I think I’m finally ready to come out with it: I have a tremendous, completely irrational fear of Clostridium botulinum.  More specifically, my fear is that something I can will harbor botulism, and me or someone else who eats it, over subsequent days, will develop symptoms of botulism, and die.

You might think that someone who cans/preserves as much as I do would be comfortable with all the ins and outs of canning safety, and I am, but you see, my fear of botulism is totally irrational.  So regardless of whether I know that there were only 22 reported cases of food-born botulism in the entire US last year, and despite the fact that I follow proper safety precautions, the fear slips in… and then it takes over.

This past February, there was a particularly bad episode that we’ll call “The Fermented Pickle Incident”. I went to a fermented food tasting party with some fellow pickling buddies I had met through twitter (is that weird?).  I brought a batch of Indian carrot pickles with mustard seed that I had recently made following Madhur Jaffrey’s recipe, which included oil.  That little bit of oil brought my fear gushing in. My mind went: oil –> anaerobic environment –> botulism –> death to all tweeting picklers.

One thing that I do when I freak out like this, and which I did the day of The Fermented Pickle Incident (foreshadowing: and today) is call random canning experts that I find online.  That time, like other times, I wound up talking to a sweet woman from the Utah Cooperative Extension program. It was clear she didn’t get many calls from neurotic New York Jews like me, or she wouldn’t have pointed out that “you can’t be sure unless you get your stomach pumped.” Ummmmmm……WHAT?!

Long story short, I didn’t get my stomach pumped, but only because Matthew and I braved a snow storm to drive to Whole Foods at 9pm to buy pH strips. After testing the carrots in the parking lot, it was clear the environment was acidic enough to prevent botulism and I would be OK.  But I didn’t really feel better until I was sure I was alive 7 days later. And then I went right back to pickling. Why? I have no idea. Maybe ’cause I love the cute jars. And pickles.

October Can Jam: Chilies

This month started out fine. I heard that the Tigress Can Jam October ingredient was chilies, and I was excited to make a grapefruit chili sauce inspired by Marie Sharp’s Grapefruit Habenero Sauce that I had tasted on a trip to Belize last year. Stupidly, I only brought back a tiny bottle of the stuff, and it went fast.  With this challenge, I was looking forward to finally trying my hand at replicating that tangy, spicy, savory, delectable sauce. So, I hit the books. The only thing that kinda came close to what I was after was a recipe for Orange Chili Marmalade in the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. So, that was my starting point, and this is where I ended: heart beating, calls to Utah, pH test strips strewn around my kitchen…

So, since I feel like I might have modified too much, I won’t be sharing a recipe this month. The published recipe said to take OUT the chili peppers after they cooked with the grapefruit; I kept them in. The recipe was too large, so I did 40% of it; was my computation correct? I added some water to thin out the marmalade as it cooked. Was that a good instinct, or a fatal one?

Utah Canning Lady said that I was ‘probably fine’, but she ‘can’t be sure’.  So,  just to be safe, I’m going to do the other thing that I do when I’m afraid that my cans weren’t properly sealed and that they might not be preserved correctly.  I’m going to eat it, all, very very fast. And it happens to be delicious!

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7 thoughts on “Grapefruit Chili Marmalade and a Canning Confession

  • October 23, 2010 at 12:44 am

    Ha! I’m with you on the B-fear: I’ve been there. If I can help you out on a couple of points: I’ve made the orange chili marmalade from the Ball book, and I left the chiles in, and I’m positive that I increased their number (I believe it was Tigress who pointed out to me that dried chiles, or nuts, or herbs, are not a safety concern in general *because* they are dried. No moister = no c. botulinum.). Regardless, I am not dead, neither is my husband, neither are the friends who’ve eaten this marmalade.

    Secondly: I too, in my Botu-fear, have trolled the Interwebs (and the CDC website) looking for information on botulism poisoning. If you drill down far enough, you find that 20 out of 22 of those case of canning-related botulism are from green beans, canned in WATER, in a water bath. Duh. The other 2 always seem to be tomato-related; salsa, or Grandma’s chili sauce (with meat no less). And of these 22 only 1 or maybe 2 people actually die. Surely you don’t love ALL those twitter canning bloggers do you? 😉

    No, really, I kid. Clearly, botulism is to be taken seriously. But it should also be put in perspective: if we understand the principles of safe canning, and modify recipes smartly, we (and all the lovely, lovely twitter bloggers who eat our canned goods) are WAY more likely to get hit by a bus. Or lightning. Or a charging rhinocerous. Just saying.

  • October 23, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    i LOVE the paranoia. i love the paranoids. i love the pH strip photo. thanks for sharing.
    in germaphobia,

  • October 27, 2010 at 10:25 am

    Hi Alexa,
    You would be horrified by the way we make preserves in the UK! When we have made our jam, jelly, chutney or pickles we simply pour them into sterilised jars and screw a lid on top. Then they get put away until we’re ready to eat ’em. No water bath treatment at all. For bottling fruit or veg you would be advised to process the jars in a water bath but for anything involving copious quantities of sugar, vinegar, salt or alcohol then no need. I have jars of preserves made last August (2009) on my shelves that are perfectly fine. I’ve never heard of anyone getting ill from homemade preserves.

  • October 30, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    Thanks for the comments, Ladies! Kaela: I’m keeping my eyes peeled for charging rhinos! Thanks for the laughs! Dara: Glad you can share in my germaphobe-fear! Sue: I AM horrified!! Just kidding — I know all you do is probably OK, as is everything I do, recipe-modification included. I just flip out anyway. Oh well!

  • December 11, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    You know, the more I can, the more irrational is my fear. For the most part, though, I never worry anymore about anything fruit based, especially if it’s citrus. Still, I love the pH roll. Didn’t even know you could get that. Unlike you and Kaela, I just sit and stew in the fear, never thinking to call someone or research anything!

    And that marmalade looks just gorgeous!

  • April 3, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    Thank you for all the great tips. This should make canning a little easier.

  • July 22, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    Oh, I love you. I’m new to canning and found you while trolling for grapefruit/canning recipes. It’s my secret fear that I’ll give people botulism one day. I made two batches of good jam a few years back before doing something terribly wrong with a batch – all the jars had mold in them a few months after processing. And while the mold was obvious and nobody ate the jam, I am perpetually FREAKED OUT that I’m going to do something wrong again.

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