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 learned to love the POP sound as the seals set. It helped me grieve the loss of my mom, just weeks gone.
That 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 beets, pickled peppers I call Pied Pipers, watermelon pickles, my grandmother's dills. That year, there were too many tears to make Ripe-Tomato Relish with Peaches & Pears (Sharon's Pickle), my mom and I had always made it together.
I don't can every year now, just some years. But when I do, I always review the tips below which were first written for our 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 think of as "what I learned between jar #1 and jar #145".
Do you have your own home canning tips? Please do comment below, so many other canners have shared their own great tips, helping this page become a real resource page for new and returning home canners. If you're looking for tried-and-true recipes, here are my canning recipes.
"What a treasure trove of canning information!" ~ Elise
"Great info here, thanks!" ~ Tea
""Thanks!" for posting such a wonderfully helpful tip page!" ~ BabyCannerGirl
"Great tips." ~ The Bag Lady
"Excellent tips!" ~ Anonymous
THE INGREDIENTS for HOME CANNINGCuriosity 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 UPTry 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 EQUIPMENTA large "hot water bath" pot, I found one (again at Target) for $20 that included:
– a metal insert that keeps the jars upright during processingGlass measuring cups (1cup, 2cup, 4cup) are useful.
– a jar lifter
– a magnetized lid/band lifter
– a poker to release air bubbles
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.
JARSCanning 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 apparatus that, with a separate rubber ring, preserves the food inside.
Save the cardboard cases that the jars came in! 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. Repeat: do NOT use leftover glass jars that aren't specifically canning jars.
These odd glass 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 come 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 READYHave 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. Clean the sink!
Empty the dishwasher. The day before, you may even want to clean the dishwasher with vinegar. I use this technique from One Good Thing by Jillee.
I like to estimate how much water will be required to fill the hot water bath ahead of time, this is how I do it. So I'll put however many jars I'll be processing into the empty hot water bath, then add the usual "water to cover plus an inch". Then I remove the jars and mark how deep the water needs to be on the side of the how water bath with a Sharpie. One year, I got really organized and marked the different levels for quart jars, pint jars, etc. Why go to all this trouble? It's just too easy to end up with "too much" water (it takes longer to boil!) or worse, "not enough" water (which means the jars can't be processed safely).
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 will be, once it's time to actually fill and "can" the jars, 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. Hot jars, hot food, hot lids, that's the usual mantra.
Sharpen your knives.
Put a quart pan filled with water on the back burner. Use this to sterilize lids and bands.
INGREDIENTSBASIC SUPPLIES It's easy to go through a bunch of vinegar, sugar, salt, etc during a canning marathon. Check your basic pantry items before starting, you don't want to run out of something critical right in the middle of everything!
PECTIN Liquid pectin and powdered pectin are not interchangeable. One cannot be substituted for the other. Pectin is apparently not shelf stable. Use what you have the year it's purchased.
SPICE BAGS When spice bags are specified, put the spices in a coffee filter, fold it over and staple.
FOOD PROCESSOR vs KNIVES Use the food processor to chop food that will cook down anyway but use a knife where distinct pieces are desirable.
TOMATOES To easily peel ripe tomatoes, cut an X in the skin of the blossom end (it's opposite the stem end). Drop as many as will fit into a large kettle of boiling water. Leave 1 minute, then lift out of the water with a slotted spoon and transfer to a sink (or a large bowl, depending on how many you're doing) filled with ice and water. Return the water to a boil before doing the next batch. Repeat as necessary. Once the tomatoes have been "blanched" (that's what this process is called), the actual peeling can be done when it's convenient.
PEACHES 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.
PROCESSING TIPSKeep 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 only as many sterilized and hot jars as will fit in the hot water bath (mine holds 7) from the dishwasher to the counter.
It's best not to mix jar sizes, that is, process quart jars only with other quart jars, pint jars only with other pint jars. And no, no, no! No stacking jars in the hot water bath!
Fill one or two jars of those 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 the hot water bath and process for the specified time.
If you've got more jars than can be processed at a time, you'll need to start over from the beginning. This means getting the hot water bath back to a boil (and often you need to add water first) and making sure your jars are not only sterilized but hot again.
CHECKING, LABELING and STORING YOUR JARSAfter 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 on the outside, wipe it down. If the band is sticky, wash and dry it because it must be completely dry before putting of back on the jar. If the band is 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!
Store filled jars right-side up. When jars are stored upside down, the seals can be weakened from the pressure.
When you open a jar before eating, do re-check the seal. If it's no good, throw whatever you've canned away! 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.
RECYCLING JARS, LIDS & BANDSYou can recycle (that is, re-use) canning jars (but again NOT leftover spaghetti/etc jars) so long as they're in perfect condition. Before storing, check your jars for nicks, etc.
Less than perfect canning jars can be used for refrigerator pickles but may break during processing or allow spoiling during storage. For me, the risk of using my hard-earned vegetables to a small nick just isn't worth it.
Store empty jars upside down in boxes, this prevents icky sticky spider deposits. I store my jars in bankers boxes from an office supply store. Each one holds two or three layers of jars. Because the boxes are not so big, they don't get too heavy to lift.
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 canning jars (that is, antique jars with very old glass vs recycled canning jars) can break in hot water baths. I love how they look filled with grains and beans in the pantry so never use them for canning. Too pretty, especially the old blue ones!
You can reuse the metal bands once or twice so long as they're unblemished but be sure they are absolutely completely dry before storing. Sort the bands 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.
However, you cannot reuse metal lids because the rubber seals are no longer good. Funny story: I once left a new box of canning jars in the back of the car during a hot weekend. The jars sealed! I even heard them "pop"!
I keep a few extra lids on hand, just to use for refrigerator pickles that don't require canning.
These plastic jar lids aren't for canning but come in really handy for using empty jars for salads, etc. No fiddling with bands and lids!
EQUIPMENT STORAGEThe 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!
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