Cowboy canners are the opposite of the Safe Canning Police; they will stick anything in a jar, close the lid, stick it on a shelf to fester, then feed it to people.
They largely purport to trust in the “good old ways” of canning. They take delight in mocking any caution or safety practices, and bring a wild-west bravado approach to their canning.
- 1 Cowboy canners place gut feelings above fact and evidence
- 2 The old ways actually aren’t what they say they used to be
- 3 People got sick with the old, wild-west ways of canning
- 4 Cowboy canners place years of experience over current, evidence-based research
- 5 I’ll stick with the tried and true
- 6 You can’t help a cowboy canner
- 7 The gamble they want to make — with your health
- 8 Further Reading
Cowboy canners place gut feelings above fact and evidence
Cowboy canners will rely on cornpone truisms appealing to emotion and “common-sense” to counter and dismiss science-based proven evidence.
Part of the reason might be that, without being aware of it, they are viewing food safety concerns through what is termed an ‘optimistic bias’:
“People are often subject to the ‘optimistic bias’, that is they believe that they are less likely to experience negative events, and more likely to experience positive events, than their peers. In the food domain this means that people may find risks less relevant to themselves and [therefore] engage less in self protecting behaviour.” University of Reading. Food and Nutrition: The Truth Behind Food Headlines. Module 2, Step 2.3. Accessed October 2020 at https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/food-and-nutrition/1/steps/851643
Some of the sayings they use will include:
- One way of canning isn’t better than the other. It’s all just opinion and everyone’s opinion is equally valid;
- The USDA treats people like morons;
- It seems the USDA has brainwashed everyone into being afraid to can any other way;
- My mum canned this way, meat, everything, and we never died or got sick;
- I used this oven / open kettle method for years and never had a problem;
- If the jar seals, it’s fine;
- This is how my family has canned for generations;
- I have been doing this for 50 years and no one has been sick yet;
- My grandmother has used this method for many years and she will be 102 in November;
- My ‘facts’ come from the best college in the world – The School of Life;
- I’ll continue to do what works for me;
- The old ways are best.
Here is what Kerr, the well-respected canning company, had to say about the “old ways” — back in 1948!
Many homemakers are trying ‘short-cuts’ or easy methods that have been passed along to them by others who have not given the method a thorough trial. A method may work one season but fail the next time it is tried. Many, many jars of food are spoiled because the method used for canning was not one recommended by canning authorities who have done enough research work to be sure of the correct canning principles.”  Answers to your canning questions. Kerr. Question 8, page 53. 1948. Accessed March 2015.
The old ways actually aren’t what they say they used to be
Cowboy canners water-bath a lot of low-acid foods, such as green beans, carrots, beets, meat and dairy, for hours on end. And even though they are aware of the warnings against that and realize that a pressure canner would be a fraction of the time and energy cost, they will still say, “the old ways are best.”
For the record, here’s some “old ways” advice, dating back to 1910 from an address given in Madison Square Garden, New York City:
In the home kitchen the greatest heat that can be attained from the hottest fire is 212 degrees [100 C]. This is the degree of boiling. While this heat is sufficient to kill bacteria, it is not intense enough to kill or to completely sterilize the germ or spore. The objective point of the domestic cook is to allow the food to boil and simmer until it is declared done. It does not follow that this heat is even well sustained during the cooking process, and often as not the food is only partly cooked, notwithstanding the fact it may be declared done. The object of the cook in the canning kitchen is quite different. He knows nothing except time and temperature. He cooks to keep. “To keep” means an entire and complete sterilization. When this point is reached his food is also done. To accomplish this condition live steam is employed. Under pressure, heat is forced to 235 or 250 degrees, according to the nature of the food, and without wavering a degree, with eyes upon steam gauge, a Fahrenheit thermometer and the clock, for the full space of thirty to ninety minutes the cooking goes on.”  Orem, Mrs Hugh S. A Revolution in the Kitchen: An address to the Associated Clubs of Domestic Science, Sept. 21 1910, Madison Square Garden, New York City. Bel Air, Maryland: Bureau of Publicity, National Canners’ Association. 1910. Page 28.
The awareness of a need for canning under pressure seems pretty clear, even in 1910.
In 1917, the USDA had already made its pronouncement:
In 1917, the United States Department of Agriculture determined that pressure canning was the only safe method of canning low-acid foods without risking food poisoning.”  Presto Company History. Accessed March 2015 at https://www.gopresto.com/information/history.php
So, the advice to pressure-can those green beans, carrots and beets for safety is not new: it’s older than the hills. Woodrow Wilson was president, and Theodore Roosevelt was still alive. George V was still on the throne and Britain still had an empire. Nellie Melba was still at the height of her opera career. That’s when the human race already possessed the basic knowledge that jars of meats and plain vegetables go into pressure canners.
By 1933, an active campaign was on to educated people that pressure canning low-acid foods was the only recommended preservation method. Michigan Extension said:
…the greatest argument in favor of the pressure cooker is the safety of the products canned. The Bureau of Home Economics does not recommend any other method for home canning of non-acid vegetables and meats.” Gilbert, Muriel Dundas. Successful Home Canning. Michigan Extension Bulletin No. 132. May 1933. Page 10. Accessed March 2015
The “old way” is pressure canning. So if by “old ways” they mean “pressure canning”, they are right. If they mean something else, then they are inventing their own personal version of history in their own minds.
People got sick with the old, wild-west ways of canning
Tranda Watts of Kansas State Extension disputes that “no one got sick” with the old ways:
A frequent comment is, ‘My Grandmother did it this way, and she didn’t have any problems’. What we don’t know is, how many times the family had unexplained flu symptoms, upset stomachs, and other uncomfortable symptoms. How many times did people die of food poisoning that simply went undiagnosed? We don’t know, but we do know now that some of those older methods are simply unsafe:…:”  Watts, Tranda W. Home Canning Mistakes. Kansas State Extension. Accessed March 2015 at https://www.northwest.ksu.edu/doc55474.ashx.
Remember, there’s no such thing as a 24 hour flu. It’s food poisoning.
Cowboy canners place years of experience over current, evidence-based research
Many people will use their years of home-canning as the basis of backup for what they are saying. You will hear, “I have been canning for 20 years….” as a way to silence people from any further questions or challenges.
What was learnt 20 years ago may well now be wrong. What’s important is how recently did you learning something new from a reputable source?
Canning is a science, not an art, and while science never changes, our understanding of it is often imperfect, so we strive to understand it better and better. So it’s important to keep current on what’s what in the world of home canning:
Over the years, our understanding of food safety has grown. At the same time, new technologies and agriculture crop varieties have been developed. For these reasons, it is important to follow current guidelines for home canning…”  Bernardin. The Science Behind Heat Processing. Accessed June 2016 at https://www.bernardin.ca/sciencebehindheatprocessing.htm
What people learnt 20 years ago, and have never questioned since because it “worked for them” may now be out-dated, and untrue. Sometimes, being out of date can present dangers. We know now, thanks to recent work by the Oregon State University Extension Service, that canning Asian Pears without acidification is unsafe.
Other times, being out of date can cause missed opportunities, wasting resources such as time and money. We now know that sterilizing jars is always unnecessary for pressure canning, and unnecessary for any water-bath (or steam canning) processing that will be 10 minutes or over. We also know now, thanks to joint work done by the NCHFP and a team led by Barb Ingham at the University of Wisconsin, that we can use steam canning as an equivalent to water-bath canning. Unnecessary jar sterilization, and ignoring steam canning, are not safety issues, but surely one wants to help consumers avoid incurring unnecessary energy costs when they don’t have to, or use extra water in areas where water restrictions are in place.
Recognized authorities in the field — those from the USDA, University Extensions, the Jarden companies, etc — will never quote the length of time they have canned as backup for what they are saying: they will quote instead recent evidence-based research from a reputable source.
So don’t be daunted or impressed by someone saying when they learnt to can — ask them instead what they learnt recently, and from where.
Experience and tradition do matter, but it’s important to keep nurturing them with the light of current, research-based home canning knowledge.
I’ll stick with the tried and true
You’ll sometimes hear from a cowboy canner a cornpone phrase along the lines of, “I’ll stick with the tried and true.” Here’s the thing: their tried and true has usually been tried all right– but it wasn’t found true, it was found wanting. But because the “gotcha” hasn’t hit them personally (yet), what is true for them, they figure, must still be true for the rest of the human race.
You can’t help a cowboy canner
You have to be careful in trying to correct people. People can get offended when a beloved recipe, perhaps from their grandmother, is deemed unsafe. It’s not just a recipe for them, it’s an identity.
Other cowboys will run Youtube canning channels, and give processing times for home pressure canning items with flour, dairy and egg in them. Or the secrets of canning the veg that the USDA hasn’t figured out how to yet. Or techniques for canning low-acid foods without using a pressure canner. The processing times and techniques are, of course, fiction that they have concocted out of the air and persuaded themselves are valid.
It’s waste of time to try to change the minds of these canning cowboys, because you won’t. If they are confident of their ways, they won’t thank you for passing them modern, tested, guaranteed-safe guidelines. Instead, hostility will erupt. “This method is just fine… I have used it for years, so mind your own g/d business.” Sadly, it will take a tragedy resulting from their actions to make them even pause to reflect.
Anything you post in reply, no matter how accurate, will almost certainly be met with scorn. You will feel obliged to respond back, so that others reading the thread in the future can be assured that the cowboy canner is indeed wrong. They will respond back nastily, and the whole thing will go to the bad place very soon. The negative interactions will drain all your energy, and leave you shaking. There has never been a case where a cowboy canner has gone, “you’re right, I’ll mend my ways.” And bear in mind, all this will be recorded in public, for posterity on the Internet.
Think of all the “big names” out there in the field. The people from the National Center for Home Food Preservation. Ball, Bernardin, the University Extensions. How often do you see them wading into debates in public places? Never. They studiously avoid them, though they are human, too, and must be itching to comment. What enables them most of all to help people is their good names. Without their good names, we wouldn’t listen to any findings they pass onto us. Engaging in flame wars sullies your good name, and scares people away from you.
So just remember, it’s not your job to save the parts of the world that don’t want to be saved. And all of us only have limited energy and limited time. So use that energy to put as much good into the home canning field as you can. We can start with ourselves. For everything you think you know about home canning, make sure you can point to a current, documented reputable source for that piece of knowledge. Find safe places of no conflict where you can pass that knowledge on, quoting your sources. As beginning canners see that more and more, they will learn to distrust cowboy canners who have no objective factual sources to backup their advice. There may be no better way to undermine and kneecap the cowboys and reveal them as outlaws.
The gamble they want to make — with your health
Cowboy canners try to cow people into following their advice, as opposed to that from the “experts.” Presumably, this boosts their egos — until the liability law-suit lawyers come hunting for them when someone gets deathly ill from following that advice.
Much of their advice — such as water-bathing products that must be pressure-canned instead — is highly risky, and they are in fact doing high-stakes gambling with your health and that of your friends and family. Don’t let them.
The spores of C. botulinum—and it’s the spores that make the toxin, remember—can survive 5 hours or more of boiling at 212 F/100 C, even though the vegetative form of the bacterium is much more fragile. Therefore anything less than adequate Pressure-processing is a monstrous gamble. People who count on getting away with processing natural vegetables in a Boiling–Water Bath are playing for stakes too high.” Hertzberg, Ruth; Greene, Janet; Vaughan, Beatrice. Putting Food By: Fifth Edition (p. 130). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
What’s Wrong With This Canning Recipe? Analyzing bad canning recipes. Suzanne Driessen from the University of Minnesota gives a mini-tutorial in how to recognize unsafe recipes and procedures.
Unsafe, Outdated Food Preservation Methods: Unsafe canning methods; proper equipment use; using credible resources. Driessen, Suzanne. University of Minnesota mini-tutorial.
|↑1||University of Reading. Food and Nutrition: The Truth Behind Food Headlines. Module 2, Step 2.3. Accessed October 2020 at https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/food-and-nutrition/1/steps/851643|
|↑2||Answers to your canning questions. Kerr. Question 8, page 53. 1948. Accessed March 2015.|
|↑3||Orem, Mrs Hugh S. A Revolution in the Kitchen: An address to the Associated Clubs of Domestic Science, Sept. 21 1910, Madison Square Garden, New York City. Bel Air, Maryland: Bureau of Publicity, National Canners’ Association. 1910. Page 28.|
|↑4||Presto Company History. Accessed March 2015 at https://www.gopresto.com/information/history.php|
|↑5||Gilbert, Muriel Dundas. Successful Home Canning. Michigan Extension Bulletin No. 132. May 1933. Page 10. Accessed March 2015|
|↑6||Watts, Tranda W. Home Canning Mistakes. Kansas State Extension. Accessed March 2015 at https://www.northwest.ksu.edu/doc55474.ashx.|
|↑7||Bernardin. The Science Behind Heat Processing. Accessed June 2016 at https://www.bernardin.ca/sciencebehindheatprocessing.htm|
|↑8||Hertzberg, Ruth; Greene, Janet; Vaughan, Beatrice. Putting Food By: Fifth Edition (p. 130). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.|