Canning Basics for Beginners Canning Basics for Beginners

As more people opt for healthy, fresh, non-toxic food sources, there's been a resurgence of interest in canning. But the process of safely home canning food can be a bit intimidating. Keep reading for tips on how to get started and general information on different methods.

Getting Started

Canning is the process of using heat to preserve food items into sealed jars or cans. You don’t need anything too fancy to get started, however, a few essential items will help the process go smoothly. Mason jars are a safe and readily available container to use. You’ll also need one large pot (and possibly a smaller pot), a saucepan, a jar rack, and a jar lifter. A funnel, spatula, and ladle will also be useful during the process—just make sure you use non-metallic utensils, as metal can react to certain ingredients in negative ways. Potholders, towels, and clean rags will also be necessary. For pressure cooker canning, as the name suggests, a specialized pressure canner is a must.

Preparation

Decide what you want to preserve and have your recipes ready to go beforehand. Fruits and vegetables are the most commonly preserved food types, although canned meat is also possible. Many people use fresh fruit and vegetables from their garden at the end of the season, making their preserved goods organic and local! It’s best to use produce at the peak of ripeness and to can items within hours of picking. Cut away any bruises and blemishes and, of course, never use moldy or diseased produce. Meat items have much more specific handling guidelines and must be preserved using a pressure canner to prevent spoilage.

Canning Methods Based on Food Types

The main concern with canning in general is spoilage, and therefore the method you use depends on the type of food you are preparing. Bacteria rarely survives in acidic foods like fruits, pickles, and some tomatoes so “warm bath canning” is sufficient for preserving those foods. All meat and most vegetables are low in acidity and therefore need the extreme heat of a pressure canner as it is capable of reaching temperatures higher than the boiling point—a necessary step in killing off unwanted bacteria. Also, you won’t need to sterilize your jars, but make sure they are clean and kept warm before adding in food items.

Warm Bath Canning

Someone twisting a lid onto a mason jar full of green beans.

This method is the most common for beginners. Put mason jars without their lids into hot—never boiling—water for 10 minutes in a large pot filled two-thirds of the way with water to sterilize and keep them hot before packing. At the same time, place the lids in a saucepan, also in hot but not boiling water. Prepare and cook your food according to the recipe and then use a ladle to pour food through the funnel into the heated jars, leaving the proper amount of headspace and releasing any air bubbles from the jar with the non-metallic spatula. No air bubbles and proper headspace are what create the perfect seal. Wipe the jar rims well. Place the lid over the jar and hand-tighten the screw band, but don’t overtighten. Place the jar rack into the large pot of hot water and put the jars in upright, submerging them fully and making sure none of them touch the bottom or each other. Turn up the heat, following the recipe’s recommended cooking time, and use a jar lifter to place them on kitchen towels when they are done. You’ll hear a ping when they’ve sealed. An hour after they’ve cooled, you’ll know you’ve achieved a good vacuum seal if the lid does not push down. If not, refrigerate and use those first. The well-sealed jars can be stored in a cool, dark place. Make sure to label them with the contents and date!

Pressure Canning

A woman funneling preserves into a glass jar.

First things first—check the manual of the pressure canner or cooker to see that it's appropriate for pressure canning. Not all pressure cookers are and you may need a specific pressure canner to maintain optimum pressure. The starting steps are similar to warm bath canning until the moment when the jars are filled with your food and need to be heated to create a seal. Prepare the pressure canner according to the manufacturer's instructions, which usually means filling and bringing two to three inches of water to a simmer. Once your filled jars are placed onto the rack in the canner, heat can be increased according to the recipe and the canner’s vent can be opened. After 10 minutes, the vent can be closed and the temperature adjusted to achieve optimum pressure. Maintaining this consistently throughout is essential, so stay in the kitchen and keep checking the gauge! After the cooking time is up, remove heat and allow the pressure to go back to zero on its own. Use caution and check manufacturer’s recommendations for safe reopening of the pressure canner. Use jar lifters and place them on towels for 12-24 hours. Check seals, label, and refrigerate or store the jars as you would in warm bath canning.

Raw Packing vs. Hot Packing

Hot water being poured into glass jars full of tomatoes.

Raw packing is the process of adding hot water to raw food already in cans or jars. Hot packing is the process of simmering food items in a saucepan for two to five minutes, depending on the recipe, and then transferring them to the jar. In either process, the water or liquid being used to fill the jar should always be heated beforehand. Hot packing generally heightens flavor and keeps food from discoloring over time, while raw packing is more suitable for pressure canning as the temperature ensures enough cooking time. Hot packing takes most of the air out of the food before being sealed, making it ideal for warm bath canning, however, different recipes will call for different methods. For example, pickles can be raw packed and then warm bath canned because of the high acidity of the recipe and the need to maintain crispness of the vegetable. Always follow your recipe’s instructions.

As canned goods and preservatives make their way back into modern households, consider trying your hand at this DIY technique. Start small and attempt one or two simple recipes first to spice up meals. Remember that there are many health benefits as well: fermented foods are great for healthy gut bacteria and canning keeps nutrients readily available, rather than watching fruits and vegetables go to waste. Home canning is a cost-effective way to put fresh, tasty, homegrown food on the table.

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