, and processed in a water bath or pressure canner, depending on its acidity level. Schwan insists that following a tested recipe is essential, especially for people who are new to canning, because of the specific conditions required to kill the bacteria that can cause botulism. “You have to achieve the right temperature, for the right amount of time, to destroy those spores,” she says.

Chapman claims that in all her years of canning she has never gotten sick from any of the foods she’s preserved. She’s had to deal with spoilage, which is easy to detect by sniffing — unlike botulism, which is odorless. “I’ve never had any problems in my canning, unlike with restaurants and deli food,” she says. “People misunderstand and think that all food poisoning is botulism, but it’s not. You will know when something that you’ve canned has gone bad.”

This is the kind of sentiment that raises some concerns for Schwan, who takes a critical view of some canners’ flippant attitude toward botulism and other food-borne pathogens. Although the past few decades have brought major advances in treatment for botulism, making it more survivable than it’s ever been, cases of botulism are also far less prevalent now thanks to better, more available information on safe home canning practices. “We have seen a decrease in botulism cases, and that’s partly because we have good information to share,” Schwan says. “People are following these protocols to avoid getting sick. If you do something that research is telling you isn’t safe, even if it’s the way your family has always done it, you’re lucky that you’re not getting sick.”

Heedayah Lockman is a Glasgow-based illustrator and designer.

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