Let’s talk about preserving food at home—specifically, canning. Canning is my favorite way to store local, seasonal fruit and vegetables. Purchasing seasonal produce in large quantities—or growing your own food— and canning it is very economical and it provides my family with their favorites year round.
I also love how eco-friendly canning is. All of your canning equipment, including jars and rings, can be used for many years. The only thing you throw away after use is the lid with the rubber seal. It’s a great feeling to know that you are helping to conserve natural resources by canning your own food.
Before we talk about the steps you’ll take when canning, let’s go over the equipment that you will need to get started. Here is a list of basics:
- A Canner – Water Bath and/or Pressure Canner
- Jars - These come in several sizes and designs, just be sure you choose jars that are designed for canning.
- Rings and Lids – These can be purchased as a set or individually. The first time around you will need sets. After that you can just buy new lids.
- Wide Mouth Funnel – This will allow you to easily fill your jars.
- Magnetic Lid Lifter – A great little tool that makes it easy to get the lid from the pan of hot water onto the jars.
- Jar Lifter – This tool is a giant pair of tongs that lets you grab the jar from the lip just below the threads and safely put it into and take it out of your canner.
Once you have all of your equipment together it’s time to start thinking about what you want to can. In a water bath canner you can preserve most acidic foods, such as most fruits, tomatoes and pickles. If you want to can vegetables or meats you will need a pressure canner. When choosing food to can, be sure to pick only the highest quality available. My mom always had the rule that “if it isn’t good enough for your table then it isn’t good enough to can.” You want to choose food that is ripe but not over-ripe. Be sure to discard food that has any bruising, insect damage, or disease.
You have so many choices when preparing food for canning. Food can be peeled or not, chopped into large or small pieces, packed with water, syrup (for fruits), or broth (for meats). Most fruits and tomatoes will need some acid (like lemon juice) added to each jar. It's very important to use recipes specific for canning and follow them exactly. Following these directions and processing times exactly will ensure the safety of the food by removing oxygen, destroying enzymes, and preventing the growth of bacteria, yeasts, and mold.
You'll also have the choice to “cold pack” or “hot pack.” Cold packing is done by putting the cold food into the jar and then pouring hot liquid over it to fill. Hot packing is done by heating the food and liquid together in a pan and pouring both into the jar to fill. (When is cold packing better? When is hot packing better?)
When you're ready to begin, start by sterilizing your jars and washing your lids and rings. Keep your jars and rings covered with a clean dishtowel until you're ready to use them. Fill your canner to the proper level with water and begin preheating it. You'll also want to put your lids in a small pan with just enough water to cover and put them on the stove with a low heat. They don’t need to be hot. You just want the rubber seal to be soft. Now it’s time to prepare your food for canning—again be sure to follow the recipe instructions exactly. Filling the jars should be done fairly quickly, so make sure that your canner is ready before you begin.
Take a sterilized jar and fill it with food; be sure to leave the proper headspace (specified in the recipe) to allow for boiling. I keep a wet dishcloth handy to wipe down the top of the jar and the threads. After cleaning, put a lid on top of the jar and twist on a ring. You only need to hand-tighten the ring. It does need to be tight, but don't over-tighten. Quickly fill all jars for a single batch in your canner. Do not add them to the canner as you fill them. Wait until they're all filled, then put them all in at the same time. This will ensure that the water in your canner stays hotter.
Once you have all of your jars in the canner, you just need to wait for it to reach the proper temperature, pressure, or begin to boil (based on the recipe and type of canner you’re using). Set a timer to make sure that you have processed your jars for the correct amount of time. If you want to do several batches in one session just begin preparing the next one while the others are processing in the canner. When they finish, carefully remove the jars from the canner and place them on a towel on the counter to cool. Before you add the next batch to the canner make sure that the water is still at the proper level. If you need to add more water, you'll have to wait for the temperature to rise before putting in your next batch of filled cans.
As your jars cool, you'll hear the ping of the lids as they seal. Once the jars have cooled completely, remove the rings and wipe down the jars to remove anything that may have seeped out during processing. The rings are not necessary for storage, but you will need one to keep the lid on the can once you open it. If you misplace things easily, it might be best to keep a ring on each can. All that’s left is to label your jars (don’t forget to date them) and put them away to store.
It's a wonderful feeling of security to have your harvest safely stored away. These canned foods have some other benefits as well. Fruits and vegetables that are handled properly and canned promptly after harvest or purchase are often more nutritious than canned food purchased at the store, they don’t require refrigeration, and will store about two years at room temperature. No thawing is required, these jars are recipe ready!
So, do you think you’re ready for your first canning recipe? Check back here in a couple of days—I’ll have some additional tips and a few great recipes for you.