Talk to an Instant Pot fanatic, and they'll tell you that this electric pressure cooker can do just about anything -- boil eggs, bake cheesecake, make yogurt and more. And the forthcoming Instant Pot Max, which is slated to be released around May, will add another function to the popular small appliance: canning.
But you might want to hold off before you start to sanitize a pot full of Mason jars.
Experts say that using the Instant Pot to preserve your own food is much more complicated than just pressing a button on the machine. Guidance from the USDA and even Instant Pot's own website advise against using the electric pressure cooker for some methods of home canning. The biggest concern: It's unclear if the Instant Pot Max and other electric pressure cookers can meet the temperature and pressure levels needed to destroy potentially deadly bacteria inside canned food.
"This is not a cooking function. This is a public health issue," said Elizabeth Andress, the director of the National Center for Home Food Preservation. NCHFP is a research center at the University of Georgia created in partnership with the USDA to make research-based recommendations about home food preservation, including canning (you can read the USDA's guide to home canning here).
Canning involves preserving food in sealed, glass jars to extend its shelf life. You have to do a lot of work to kill any bacteria that might naturally exist on the fresh foods you plan to can, including (but not limited to) washing produce, adding acids and processing jars, according to the NCHFP. There are two ways to process jars -- you can either use boiling-water canning for acidic foods like fruits, pickles and sauerkraut, or pressure canning for low-acid foods like fresh vegetables and meat.
"The way you kill bacteria is the right combination of time and temperature," Andress said. "There's nothing magical about pressure, it's the temperature that matters. And we need pressure to get to a high enough temperature to kill bacterial spores in low-acid foods because they're very heat resistant."
The spores you have to worry about are Clostridium botulinum. This bacterium exists harmlessly in soil. But its spores can grow rapidly and produce a deadly toxin that causes botulism in an environment with the following conditions: within a moist, low-acid food; a temperature between 40 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit; and less than 2 percent oxygen. That means that those low-acid foods that require pressure canning are most at risk for carrying the bacterium. If there's not enough heat and pressure in your cooker (along with the right amount of time), your jar of low-acid food could become a breeding ground for a bacteria that could make people sick -- or even kill them.
Last month,that the Max model could be used for canning because it can reach an internal pressure of 15 psi. But according to the NCHFP, that's not enough to prove that your jars have been properly heated throughout for a sufficient amount of time.
"Just producing an interior pressure is not sufficient data for canning recommendations," the center states on its website.
An Instant Pot representative said the company is currently in discussions with the NCHRP.
The NCHFP hasn't tested its researched canning methods on electric pressure cookers like the Instant Pot Max, so it can't independently confirm that conditions are hot enough inside countertop pressure cookers to kill bacteria when you process your jars, Andress said. Therefore, the center doesn't recommend you use the canning methods in electric, multicooker appliances.
"You can't just assume that what works in a 16-quart stovetop pressure canners works in a small electric canner," Andress said.
And it's not clear what type of processing Instant Pot wants you to use with the canning button on the Max. Instant Pot's website only recommends its products broadly for boiling-water canning, not pressure canning, but the Max model isn't listed on the Instant Pot website yet, so it's unclear whether this recommendation applies to the new unit's canning function.
"The Instant Pot product line is regulated by a pressure sensor instead of a thermometer; the altitude of your location may affect the actual cooking temperature. We recommend to not use Instant Pot for pressure canning," the website states.
Marisa McClellan is the author of three books about home canning and the creator of the blog Food in Jars. She said she loves the concept of using an Instant Pot for home canning, but she can't recommend it until the company provides a better understanding of how they decided that the Max would be safe for canning.
"I'm going to feed the things I pressure-can to my friends and family and myself, and I don't want to do anything to put them at risk," McClellan said.
She said she'd like the Max to have a readout on the unit that would tell you what the exact temperature inside the cooker is and when pressure reached 15 psi.
"It would give us a level of understanding that it was doing what we need it to do," she said.
If you're wary of home canning, McClellan said to start with high-acid foods like fruit preserves or pickles that keep the spores that cause botulism at bay. And even if you do can these foods incorrectly, it's not going to reach as dangerous of a level of spoiling as low-acid foods; unlike the botulism bacterium, you'll be able to see or smell that they've gone bad.
"It's really hard to kill people with jams or pickles," she said.
First published April 7, 2018 at 5 a.m. PT.
Update 7:06 a.m. PT: Adds comment from Instant Pot.
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