Will I paralyze myself and everyone I know with these pickled beans?
August 16, 2010 6:41 AM   Subscribe

How can I fix this beginner's canning SNAFU?

Thanks to my ever-so-bountiful CSA, I decided it was time for me to learn about canning. However, before I researched canning, I went ahead and attempted to make some pickled green beans, just last night. My proportions were a bit off, so I didn't have nearly enough brine (5 parts vinegar, 4 parts water, plus a lot of salt) and topped off each jar with hot water from the tap. (There was enough to fill each jar at least half way.) I used a hot water bath for 12 minutes as the recipe indicated, and my jars all sealed fine.

This morning, though, I went to the National Center for Home Food Preservation and read their dire warning about green beans. I'm worried that there's not enough vinegar in my beans for them to be safe. Should I refrigerate them and just eat as many as I can in the next week or so? Since they were canned less than 12 hours ago, can I pull out the beans, re-sterilized everything, and try again with the right amount of vinegar? Any other suggestions for someone who clearly has no idea what she's doing?
posted by ferociouskitty to Food & Drink (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you processed the jars in a hot water bath, I'd say you're likely OK. Were the jars sterilized and piping hot before you put the hot beans/brine in? The lids sealed? I'd say don't worry.
posted by LN at 6:46 AM on August 16, 2010

Response by poster: If it makes a difference, the beans were fresh/uncooked.
posted by ferociouskitty at 6:49 AM on August 16, 2010

Best answer: I have to disagree with LN. Green beans are a naturally low-acid food. The pH of the brine needs to be below 4.6 to be safe with hot-water processing. By diluting it with water, you most likely raised the pH above recommended levels. Reprocessing will compromise quality (i.e. they'll turn to mush). You could probably refrigerate and eat them now, but these jars are not safe for long-term storage. Sorry.
posted by libraryhead at 6:54 AM on August 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

You also need a pressure canner to do green beans and other low-acid veg. Hot-water bath is no longer considered to be safe (it's fine for high-acid stuff like jam and tomatoes, though). You're better off freezing them, if you have the freezer space.
posted by libraryhead at 7:06 AM on August 16, 2010

Get yourself some pH testing strips and open one of your jars.

Green beans are a low acid food and therefore unsafe to can in a boiling water bath (botulism, which can only grow in low acid environments, is not killed at boiling water tempertures). But green bean pickles are fine - that's the whole point of pickles, to raise the pH of low acid foods to a point that is safe to store. So library head and ln are both off.

The only way to know is to check one of your jars. If it's too low, start eating!
posted by peachfuzz at 7:20 AM on August 16, 2010

Another resource - rhe Ball Jar people have a canning hotline (at the bottom of this page) for just such a question, if you want an Nth opinion.
posted by jquinby at 7:27 AM on August 16, 2010

Put them all in your fridge NOW and eat within one month. Next time use a tested canning recipe. (BTW: Next time, treat this like surgery. Boil everything.)

Botulism is pretty much the last thing you want to mess around with.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:48 AM on August 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh, and the boiling isn't for botulism, it's for all the other microorganisms that could grow in your jar and spoil the beans.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:49 AM on August 16, 2010

I agree with libraryhead. pH testing might not tell the whole story because instead of diluting the brine beforehand, you topped up each jar, so the pH of each jar is going to be different. I suppose if you cracked one open and its pH was way below the cutoff value, you might be okay, but you'd never be sure.

If it were me I would get a big tupperware container, drain and dump the beans in, cover with a new batch of brine, and stick in the back of the fridge. (Of course I would also add hot peppers but that's because I like spicy pickled beans.)
posted by cabingirl at 7:51 AM on August 16, 2010

Best answer: Low pH = high acidity

Botulism is a nasty, nasty way to go. If I were you I'd eat a few green beans this week and dump the rest. If it's any consolation, every home canner I know (including myself) has has to throw out a batch of something or other. Consider this not a failure, but your entry fee into the world of home canning. It's also a pretty good lesson on the importance of chemistry in home canning. Until you develop advanced skills, it's best to follow the recipes EXACTLY. If you have extra veg when pickling, leave it aside and make a second batch of brine from scratch. If you can't quite fill a jar of jam to the recommended fill level, don't try to process it--just cap it and stick it in your fridge. If the recipe calls for lemon juice or vinegar but you're all out, stop canning and run to the store. And so forth.
posted by Orinda at 7:52 AM on August 16, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, all! To the fridge they go! FWIW, they're dang tasty (the crushed red pepper's already in there) and with the help of friends, I don't think I'm even going to end up wasting all that much.
posted by ferociouskitty at 8:01 AM on August 16, 2010

And just to clarify, you CAN can (properly) pickled low-acid foods in a boiling water bath, you just need a pressure canner if you weren't pickling them.
posted by purenitrous at 8:13 AM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Glad that your labor won't go to waste.

If you're interested in trying again, pick up a copy of the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, aka the canning bible.

You might also call your area/local agricultural extension office and see if it offers classes on canning.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:48 AM on August 16, 2010

I know you've already made your decision, but to back it up: my 1998 edition of Putting Food By claims that the #1 source of botulism in the US is home-canned green beans. Pickled properly they're very safe, but you do not want to screw around with the sterilization and acid/salt proportions.
posted by KathrynT at 10:15 AM on August 16, 2010

For future reference, the safe ratio of vinegar to water is 50:50. Say the brine you started off with (and ran out of) had 2 cups vinegar (5% acidity) and 2 cups water . That brine was safe. After topping it off with water, you made it unsafe, because it contained more water than vinegar.

If, however, the brine consisted of 4 cups of vinegar, you did not make it unsafe by adding water.

Another for-future-reference -- be very careful about older canning recipes, especially if they call for a ratio of vinegar to water that's less than 50:50. (Or more than? Can't figure out the wording.) Pretty much all vinegar you buy these days, with the exception of rice vinegar (around 3%) and some flavored vinegars, is diluted to 5% acidity. Decades ago, however, vinegar was sold at a strength of up to 20%, so more water was needed to dilute it.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:42 PM on August 16, 2010

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