Practical Home Canning Tips

A long list of tips and insider tricks from an obsessive home canner. This is my "what I wish I'd known before I started canning" list.

A few summers ago, I decided to can. What started as a few jars somehow turned into a root cellar's worth. Call it the Summer of Obsessive Canning. I stopped counting after the 145th jar and the 25th batch. All lined up on the counter, the glistening jars were immensely satisfying. I loved the POP sound as the seals set. It helped me grieve the loss of my mom, just weeks gone.

The summer started with plum chutney and ended with pickled beans. In between came a red relish, dixie relish, piccallili, blueberry lime jam, banana butter, pickled mushrooms, pickled peaches, pickled peppers I call Pied Pipers, watermelon pickles, my grandmother's dills. There're still a few jars in the basement.

For the first time since, this year I canned again. Before launching in, I reviewed the tips written back then for our just-publishing family cookbook, my "I sure wish I'd known this before starting" list . They're practical tips, mostly what to do before and after you start canning, "what I learned between jar #1 and jar #145".

Do you have your own home canning tips? Don't hesitate to comment below, I hope this becomes a resource page for new and returning home canners. If you're looking for tried-and-true recipes, here are my canning recipes.

THE INGREDIENTS for HOME CANNING
  • Curiosity about the process of preserving specialty foods
  • Appreciation for interesting relishes, jams and preserves
  • A cheap streak that makes the exorbitant prices at specialty food shops totally unacceptable!

STUDYING UP
  • Try homecanning.com for good basic instructions.
  • Check the library or bookstore for basic instructions and recipes.
  • I got a great one for $10 at Target, the Ball Blue Book, Guide to Home Canning, Freezing and Dehydration, this one is similar.
  • Take good notes. Most of us don't can that often so good notes really help from year to year, especially the personal ones. My 2006 notes include: "I don't like jams and jellies so sugar-packed that the only taste is sweet vs taste of peaches, etc. so I'm on the look-out for a source of no- or minimal-sugar added recipes."

ESSENTIAL EQUIPMENT
  • A large "hot water bath" pot, I found one (again at Target) for $20 that included:
    • a metal insert that keeps the jars upright during processing
    • a jar lifter
    • a magnetized lid/band lifter
    • a poker to release air bubbles
  • Glass measuring cups (1cup, 2cup, 4cup) are useful
  • Multiple stacking colanders.
  • A food processor for chopping in large quantities.
  • A wide-mouthed funnel for filling jars without getting gunk on the lips.
  • A "jar lifter" to remove jars from the hot water bath
  • A "lid wand" with a magnet on one end to lift sterilized lids and bands from boiling water.
JARS
  • Canning jars are made from specially-tempered glass.
    • Canning jars are readily available by the case though not cheap.
    • Supermarkets, even hardware stores often carry canning jars, especially during July, August and September, prime canning months in the northern hemisphere.
    • Wal*Mart has the best prices in St Louis but tends to run out of favorite sizes.
    • In the U.S. anyway, cases include twelve glass jars, twelve metal lids with rubber seals along the edge and twelve metal bands for sealing the rubberized lids onto the jars.
      • Rubberized metal lids may be an American-style product.
      • European lids seem to be made from glass. They include a metal aparatus that, with a separate rubber ring, preserves the food inside.
    • Save the cardboard cases. They're great for storing and transporting filled jars.
    • Check with friends -- mine had bunches of canning jars stockpiled that they were happy to get rid of.
  • Don't use leftover spaghetti jars, etc. for canning that requires hot-water processing.
    • Leftover jars do work fine, however, for refrigerator pickles like these which aren't really "canned" but can be stored in the fridge for a week or more.
  • In the U.S., canning jars come in quart, pint and half-pint sizes.
    • Quarts are typically used for "big quantity" things like tomatoes, beans, peaches, tomato sauce, etc.
    • Smaller jars are better for foods used in smaller bits, jams and jellies, for example.
    • For gift-giving, the pint and half-pint jars are perfect. If you're canning "food for the table" or for a large family, you may prefer pints and quarts.
  • In the U.S., canning jars come with wide mouths and standard mouths. Wide mouths are slightly more expensive but I have to to prefer them.
    • Wide mouths are easier to fill and easier to clean, especially important if reusing jars. Plus, to my eyes, they just look cooler.
    • That said, I have lots of standard-mouth jars and use them quite happily.
GETTING READY
  • Have supper already made or be prepared to go out, especially if you're planning an all-day canning marathon.
  • Do consider a marathon: getting set up is half the work.
  • Get comfortable: shorts and t-shirts and comfortable shoes.
  • Turn down the air conditioning, it's going to get hot.
  • Clear the kitchen counters of anything extraneous.
  • Empty the dishwasher.
    • Fill the bottom with already clean jars and nothing else.
    • Run the dishwasher with soap to clean the jars again.
    • If you time it right, the jars will still be hot when it's time to fill them.
    • If not, you can run the rinse cycle again to reheat them.
    • Remember, the point is to place hot food (usually although some are cold packed) in hot jars which will then be immersed in hot water: temperature equilibrium prevents breakage.
  • Sharpen your knives.
  • Put a quart pan filled with water on the back burner. Use this to sterilize lids and bands.
INGREDIENTS
  • NEW 2006: Liquid pectin and powdered pectin are not interchangeable. One cannot be substituted for the other.
  • NEW 2006: Pectin is apparently not shelf stable. Use what you have the year it's purchased.
  • When spice bags are specified, put the spices in a coffee filter, fold it over and staple.
  • Use the food processor to chop food that will cook down anyway but use a knife where distinct pieces are desirable.
  • To easily peel ripe tomatoes, cut an X in the skin of the blossom end (opposite the stem end)
    • Drop as many as will fit into a large kettle of boiling water.
    • Leave 1 minute, remove with a slotted spoon
    • Transfer to a sink filled with ice and water.
    • Return the water to a boil before doing the next batch.
    • Repeat as necessary.
    • Peeling can be done as convenient.
  • To easily peel ripe peaches, follow the tomato instructions except don't cut the X.
    • To peel, cut through the flesh to the pit horizontally but don't yet seperate the halves ~ the two sections of skin will peel off easily with just your fingers

RECYCLING
  • You can recycle canning jars (NOT leftover spaghetti/etc jars) so long as they're in perfect condition, check for nicks, etc.
    • Less than perfect canning jars can be used for refrigerator pickles but will may break during processing or allow spoiling during storage.
  • Store empty jars upside down in boxes, this prevents icky sticky spider deposits.
    • I use bankers boxes, which will hold two or three layers of jars.
    • As empty canning jars collect, sort them by jar size and mouth size in different boxes. It helps know what you've got on hand when you start a new project.
  • Old (that is, meaning antique jars with very old glass vs recycled canning jars) jars can break in hot water baths. I love how they look with grains and beans in the pantry so never use for canning.
  • You can reuse the metal bands once or twice so long as they're unblemished.
    • Be sure they are absolutely completely dry before storing
    • Sort by size and store in ziplock bags.
    • They're relatively cheap so I only keep a few on hand, especially because they seem to not improve with time, even if unused.
  • You cannot reuse metal lids because the rubber seals are no longer good.
PROCESSING TIPS
  • Keep the lid on the hot water bath while bringing it to a boil -- it'll keep the kitchen a little cooler and the water won't evaporate away.
  • When ready to fill jars, transfer as many hot jars as will fit in the hot water bath (mine holds 7) from the dishwasher to the counter.
    • Fill one or two jars at a time using a wide funnel (the funnel keeps the rim clean).
    • Remove the air bubbles by inserting a knife into the center a few times.
    • Wipe the lips with a clean damp cloth (I use paper towels).
    • Remove a sterilized lid and band from boiling water.
    • Position the lid, then the band.
    • Use a towel to hold the (usually) hot-jar-now-filled-with-hot-food with one hand, the other to tighten the band.
    • Finish all the jars that will fit into the hot water bath at one time, transfer all at once to the hot water bath.
    • Cover and process for the specified time.
CHECKING, LABELING and STORING
  • After letting processed jars cool overnight, make sure the "dimple" on the lid is concave.
  • Remove the band, gently testing to make sure the seal is tight (I've had bad seals even with good dimples).
  • If the jar is sticky, wipe it down.
  • If the band is sticky, wash and dry it. It must be completely dry before putting back on the jar.
  • If it's clean, retighten the band.
    • Lots of books say to remove the bands so they can be reused but I've learned to keep them attached so it's easier, later, to consume parts of a jar at a time and be able to store tightly in the refrigerator.
    • It's also better for gifts since most people don't have bands easily at hand.
  • If you have jars that didn't seal, the contents are still safe to eat. Just transfer to the frig and eat up within a week or so.
  • DO label the lids, including the year. You'll forget what something is, I promise.
  • NEW 2006: Don't store filled jars upside down, this can weaken the seals.
  • When you open a jar before eating, do re-check the seal.
    • If the seal is broken or you can remove the lid without a can opener or if the contents looks cloudy or smells off, THROW THE FOOD AWAY.
EQUIPMENT STORAGE
  • The hot water bath is bulky but it can be used to store leftover lids and bands, jars of pickling salt, the special tools, even things like vinegar which keeps. Since canning likely happens sporadically, it helps to keep it together.

33 comments:

Hi Alanna,

What a treasure trove of canning information! Thank you for posting. I hadn't thought of the coffee filter trick, that's a good one.

I also love the idea of a magnetized lid lifter. I'm always burning my fingers dealing with the lids.

145 jars!? Yikes that's a lot of canning. Hope you've been able to make your way through them.

Wow, I had no idea you were into this. I've resisted the canning impulse so far so I was forced to participate in it so much as a kid.

Alanna, thank you for all this information! My husband works for a produce company and is always getting fresh produce so while back I decided learning to can would be a good idea - because I have to face it - no matter how much I like peaches I cannot eat 20lbs of them in a week and they don't fit in our apartment fridge/freezer unit!

Wow, Alanna, I wish I'd had this post when I was first bitten by the canning bug several years ago. I love seeing the rows of jars in my basement increase, decrease and change with the seasons.

This summer, we're remodeling our kitchen, so I've had to borrow a friend's kitchen for what little canning I've done. I'm looking forward to fall.

Great info here, thanks! My canning obsession is continuing through the summer--last batch was peach jam. Yum!

I've been canning pumpkin for several years and continue to have the problem of filling the jars to the top then when they are processed in the pressure canner, that processing condenses the contents into at least 1/2 cup less than what I started with. That's not great when I'm trying to get 3 cups of processed pumpkin into the jar. Does anyone have any ideas. I've always wondered how commercial cans of pumpkin are processed!

Interesting question, but you have years more experience with pumpkin than me. One thing that strikes me about the canned pureed pumpkin, it's so much thicker than the roasted pumpkin that's in my frig. I wonder if you might cook the pumpkin down before canning it ... it'd be worth a try, one batch.

i have been so into watching my wifes face as she does her first year canning..its great...(except at nite when she is dead tired) but she is very excited...she has canned 30 jars of dill pickles,15 jars bread and butter...and about 15 jars tomatoes...anyway..limited space dictates me to ask this question...can we stack the jars with or without the bands? or in boxes??? love your column here..

Hi Mr Canning ~ There IS such excitement and pride, for sure, canning so much and seeing the jars all in a row. Tell Mrs Canning congratulations! For storage, at least for a few days, I recommend just leaving the jars on the counter to be perused with pride and shown off to anyone walking through the door! :-)

Oh. But a space issue. I do stack some jars, the wide mouths stack better. If you've still got the jar boxes, they work great. I leave the bands ON, but it's because I give away a lot of jars and not many people have bands in their kitchen drawers. But I would recommend keeping them in a place where you can see them and be reminded to pull out another jar or two. That way, when it comes time to can again next year, you'll be plumb out ...

I know it's been nearly a year since you posted this canning info, but this was the year I finally took the canning plunge, and this ever-so-helpful page came up during one of my google searches. (: So, a very belated "Thanks!" for posting such a wonderfully helpful tip page! I do have a question that so far, no one (okay, the internet and the Ball Blue Book) has been able to answer for me...is it possible to stack the small quarter-pint jars in my hot water processor/pan, as long as they aren't touching the sides of the pan, and are stacked on top of a layer of old lids or bands? My stove space is small, and the pan I use for hot water bath processing is 8 quarts but isn't that wide, so I can't do very large batches of jam. I was thinking that stacking during the processing would allow me to make a slightly bigger batch. Or is that a dangerous idea and it might cause the jars to break or something?

Hi BabyCannerGirl ~ You're welcome! Glad it's useful, I even review it myself, before starting, because it reminds me what works/doesn't in a practical way.

As for your question, I don't "know" but my instinct says this: that I'd check the water temperature at the two separate levels before making a decision on whether this is safe. The lower level, of course, would be closer to the heat source and so the water 'should' be hotter - but with enough free distribution, perhaps it's okay. If there's more than a few degrees of temperature difference, I wouldn't do it. First, for food safety reasons - you don't want to the top layer to NOT be safe because they don't get processed 'long enough' (in this case, long enough in a hot enough temperature). Second, for food aesthetics reasons - you don't want to go to a pile of effort and then have the BOTTOM layer be over-processed and thus not taste as good.

All this said, it occurs to me that you might be able to finagle a two-layer stacking thingie (from chicken wire? maybe??) that would allow for the free flow of water distribution.

And all THIS said, while a big canning pot is big and so is a space issue, it's quite inexpensive, I remember paying $20/less for a whole set of things in 2002. If you think your canning 'bug' is permanent, it might be a good investment.

With so many experts here maybe someone has some advice. We cooked up 11lbs of tomato chutney on Tuesday night and in a moment of frenzy our jars were accidently broken. Now we have the chutney in the fridge. Is it possible to reheat and then can/preserve on Saturday or is this too much time?

I don'twant to risk that any bacteria has grown etc.?

Advice most welcome and needed.

Hi Sarah ~ Oh my, what a shame. It's not bacteria I'd fear, it's glass. If you've ever broken a glass on the kitchen floor, you know how you find shards of glass even weeks later, ones you missed. So depending on what happened, how the glass broke, whether the entire 11 pounds was affected, I suspect that you've got 11 pounds of compost (and because of the glass, I'd even be careful putting it into a compost pile because later, you dig into it with your hands, etc etc etc).

But - if you think you're safe from glass, then bacteria should be no problem. Just return your chutney to a boil, let it cook for a good five minutes, then proceed as usual with hot sterile jars.

Ah dear, I'm so sorry. I can only imagine how you were looking forward to the chutney. Don't give up for another time!!

hi, my name is linda and I think I'm in trouble, First time canning I have made pepper jelly gone through all the processes,Im looking and it looks to watery what should or can I do to fix this......HELP...

Can someone tell me if it is OK to box my sealed jars and then stack the full boxes? I have heard NOT to put a jar on a jar.

Linda ~ hope you held tight and gave your pepper jelly at least a week (or 2) to set up! I, too, am a first timer this year!

Hi Everybody,
I have been married for 37 years and learned to can from my mother-in-law the second year. I have canned just about everything that can be canned. When the children were home, 700-1000 jars were the norm.
Now I live in a 12x60 trailer. We converted the smallest bedroom into a pantry. I have already canned about 300 jars of fruit and veggies, plus jam and jelly. I put the jars back into the box after I fill them and after I empty them. A label on each box tells me what is left it it. I do stack these boxes. For the jars that have no boxes, I put them in two layers in milk crates with a piece of cardboard in between. This has always worked for me. (I take off the rings if they come off easily)
Kathy

Thank you for all this info...i got the canning bug two weeks ago, and have already made 10 types of jam, spaghetti sauce and am preparing to do chili and pumpkin butter. any advice on either of those? i know i have to pressure can both of these, but i was wonderng if there was anything else i should know...

My tips to add to the mix:

1. If you need a cheap recipe book the USDA has their guide to canning online for download as a pdf.

2. If you don't have a dishwasher, wash your jars and place them on baking sheets. Stick them in the oven at the lowest temperature setting around the time you start your water bath heating.

3. This seems basic but...measure all of your ingredients out and have them ready on the counter before you start to cook. Yesterday I was just about to start cooking when I realized I only had half of the sugar I needed.

4. If you hate super sugary recipes you can get low/no sugar pectin.

5. Before the sun sets on the day you do your canning, write out everything that you did that day from ingredients to taste testing to the final yield. Especially note anything you think you did wrong or would like to do differently. Leave space at the end for comments after the product has "aged". We have a notebooks for yogurt, canning, and brewing.

I would also like to second the idea of having dinner ready before you start the process. The night before we can, we like to get everything ready for a crock pot meal.

I too have been having an obsession with canning this summer. I'm also vegetarian, and would like to venture into pressure canning w/ soups and chili and such. Do you recommend any books that have good vegetarian pressure canning recipes?

FH ~ Good for you! I've never once done pressure canning so can't recommend a cookbook. I would think, however, that you wouldn't need to worry about finding a vegetarian cookbook, so long as you were comfortable, you could just skip over the meat chapter.

What makes it necessary to add vinegar to a batch of cooked pepper jelly or jam?

Is their a good substitute that will not impact the setting and eliminate the vinegar taste?

Janice

can you use lemon juice to keep peaches from discoloring when canning?

Found this on pinterest. Great tips.
A couple of things I do differently (after mega years of canning) - I put my empty jars in the boiling water in the canner, then use tongs to take them out one at a time (pouring the hot water back into the canner), set them on the counter, fill them, wipe the rims, set the lids, screw on the bands (bands do not need to be boiled, btw) then set them back in the canner.
When you are removing air bubbles, slide your knife or spatula down the side of the jars, not the center.
I stack my jars in my pantry after they have spent the requisite 24 hours on the counter.

When I remove the jars from the hot water bath, I use a folded towel on a tray - set the hot jars on the towel-covered tray, then the entire tray can be moved to another location to sit undisturbed. (that's a counter-space thing - very little space beside my stove.... mega counter space on other side of kitchen.)

The coffee filter idea for spices is great! I use a tea ball, but, if I double a recipe, it doesn't hold enough.

In regards to some of the questions your commenters have asked - why on earth would you go to the trouble of canning pumpkin when it can be processed, poured into ziploc bags and frozen? Waaaay easier. A medium sized ziploc will hold 4 cups of pumpkin - exactly the amount needed for a pie. Freeze them lying flat to save space. Keeps for years frozen.

And no, never put jars on top of one another in a hot water bath.... that's a disaster waiting to happen.

Oh, and when skinning tomatoes, no need to cut the skin before you put them in the hot water. It usually splits either when it's in the hot water or as soon as it hits the ice water! (and if it doesn't, just squeeze it gently... aiming, of course, away from yourself! Or make sure you wear a tomato-red apron!)

And one final word of advice (Yeah, I know, shaddup already!) If, when you go to open one of your jars, the lid doesn't give that satisfying hiss when you (snap a fingernail trying to) pry it off.... don't use it. When in doubt, throw it out.
I'm done now, really.

Aiii Bag Lady ~ Great tips. And yes I especially agree about not bothering to can pumpkin, it cooks and freezes so beautifully. I really do recommend using a kabocha squash, however.

Hello. Thanks for this post. Excellent tips! I canned today for the first time, making marinara sauce in quart-jars. While the jars were processing, I kept the pot covered, but at one point, I removed the lid and discovered that the water level had dropped to a point where the lids were no longer completely submerged. I added more boiling water to re-submerge the jars. I extended the processing time to compensate, and I had to repeat this process a couple times. When I removed the jars, they all made the "pop" almost immediately - each one appears to be sealed. Do you think these are safe, or should I be concerned about the fact that they weren't completely submerged throughout 100% of the processing?

Thanks!
Jeff

Hi Jeff, Good for you, taking on marinara!

I'm not enough of an expert on the "safety" side of canning to answer your question, especially with a low-acid food like tomatoes. A couple of suggestions:

To be safe, store it in the fridge and use within a short period, a couple of weeks. A couple of benefits: you can decide, while it's all still fresh, whether you like the marinara sauce, how you might tweak it for next time, also if there's too much for your own use, share the wealth! :-)

Another thought, in case this happens again if you live in a dry climate, keep a kettle of boiling water at the ready, that way there will be less chance of temperature fluctuations.

Another idea: call the Ball Consumer Line, they might know more.

A couple to add to your list:
Taste things before filling jars (once I made 8 jars of this horrible tasting marinara sauce)

Check out pomona pectin and these canning posts about sugar free canning. http://laurablog72.blogspot.com/search?updated-min=2010-01-01T00:00:00-07:00&updated-max=2011-01-01T00:00:00-07:00&max-results=9

Laura, "Tasting" is an excellent tip! And I'm so glad you posted the link to the information about the Pomona Pectin, Here's the permalink.

Really nice tips everyone! This is my second year canning. I started with easy jams and tonight I canned my seven minute microwave dill pickles. Last week I attempted cherry jam. As of today, it has still not set up. I will give it one more day, but reprocessing is probably in my future. If they fail again....cherry syrup it is! ;). I am REALLY interested in pressure canning and plan on making the leap this year! Happy canning all!

Just came across this site. Excellent and fun! I am a self-taught canner (no-one was canning when I wanted to learn-why bother?) I learned from an Old Joy of Cooking in the late 70"s and have had wonderful canning adventures over the years. One of the best was find a STEAM CANNER. I became arthritic and a standard boiling water bath became impossible. The dishwasher trick is a great one. Used it for years until I moved to a place I didn't have a dishwasher. WEnt back to boiling water in large pot and sticking a few jars in.

These days I am a small batch canner and use a Nesco roaster oven to do a modified steam canning/boiling water bath method that yields perfect results even though they aren't approved. BE very careful with cleanliness.
I use small 4 or 8 oz jars only as the lid needs to cover the jars with room to spare. don't need to cover jars completely with water. Can do 3-6 jars at a time. I stack the 4oz jars and have no problems with lids sealing.

Take the time to learn about STEAM CANNING. use your search engine. Developed by the folks at Iowa State HOme Ec department or some such lofty homakers educational facility--Maybe Ohio? anyway, professionally developed method, but not widely used because of the Ball and other companies dominance of the field. But it does work.
don;t have energy or facilities for marathon canning sessions, but couldn't give up on canning, it is rewarding and the results are so superior. So worked on method that I can fit into my disabled person lifestyle. ENJOY

Hi, I'm looking for tips on peeling tomatoes for canning. Currently, I blanch/ice water bath, then peel by hand, but as I usually can anywhere from 50-200 jars of salsa and tomatoes each year, this is extremely tedious (and finding the time to do this part is the bottleneck that often causes lots of tomatoes to spoil). Do you know of any equipment between the hand peelers and the 50 ton/hour machines I've found--something that could make fairly quick work of a 5-gallon bucket of tomatoes at a time?

Nice site--your advice will be much appreciated.

Bob Slocum
rslocumstc@yahoo.com

Hi Bob, Wow, lots of canning! I'm sorry, I work in small batches so don't have experience with what you're looking for. Good luck!

For peeling and seeding tomatoes a food mill work is great, although will also puree the tomato so only good for sauce, not salsa.

Earlier comment about stacking, my pressure canner gives instructions on how to do this with no extra equipment needed. Just stack jars on top of each other. Not sure why u couldnt do the same in boiling water bath.

One thing i've read that maybe should be added is when removing hot jars from canner to set them on a towel rather than directly on the counter. Reason has to do with possible temperature change. Hot jars on cold counter not a good idea. I have a wooden cutting board and kitchen towel on top of that; also absorbs water from canner.

I believe someone asked about reason for adding acid to jam - cant recall if this blog or another - i know low acid items like tomato this is a requirement for current canning standards in jam not sure if necessary, but i do it because the acidity rounds out the flavor and makes the jam taste better; i use about 1 tablespoon per quart. Final product does not taste acidic.

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Thank you for taking a moment to write! I read each and every comment, for each and every recipe, whether a current recipe or a long-ago favorite. If you have a specific question, it's nearly always answered quick-quick. ~ Alanna