(Your checklist is at the bottom, so keep reading!)
My great-grandmother lived in the last house at the end of a street in a little town that time forgot. The seven lot yard sprawled out to the garden and backed up to the dike by the town river where the kids liked to go fishing. A bench swing at the end of the porch rocked lazily in the summer breezes.
My Granny had two kitchens- an indoor kitchen, complete with cast iron cook stove and a cheery multi-color dish set, and an out-kitchen by the smokehouse. She also had a concrete-floor cellar beneath the house. Every time we saw her, she would take us down into it.
There were treasures there. Shelf after shelf of what she had “put up” for the season. Meat, vegetables, fruit, all lined up neatly in jars. Barrels of potatoes enough for the winter time. It wasn’t as plentiful as when Great-Grandpap was living, but there was still an impressive array of food. She was so proud of all her hard work.
These memories made me love the idea of growing and preserving food. However, it was years and years before I tried canning myself. I was in my mid-twenties and we had a tiny pot garden on the deck of the house we were renting.
(This post contains affiliate links.)
My mom offered to come help me can our tiny tomato crop. Sure, I’d give it a try, I thought.
We spent the afternoon in the kitchen, where she walked me through the process. It took a long time. (It always does when you’re first learning!) When all was said and done, I think we canned a grand total of six quarts of tomatoes.
Fast forward about six years and there were seasons that we were canning almost fifty quarts of tomato products- whole tomatoes, tomato sauce, salsa, and tomato juice. We’ve canned jellies, peaches, applesauce, pickled beets, dill pickles, maple syrup, and more.
My mom, awesome lady that she is, also bought me a Presto pressure canner for my 30th birthday. I was so thrilled. That year I canned turkey soup, chicken broth, green beans, and other low-acid foods.
My pantry still isn’t as stunning as my Granny’s used to be, and it may never be. But canning has become a passion and a joy to me over the years. I want to share a “quick start” guide to canning 101 with you. Hopefully it will take out some of the mystery and fear of canning, and give you the motivation you need to give it a go yourself.
Note: canning isn’t really what I’d call quick process. However, it doesn’t have to be laborious and intimidating, and once you get the hang of it, it will become more simple. It will take practice, so have patience and enjoy the process!
How does canning work?
When you practice home water-bath canning, you aren’t actually using cans. You are preserving food in glass mason jars designed especially to withstand the heat and temperature changes that come with canning. The food is heated high and long enough in the jar to kill off any potential harmful bacteria. As the jar cools, a vacuum seal is created so that no oxygen can enter the jar and spoil the food. A properly processed jar of food can be shelf-stable for years!
What types of food can I can?
You can can almost anything, BUT there is an important distinction you must know for safety. Today, we will go over water bath canning. Water bath canning is safe for high-acid fruits and vegetables only. If you want to can meats or low acid vegetables, you must use a pressure canner. This is because a water bath canner cannot heat the food to a high enough temperature to kill off potential bacteria in low acid foods.
How do you know which is which? Simple- always check an approved canning recipe to ensure that you are canning safely.
Reliable recipes have been tested by the USDA (or an equivalent source) for safe pH levels. That means they help to keep you from creating food poisoning in a jar. Why is this so important? Because you can’t see or smell botulism, and if you don’t have a way to test pH and bacteria levels at home, then you can’t tell if your experimental recipe turned out okay or not.
Play it safe. NEVER change the amount of acid in a recipe (or any proportions when you’re first starting), as doing so could make your food unsafe. Here are some very reputable approved canning recipe sources:
- Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving
- Simply Canning
- Food in Jars blog & accompanying cookbooks
- National Center for Home Preservation
Note that you should use a modern preservation cookbook. Some of the ones from 50 years ago have some pretty sketchy guidelines.
If you ever have any questions about a recipe, you can always contact your local county extension office. Questions by phone or email are happily answered!
For a full description of canning supplies, you can read this post. If you just want the quick-start version, here’s what you need:
- Water bath canner with canning rack: essentially a big pot, specifically sized to fit multiple canning jars. The canning rack can be lowered and raised to put jars in and out of the water.
- Mason jars: Size & mouth style will depend on recipe
- Lids & rings: New packs of jars come with lids & rings. However, each new jar you can needs at least a new lid. The rings will need to be replaced as they become rusty or bent. Make sure your lids & rings match the jar mouth style.
- Canning tool set: This should include a canning funnel, canning tongs, a ring tightener, and a magnet lid remover. Some also come with a tool to remove air bubbles, but a long spatula should do the trick.
- Water bath canning: The type of canning in which jars are submerged in boiling water for processing.
- Pressure canning: The type of canning in which jars are processed in a small amount of water inside a pressure canner. They are heated at high pressure to a high temperature in order to safely can low-acid foods.
- Head space: Refers to how much space is left at the top of the jar. Necessary head space can vary widely by recipe, and is measured in inches. Measure from the very top rim of the jar down. Too much space can cause spoilage of the food, and too little can cause the food to expand and break the jar.
- Lids vs. rings: Lids are the flat, round piece that you put on top of the jar. Rings are- you guessed it- the thing that looks like it could be a big ring. Or, more accurately, a bracelet. It’s pretty self-explanatory, but if you’re new to canning it can all sound confusing.
- Finger-tight: Many recipes will say to secure the rings “finger tight.” This simply means that to screw on the rings as tight as you can using your fingers. It doesn’t mean to screw it on to death. You can use the special ring tightener from your canning tool kit to avoid handling hot jars, but only screw it on as tight as if you were using your fingers.
- Process: In canning, the term “process” refers to boiling the jars in the canner. So when a recipe says to “process for 20 minutes,” that just means to start the timer when the water comes to a boil, and leave the jars in for 20 minutes.
- Approved recipe: A recipe tested for safety by the USDA or equivalent.
- Always wash your jars, lids, and rings, & sanitize as needed.
- Always wash your hands before handling food or equipment.
- Follow an approved recipe & processing time to ensure a safe acidity level and sufficient heating.
- Remember to be careful as you handle hot tools and food.
- Avoid sudden temperature changes. Keep jars hot before putting into boiling water, don’t put freshly processed jars directly on a cold counter, etc.
- Follow safe practices as outlined below to avoid broken jars or introduction of unsafe bacteria.
- Check all jars for cracks & chips. Run your fingers along the rim of your jar, checking for cracks or chips. Check the bottom and sides as well. Any imperfections in the jar can compromise your canning project. Better safe than sorry. Only use jars in perfect shape!
- Wash and/or sanitize jars, lids, & rings. Wash all parts in hot, soapy water. I sanitize my jars and keep them hot by putting them in a 200 degree oven for 20-30 minutes. I place my lids in rings in a pan of hot water on the stove top to sanitize them. Note that lids should NOT be boiled during this step, as it will wear away the seal on the jar.
- Prepare canner. Fill the water bath canner with hot water and bring it to a boil while you prepare the food. (All that water can take a while to heat up!)
- Prepare food. Prepare the food you want to can according to an approved recipe for water bath canning. Often this can be done ahead of time, then reheated when you’re ready to can. The only caveat is that you don’t want to cook the food to death before it goes into the jars.
- Ladle food into hot jars. This is where it gets exciting. Ladle food into hot jars, using a canning funnel to avoid hot messes. Remember to pay attention to the recipe’s head space!
- Remove air bubbles. Put a long spatula (or the specific tool from your tool kit) down to the bottom of the jar, and run it once around the outside edge of the jar. Any air bubbles should pop to the surface. This will prevent breakage later on.
- Clean jar rims. Wipe rims clean with a clean towel to ensure a sanitary and strong seal.
- Secure lids & rings. Place lids on top of jars, then screw on the rings finger tight. Optionally, you can use the lid tightener in your canning tool kit. Just remember that those jars are HOT.
- Put jars in canner, lower canning rack & close the lid. Carefully place the jars upright onto the canning rack in the water. Once the rack is full, lower it into the water and put the lid on.
- Process jars for correct amount of time. Start the timer only when the water comes to a boil. If you start your processing time when the water isn’t boiling yet, it might not be hot enough to properly kill off bacteria in the food. Keep the jars submerged in boiling water for the full time the recipe suggests.
- Remove jars from canner. After the processing time is complete, use oven mitts to help you lift the rack out of the water. Now, use your trusty canning tongs to remove the jars from the canner and place them gently on a towel. (The towel helps avoid sudden temperature change.)
- Let jars cool completely. Leave the jars on the counter until they’re completely cool. Don’t move them or touch the lids during this time. You should hear little pings and pops as the jar lids seal. (The most satisfying part of canning!) You want the lids to seal, and you don’t want to accidentally burn yourself or break a hot jar of food.
- Check the seal. After the jars have cooled, run your finger over the lid to make sure the “button” in the middle is down. This means your jar sealed and you are ready to store it! If your jar didn’t seal, it can be stored in the fridge and eaten soon, or it can be reheated and reprocessed with a new lid.
- Remove rings and store jars. Unscrew the rings from your jars to reuse for your next canning venture. (I do this to avoid rust! Of course, you can always put a ring on if you plan to gift your canned food.) Store the jars in a dry place.
These are the basic steps and rules to beginning safe home water bath canning. I know it might seem like a lot, but once you try it once or twice it gets easier. You can join our mailing list to grab your own printable water bath canning checklist. It’s a great tool to keep in your kitchen to follow as you first learn to can.
Now you can take pleasure in your own home-canned pantry If you found this post helpful, please share it with your friends!