So you have never canned anything in your life. Maybe you watched your grandmother or maybe you have done some internet research. But you have never actually done it yourself. At first, it can seem a bit overwhelming. But like anything else that looks complicated, it can be tamed. Don’t be intimated; it is not as hard as you think. In this post, you will find seven reasonably painless things to get you going. Remember, if you don’t start somewhere, you may never start at all. So let’s pack you up with the stuff you need to at least get your feet wet (or your pickles).
1) Get a Good Book and Know (in Advance) Where to Turn With Your Questions
Canning is both a science and an art. But you don’t need to be a biologist or a chemist, you just need a basic understanding of the behavior of the nasties (like botulism) that grow in improperly processed food. So before you do anything else, get a really good book on the subject. My all time favorite canning book (especially for newbies) is Ball’s Complete Book of Home Preserving. It is complete, accurate, tested, trusted and in plain English. Many of my recipes come from here, and until you gain confidence, it is a great place to start. The rest of this post refers to specific pages in this book because they have already said it perfectly and there is no point in me rewriting it here. So when you get your copy, read pages 409-429 right off the bat. Then read them again to make sure you got it. However, questions will still arise, so have your experts lined up before you start. Never hesitate to seek out an expert and ask. Here is a link to Ball’s Ask The Expert Forum. There is also more detailed information available through the USDA.
2) Use ONLY Current Canning Recipes
Forget your Gramma’s cookbooks. Throw them all away. Make sure the publication date of any recipe book that you use is 1989 or later. According to Ball’s FAQ page: In 1989, the USDA updated their home canning guidelines based on safety and quality. Therefore, a home canning book or recipe that was published before 1989 may be outdated and could affect the safety and quality of your home canned foods. Be sure the canning book or recipe you use complies with up-to-date guidelines.
3) Follow The Recipe
Remember that canning recipes are tested and proven safe, and if you change the recipe, you risk a case of the nasties. Okay. I said it. Don’t change the recipe. (Click here for a modern day horror story on what happens when you take short cuts.) It is particularly important not to alter the amount of any ingredient that has the potential to change the pH level. This includes but is not limited to citric acid, salt, sugar, lemon or lime juice, or vinegar.
4) Understand the Difference Between Water Bath vs. Pressure Can
There are two basic canning methods; water bath and pressure canning. You chose which method to use based on the acidity of the food item. This is covered in detail in Ball’s Complete Book of Home Preserving on pages 410-411 and I strongly recommend that you read it. As a general rule:
You water bath can high-acid foods such as:
- Fruit (jams & jellies, pie filling, etc.)
- Tomatoes (including salsa, sauces, ketchup)
- Pickled veggies (cucumbers, green beans, carrots)
You pressure can low-acid foods such as:
- Non-pickled veggies & meats
- Soups, sauces, & gravies
- Chilis that contain meat and/or bean
Tomatoes and pickled recipes call for vinegar or lemon/lime juice to obtain the proper acidity. (Many veggies are great pickled, not just cucumbers! Think “Dilly Beans”) Hence, it is safe to use the lower temperature of a water bath canner. Non-pickled low-acid foods, however, must be pressure canned in order to achieve a high enough temperature for a long enough period of time to render the food safe.
5) Gather Your Equipment & Supplies
Most home canners start out with water bath canning. The equipment is less expensive and the processing is a bit less complicated. I recommend doing a season or two of water bathing, and make sure this is something you are really going to enjoy. If you love doing it, then try a pressure canner. You will need some other things, too. At the minimum:
- Small water bath canner with rack
- Jars, lids & rings (I prefer “wide mouth.” I think they are easier to work with.)
- Canning utensil set
- All of the above in a kit (if you go with the 12 piece set, you get both the small and large canner … good bargain)
- The recipe’s ingredients (and that may include pectin, citric acid, etc.)
Pages 412-415 of Ball’s Complete Book of Home Preserving will give you all the details. These items can be found anywhere canning supplies are sold. This includes most hardware stores, some grocery stores, and online.
6) Start Simple and Use the Freshest Ingredients
- Start with something simple like jelly, jam, pie filling, pickles, or salsa.
- Use the freshest possible ingredients, wash them well, and cut away any bad spots.
- Use only fresh, bottled lemon or lime juice to ensure proper acidity. You could ruin the batch with fresh squeezed because it doesn’t have a consistent acidity level.
- Use fresh vinegar. Vinegar has a shelf life of about a year, so if yours has been sitting around a while, replace it.
7) Consider Your Stove Top
Be aware that the large canners may not fit on an electric stove top properly (particularly glass tops) and/or it may not sit centered on the element – both of which can be problematic. If it will not sit level on the element, then it will be difficult to ensure the boil is hot enough. Since, I recommend you start with a smaller canner and do pint or half pint size jars in the first place, then you should be fine. But when you graduate to a larger water bath or pressure canner, just be aware of this possibility.
Also, think twice before pressure canning on a glass top stove. Some say they do it all the time and never had a problem, but there is a fair chance of shattering your stove top. Because most manufactures warn about this in the appliance’s documentation, it will not be covered under your warranty. You can, however, pressure can outdoors using something similar to a turkey fryer. When we figure it out, I will be sure to post on it. I have yet to try that.
Start there and happy canning! If you are an experienced canner and have some advice to share with our readers, please jump in there!