How Safe Are Edible, Homemade Gifts?

stacks on stacks of jelly jars
Homemade jellies and jams are good to have on hand, but store-bought works just fine, too. (Photo: Dennis Jarvis [CC by SA 2.0]/Flickr)

After one too many tacky ties or too-small sweaters, a gift of homemade jam or salsa can be a welcome respite from the overconsumption that permeates this time of year. But whether it's chutney, relish, pickles, condiments or nut butters, there are some important health factors to consider — for both the gift-giver and giftee.

That doesn't mean you need to give up on your dreams on gifting your family and friends exquisite preserved lemons or spicy pickled okra, however. But a few tips from the experts will help to set both you and your gift beneficiary's mind at ease.

Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University who also writes for a food safety news site with the eye-catching name of Barf Blog. In an interview with NBC News, Chapman stated that, "Home food preservation is often the number one source of foodborne botulism."

Beware foodborne botulism

overhead shot of food and veggies in jars
Before you dig into a homemade jar of pickles, consider its provenance. ArtemSh/Shutterstock

Botulism isn't just a tummy ache or queasiness. It's an illness caused by the germ Clostridium botulinum, which thrives in certain conditions, like, say, improperly canned carrots. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "You cannot see, smell, or taste botulinum toxin — but taking even a small taste of food containing this toxin can be deadly."

Botulism is frequently misdiagnosed, as its symptoms often mimic those of a stroke or an affliction to the central nervous system: difficulty swallowing, blurred vision, slurred speech and muscle weakness. In food-borne botulism, symptoms can begin as early as six hours after eating the contaminated food or as late as 10 days, although18-36 hours after is most common.

This information isn't meant to stoke fear and paranoia about your aunt's jarred pepper jelly, rather, but to appreciate and respect the art and science behind home canning. Like any scientific experiment or labor-intensive baking, now is not the time to skip steps or take shortcuts. To play it completely safe, you should download the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning for free online.

Chapman also recommends the "amazing resource" that is the National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) at the University of Georgia. "They have hundreds of recipes," says Chapman. "If you stick to the recipes you'll make the least risky mango salsa that's out there." The website is also a treasure trove of food preservation FAQs, and not just related to canning — if you need to pickle, smoke, dry, freeze or ferment, they've got tips for that, too.

No substitutions

a water bath canner of jars of salsa
Boiling water bath canning is one of the easiest way to make shelf-stable jams and pickles at home. K-State Research and Extension [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

Now is not the time to put on your chef's hat and experiment in the kitchen. Perhaps you think you can plop some carrots in a jar of pickles, or add more peppercorns to your brine instead of vinegar. Alas, when you are dealing with this kind of chemistry, acid, bacteria, food density and pH levels are everything.

As an example, Chapman explains that a carrot is denser than a pickle, so it won't be able to absorb the vinegar that's necessary to kill the "bad bacteria." And, contrary to my own popular belief, vinegar isn't the cure-all in canning. The bacteria E. coli is actually acid-tolerant, Chapman explains, so "adding vinegar doesn't kill it. I have to process the jar in a boiling water bath."

When it comes to testing out your friend's well-meaning homemade gift, you might have to ask some awkward questions. Elizabeth L. Andress of the NCHFP states, "It may not be easy to ask questions of your gift-giver. But important things to think about include: where the recipe and canning instructions came from, when it was canned, and how it was made."

When checking out a canned good, chunks of food should be covered with a liquid, with no discoloration or drying out on top. Look closely for unnatural discoloration, mold, cloudiness or bubbling liquid before you open it. If it smells off-putting or spurts liquid upon opening, play it safe and toss it. Even with all those warning signs, there can still be jars of toxic botulism that present no red flags at all.

It's not all doom and gloom, however. If you have your heart set on a homemade holiday, stick to high-acid, low-risk foods like peaches, cherries, plums, and cranberries, or cranberry sauce. Additionally, the high sugar content of fruit jams and jellies provide an extra measure of safety. If you're a novice, you might want to skip out on low-acid vegetables, creamed soups, pestos or vegetable butters — those are best left to the experts.

Lastly, at the risk of permanently alienating friends and family, or coming off as a total Grinch, you'll want to make sure everyone involved has thoroughly washed their hands. It seems like a no-brainer, but 'tis the season for germs to spread. "It's not just the food, it's the environment,” Chapman warns. “Especially this time of year, we see norovirus being risky.”