I shifted to the new food and fed my fat-intolerant boxer the new mixture all day yesterday. Sadly, he vomited this morning with whole green beans coming up. Back to the drawing board.
I also followed up with a simple recipe the dogs seem to love sans the “canning” process.
I’ve become increasingly cynical about the relationship between pet food manufacturers and the professional veterinarian community. While I didn’t actually have much of an opinion on feed makers, my relationship with the vets who care for my animals has been pretty solid. Over the last several years however, as my animals have continued progressing through the geriatric stages of their lives, I’ve been increasingly frustrated with getting the specialized food my boxer requires, and the hoops my veterinarians are forcing me through.
I had finally had enough and decided to cook / create / mix my own dog food while using standard household hobby canning methods to preserve it long enough for the dogs to eat safely. My main tool for this first attempt was a 21-quart All American pressure cooker / canner. The intention was to pressure cook the food, wash the pot, then use it for canning. What follows is a list of things I did wrong and what to avoid if you’re doing it for the first time. I won’t get into pressure canning mechanics or why you’d need to do pressure canning. I assume you’ve done your own research on this.
- Buy or borrow everything you’re going to need before you even start.
I made 7 ad-hoc trips spread throughout the day for ingredients or cooking items. One trip to the local farmers market, 1 trip to home depot, 1 trip to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and 4 trips to to a grocery store. This was easily one of the most frustrating things about this experience and probably the cause of an unusually long day. Here’s what I bought on each trip.
- Farmers market – potatoes, squash, green beans, carrots, broccoli
- Grocery store – 3 whole chickens
- Home Depot – a drywall “mud” mixer drill bit (used in place of a restaurant-grade potato masher)
- Bed, Bath & Beyond – a long, thick handled spoon or stirring utensil, garlic press
- Grocery store – spinach, 2 packages of Kerr wide mouth canning lids (neither were used)
- Grocery store – half gallon pitcher, 2 thick pot holder gloves
- Grocery store – 42 ounce container of Oatmeal
I’m not necessarily suggesting a list of required items, rather I’m hoping you can avoid the mistake I made not being fully prepared. The bottom line is this: think through each stage of your cooking / canning adventure and try to get everything you’re going to need up front. You’ll save time and frustration from constant interruptions while cooking.
- If you’re canning, make explicit use of a food funnel while filling jars or cans
Considering how much time I spent driving and shopping, the day was already twice as long as it should have been and I hadn’t even started canning yet. It felt like it took an hour to fill 24 Ball mason jars with the cooked food. My feet were on fire and I decided to sit down for about 30 minutes after finally getting all the food into the jars. When I came back to wash and top all the jars, the excess food around the lip and threads of the jars was now a dried cake. I spent another hour just cleaning the threads and making sure the top lip was free of anything that would prevent a hermetic seal when pressure canning. In retrospect, I could have saved a lot of time and headache by making use of the food funnel that came with my jar lifter. It would have kept the jar threads and lip mostly free of food and eliminated the need for extensive cleaning.
- Use common sense in cooking times and ingredients.
Figure out what your base meat is going to be and cook it first. If your base meat is chicken and you intend on adding things like squash, potatoes, carrots, or leafy greens, make sure the chicken is nice-n-cooked before adding the other ingredients. Anyone who spends the slightest amount of time in a kitchen should already be aware of what happens to these other ingredients when they are over-cooked. I didn’t follow the instructions of the recipe I was using and as a result, my non-meat ingredients essentially dissolved into mush when I would have preferred a bit of crispness or solidity.
- If canning, use only ingredients that you know will compact well in a jar.
I used broccoli in my dog food mixture. Even when over-cooked, broccoli will retain a certain amount of rigidity. Besides having a hard time spooning the food mixture into jars, broccoli will create hard to fill air gaps between it and the rest of the mixture. If you’ve done your research on canning, you know that air gaps can promote bacteria growth that cause food to spoil or become toxic.
- If at all possible, don’t use the same pot for cooking that you do for canning
Even using standard household pots-n-pans, re-using one after you’ve already cooked something in it takes a bit of coordination. You have to relocate the cooked food to another container, cool the pot by running it under water, and wash it before throwing it back on the stove. The coordination gets trickier with a combination pressure cooker / pressure canner.
First off, these combination units are usually quite large (greater than 15-quarts), so it’s more likely that the amount of food you have to relocate is substantial. The food and pot is also heavy so you’re not likely to be flinging it around with one hand. Pressure cookers have to release pressure naturally and slowly which will take time. Likewise, depending on the unit you have, you can’t simply run cold water over it when it’s hot. Drastic changes in temperature can crack and warp the pot making it all but useless for pressurizing ever again. Finally, if it’s a large pot like mine (21-quart), it may or may not even fit in your sink. I had to turn my slightly sideways to get the water spigot positioned.
If I manage to get over the trauma of 15 hours cooking and canning 24 pints of homemade dog food, I’ll most certainly buy a separate large pot (probably same size) that I can use strictly for cooking and use my combination unit as a pressure canner only.
- Don’t tighten your lids too tight when you start the pressurized canning process.
Out of the 16 jars I filled and canned (8 went into the freezer), only one didn’t seal. In fact it not only didn’t seal, the lid buldged and buckled upward. Common sense tells me that I tightened the ring too tight. When the food in the jar was heated to 250 degrees during the canning process, the lid was likely too tight to allow the pressurized air to escape. This preventing vacuum sealing from happening.
- If using a pressure canner for the first time, do an inexpensive small trial run on a low acid food you won’t mind throwing away if it doesn’t turn out right.
When I fired up the pressure cooker for the first time, having never used a pressure cooker in my life, I didn’t tighten the screw threads tight enough and the pot/lid had several leaks all the way around that prevented it from getting up to pressure. I had to turn off the heat, allow the pressure to go down naturally, and re-seat the lid. I also poured out about 4 cups of water from the pot once I was able to get the lid off. I was thinking that there was too much fluid in the pot and that too was preventing or slowing it from reaching 15 lbs of pressure. Once I tightened the lid firmly and poured some of the liquid out, it reached 15 lbs of pressure in about 20 minutes. This miscue added probably an extra hour to my cooking time which would have an obvious impact on the quality of the food mixture. Since I spent about $65 on food ingredients, I didn’t want to simply throw it away because the quality / consistency wasn’t what I wanted.
So, my first foray into homemade dog food that I could preserve for long-term storage was a painful one. Several times since I started yesterday morning, I’ve considered the benefits and beautiful simplicity of freezing a cooked mixture as an alternative to this complicated and frustrating process — a sort of “throw up your hands and give in” response. Now that my first batch is cooked and canned and my “dogs aren’t barking” (so to speak), I’ll probably give it another shot in a few weeks when I need more food. In all honesty, I have to consider a few things:
- This was my first time using a pressure cooker
- It was my first time canning
- It was my first time using a pressure canner
- I seldom ever cook for my dogs, let alone in quantities like this
- Identifying a few things to avoid will definitely cut the time down
- I spent an enormous amount of money on a state-of-the-art cooker/canner and materials
- I love my dogs and want them to be healthy(ier)
- I hate the feed/veterinarian extortion ring which is what made me try this in the first place.