Canning 101: Preserve the Harvest and Eat Well All Year
Canning’s not just for grandmothers anymore.
Canning fed Napoleon’s armies and kept homesteaders alive. Now, it’s back in fashion!
Canning lets you eat like you hired Oprah’s chef while saving the world from one-use jars.
I learned to can as a kid but didn’t really drill down on my technique until met Kathy, the master canner, who was running the “county cannery” near my parents in Florida. I’m in the North. Kathy was an organic farmer in New York before the word “organic” was invented. She moved to Florida and started teaching canning to local residents.
County canneries were a pretty common thing until recently. Top-grade equipment is expensive, so they were a place for agricultural communities to get together and share resources. Mormon Church had shared canneries, too. Wards preserved the harvest for self-reliance and for people in need.
These days county canneries are being shut down one by one–it’s easier, and sometimes cheaper, to go to the store.
I wrote this article a couple years ago. I’m updating it now for the pandemic. I always enjoyed canning before, but Kathy taught me canning wasn’t only about flooding your family with jam. There’s a whole world of food preservation out there, and learning to can properly is the gateway.
If you want to waste less, preserve the harvest, stock up on things on sale but you lack freezer space, or just be ready to whip up some beef nachos in twenty seconds by opening your special jars of Game Day Nacho Meat… canning is for you.
It’s not just for neo-hippies, old people, and foodies… it’s for everyone who cooks better than a Tin Can store chef who wants to have the foods they love on their shelf. You can preserve them when they’re in season, at their best.
And now, it’s more important than ever.
The pandemic Zombie Apocalypse lockdown, changed everything. I didn’t start the Poser Homestead to prepare for the end of times. I was struggling during the 2008 financial crisis so I figured I’d live off the land for a while. It didn’t work. You’ve got to be good to save money doing this. I was not good. I was a poser. “If I were a pioneer, I’d be dead.” I said that a lot.
Over time, I began learning, improving, and having fun. No one wants to be a dead pioneer, so I upgraded my mantra: “Do what you can, but don’t worry. There’s a Walmart down the street…” and, “Good enough is good enough.”
Post pandemic I see this, “Good enough is good enough…” until it isn’t.
I didn’t prepare for an emergency any bigger than a hurricane. And, I had warning–smart friends warned me about the pandemic and went into isolation months before. I didn’t. I used to be a teacher–there isn’t an illness that didn’t cross my desk. A virus didn’t frighten me at the time.
Civil unrest did.
One day, I saw the beginnings of a panic. I was at the store. I saw lines wrap from the front to the back and around again. People panic bought toilet paper, water, and some pretty silly things, honestly. I snapped some pictures and left. It took me two days to realize how serious the situation was. That’s when I went home and stayed there.
And, I didn’t need a thing. Canning was a big part of that. It’s one of our grandparents’ arts we cannot let die. Before, I would’ve learned it for the food quality and the history. Now, I’ll tell you this–these are skills most people don’t have, and we need to resurrect. They may come in handy not only for food crafting, zero waste, or saving a few bucks. It may be helpful over the long haul.
Learn these skills and you’ll have them in your back pocket when you really need them.
Why you should learn to can:
You can save food in season. This is when it’s best and cheapest. It’s when nature intended us to eat it.
You can ontrol the ingredients and quality. With canning, you can eat healthy food without all the additives and junk.
Dinner’s ready–you can be lazy for a night. Don’t feel like cooking? Canning gives you the night off. You’ve got jams, broths, sauces, salsas, meats, soups, chili, and veggies ready at any time.
You’ve got a pantry full of gifts. Once you pass a certain age food is an instant gift. A few dollars worth of Mason jars and a reused basket with some well-crafted bows: you’re a magician. “
You hate shopping. I hate shopping. It’s so much better to have what I need on hand.
Stores may not always be reliable. My local big store is terrible at stocking. I’m used to empty shelves. But, we’ve had storms close roads and knock out the power for days. Now, we’ve got a pandemic. Canning lets me plan for a year of the foods I most use and love to eat, sometimes even a couple years when I go overboard.
But first… the basics… so you don’t die.
Canning preserves food by killing harmful bacteria and sealing it up so no more gets in. It’s not that hard, but you have to follow the basic rules. If you don’t follow the rules, you can expose yourself to deadly bacteria. Every year people die from improperly canned foods. “My grandmother always did it this way,” doesn’t work for me. Follow the recipe, choose the correct method of canning, and if you want to make an adjustment to your food, you have to know whether it’s legal or not.
Which kind of canning do I need?
There are two types of canning–water bath canning and pressure canning. High acid foods like tomatoes and jams can be canned in a “water bath” which is basically a big open pot–nothing special there. You can get a big, black, enamel water bath canner at any garage sale.
All other food is “low acid.” Meats, veggies other than tomatoes (technically a fruit), broths, and foods not declared high acid must be canned in a pressure canner. This is a special pot. It’s not a pressure cooker. You can cook in a pressure canner but you cannot do the opposite. You will die.
Water Bath Canning
Water bath canning is for higher acid foods like jams, and tomatoes. The acid stops certain bacteria from growing–any that can be killed at the normal sea-level boiling temperature of water–212º Fareinheit or 100º Celsius.
Water bath canners are giant pots with racks in them so you can lift out the jars easily. You can use a soup kettle to can a few jars, but a water bath canner is worth the investment. If you can’t find one on Craigslist, it’ll cost you $20-$30 at the store. Get that and “jar lifters” to grab the jars out of the canner, and you should be set for simple jams and tomatoes.
Bacteria that can’t be killed at a sea level 212º Fareinheit needs the pressure canner. Use this for low-acid foods such as soups, meats and most vegetables. Pressure canners add pressure to the boil raising the boiling point to 240º degrees, enough to kill things like botulism, which can survive a regular boil.
There are a couple of common types of pressure canners. The Presto brand has a rubber gasket which needs replacing now and again. Check this and the gauge once a season. The All American screws down and doesn’t have a gasket, but does have a gauge.
If you are lucky enough to find a used pressure canner, you have to get the gauge checked and calibrated if need be. You can send it back to the company or go to your local extension college if they do this type of thing. For canners with gaskets, replace them occasionally.
Never use your Instant Pot or a water bath canner to can low-acid foods. I never say, “Do you feel lucky?” when canning.
The Canning Creed
Learn this. Live by it. Canning is a matter of safety. Done well, it’s an easy part of your seasonal food preservation flow. Do it sloppy and it can kill.
I will pay attention to the rules of canning and follow the directions exactly.
I will follow the rules of kitchen safety, equipment safety, and sterilization at all times.
If I suspect I’ve made a mistake, I will not can that batch. I will freeze it, eat it immediately, or toss it.
I will not experiment or feed people unsafe food.
I will never use heirloom family recipes for canning unless they are tested by a master canner or USDA-approved organization. Even if my grandmother ‘Did it safely for decades.’
I will measure, stir, boil, and time all the steps of my recipes and use the required amount of headspace.
If a jar doesn’t seal, I will reprocess it immediately or eat it. I will not put it on my pantry shelf.
And when I gift items, I will always say “Return the jar!”
Buy this book now!
The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving is the canning bible. It’s often referred to as The Blue Book. You should have a copy. The recipes and techniques in there are safe. Also, the National Center for Home Food Preservation has safe and tested recipes.
You may also trust any recipes from your local “extension school” (agricultural school at a food science university) or recipes tested by a food lab or by a master canner.
“Master canner” is a high-level food science certification. Master canners take exams much like master gardeners. Master canners are trained, know food science, and usually love to pass on their craft because not many people care about canning. Treasure them.
Let’s make a simple blueberry jam
You will need:
- A water bath canner.
- A jar lifter.
- Mason jars or Weck Jars. You’ll find Mason jars at your local store, but you’ll probably have to order Weck jars online. They’re fantastic because the rubber seals are reusable. recently, and am switching over. Those are the European glass jars with the reusable rings. Today, we’re using the Mason jar because it’s easier and more available for beginners.
- Lids and bands. Use new lids each time for Mason jars. You can reuse the bands. Dry them right away to avoid rust.
- Towels and clean space. Please keep your canning space clean and sterile.
- A wide-mouth funnel. You’ll get the food in the jars, not on the floor.
Steps to Water Bath Canning Blueberry Jam
Here’s a simple process guide. Consult The Blue Book for a complete process guide.
How to can your favorite jam:
- Prepare your jam. Jam takes three ingredients, sugar, pectin, and fruit. Buy Sure Jel or Pomona Pectin and follow their recipe. Generally, you’ll measure the correct amount of fruit, and add the pectin. You’ll boil the fruit and pectin, then add the sugar and boil one more minute, stirring constantly. After the minute is up, it’s time to can the jam.
- At the same time as you are preparing your food, sterilize your Mason jars and lids. To do this, boil the jars in the canner. Leave them in the water until just before it’s time to fill them, then use your jar lifer to remove and dump the water using the jar lifter. Be very careful with this if you’re not used to canning. Keep the boiling water in there for canning time. Sterilize your lids in a small pan so you can get them out easier.
- Fill the jars with your recipe as soon as you finish cooking. Do not let the jam cool. If it does, heat it back up to boiling or bacteria will forms.
- Leave the required amount of “head space” in your jar. Headspace is empty space between the jar and the lid. Most recipes call for 1/4 inch to 1 inch of headspace. If you have too much or too little headspace, you won’t get a good seal. Measure to start.
- Jams and jellies: 1/4 inch of headspace
- salsas and relishes: 1/2 inch
- veggies and low-acid canning (this is pressure canning) 1 to 1 1/4 inches)
- Wipe the top of each jar to make sure no food is around the top.
- Screw on the lids and bands, Make it tight but not “I can never get this off” tight.
- Using the jar lifter, put each jar back in the canner, and process for the amount of time the recipe requires. Don’t start your timer until the water in the canner is boiling.
- After the time is done, leave the jars in the boiling water for five minutes, then lift each out with the jar lifter, and place on a towel laid out on your counter where they won’t be disturbed until they cool–overnight or about 24 hours.
- Remove the bands and label each jar. Make sure you put the date, year, and contents. Jars shouldn’t be stored with the rings on.
- Keep a canning journal and log each batch and the quantity you make. This way you can ramp up production of things you run out of, and cut back on things you thought you’d love but didn’t use.
Start canning with a simple jam or a jar of tomatoes using the Blue Book guides, then once you’re confident, consider moving on to pressure canning.
Stay tuned for that guide. But, if you’re ready now, go right to the Blue Book, and the Home Preservation site. Both will give you the safety jump start you need.