Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Canning is Simple and Satisfying

When I mention to people that I “can” they are amazed. That is, unless they can also and then they know it’s really no big deal. It’s not difficult at all and requires only a few special tools. Pictured here are all of my canning supplies. Here’s what you see:

A canning pot – these large enameled pots have a wire separator inside that keeps the jars from touching each other. My pot can do seven jars at a time. I do traditional hot bath canning as opposed to pressure canning. The high temperatures and special pot you need for pressure canning just seem too complicated for me. I’m happy with hot bath canning so I stick with that. If you want to can meat or certain non-acidic vegetables (green beans, beets, carrots, corn, peas, and potatoes to name a few) you’ll need a pressure canner (and a different blogger). I freeze my meats and most of my vegetables.

Canning pots are not expensive. A brand new one at the most expensive hardware store in town only costs about $20. You can also find them frequently at Goodwill and yard sales as many of the people who ‘can’ are moving to retirement communities.

Besides a pot, you’ll need a jar lifter and funnel. My lifter (pictured) is red rubber on one end (the end that picks up the hot jars) and black plastic on the other (not a good idea to put plastic in to boiling water). A jar funnel is used to fill the jars. It is wide enough for a regular mouth jar at the bottom and wider at the top. This makes ladling hot jams and sauces in to jars much easier. Mine is metal and very old. Many of the new ones I’ve seen are plastic. If you can find a metal one I would opt for that as heat and plastic are never a good combination. These are also not overly expensive and can be found at old time hardware stores and kitchen stores where they sell canning supplies.

And of course you’ll need jars. When you buy a new case of jars they will come 12 to a case and include the lids and bands. After that you can recycle the jars and bands, but need to buy new lids. The lids are sold separately anywhere you can buy the jars and cost about $2 for 12. I stock up at the end of the season when all the canning supplies go on sale. Same goes for jars because I always need more the next year – some break and some are given away. Jars can be found at yard sales but are rarely much cheaper than new ones. The people selling jars know they hold their value. Unless you can get them for 50 cents or cheaper, I’d stick with new ones. If you do buy used ones be sure to check carefully for chips along the rim. Any chipped edges will make it impossible to get a good vacuum seal.

Jars come in half pint, pint, and quart sizes. They even make smaller jars, but that seems silly to me. I use pint and quart sizes for everything except hot pepper jelly which I can in half-pint jars (nobody eats huge amounts of hot pepper jelly). The tops can be regular mouth (the smaller one pictured) and wide mouth. I use regular mouth jars for most everything except pickles which are easier to take out of wide mouth jars. It is completely personal preference, so do what you want – the recipes are the same for either type of mouth.

Here’s the basics of canning:

1. First you need to get your canner going. Don’t wait until the recipe is finished to start heating the water because this step takes TIME. I place seven jars in the canner and drop the lids around them. You can sterilize your jars and lids by hand or in the dishwasher, but if they are clean to start with, heating them with the canner does the trick and saves you time and effort. I begin filling the canner by boiling water in my teapot on the stove. I pour 3 or 4 pots full of boiling water in and around the jars and then fill the pot until it is just covering the jars with the hottest tap water I have. Then I leave the canner to work up to a boil while I prepare my goodies. After the jars have boiled for a few minutes, I remove them with my jar lifter and set them on the counter on a clean towel to dry. I use long tongs to fish out the lids.

2. Cook up whatever you are planning to can. The recipe will include lots of sugar, some vinegar, and/or lemon juice as preservatives. Basically you will heat the product and boil it for around 10 minutes to be sure all bacteria are good and dead. We love to can spaghetti sauce (do not use oil in your sauce – not safe for canning), diced tomatoes, pizza sauce, salsa, barbeque sauce, pickles, fruit sauces, fruit syrups, and jams. Each year I try to add another recipe. I’ll share our recipes with you as the summer progresses.

3. Next you ladle your yummy concoction in to jars. You’ll want to fill until about ¼” – ½” from the top. Then take a knife (we have a super skinny spatula that does the trick) and work it around the edges of the jar to force out any air bubbles. (Most recipes tell you to do this, but I forget this step frequently and haven’t had a jar go bad, so if you forget and your jars are all finished, don’t toss them out.) Wipe the rims with a clean wet cloth, place the lids on and screw on the bands.

4. Using your jar lifter, place the jars carefully in the canner so that they aren’t touching. Try to angle the jar in to the water as opposed to dropping it straight down. I find this produces less boiling water splash. (ouch)The water should cover the jars at least a ½ inch to an inch. You’ll bring the canner water back to a boil and process according to the recipe (usually 10 minutes or so).

5. When your timer sounds, turn off the stove and take the lid off of your canner. Give it a minute to let out all the steam. (Don’t open the lid with your face over the canner. I know of what I speak and have to remember this the hard way every year.) Set a dry dish towel on your counter next to the canner and take the jars out and place them on the towel. The towel will catch the water that comes out with the jars and also prevent any of them from slipping off the counter (heaven forbid!).

6. Now here’s the best part! Your jars will make a tinny “pop” sound as each jar creates its vacuum. This usually happens in the first few minutes after you remove the jars from the canner, but can sometimes take longer. I love this sound and on long nights when the last jar of spaghetti sauce or salsa is finally sitting on the counter, I love to crack open a beer, sit back and just listen to the pops. Satisfaction. Even if it’s midnight, I’ll hang around until I hear the last pop. If you take up canning, you’ll come to love this sound too.

And that’s it. Simple. Really it is. I tried to break it down to the barest directions for you. Things can go wrong on occasion, but if you follow the recipe and the processing times, it’s rare. Knock on wood, I’ve never had a jar go bad. And I’ve opened peaches that got lost on a move and were over three years old. They tasted just fine. If the top of your jar can be pressed up and down easily, then the vacuum didn’t happen. You’ll want to put that jar in the fridge and eat it first.

I highly recommend the book Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. I adapt most of my recipes from it and it has answers to any questions you might have about what can and can’t be canned.

Sometimes I prepare my recipe one day and then can it the next. All this requires is that bringing the product back to a boil again for a few minutes before canning it. When I’m doing a big project like spaghetti sauce or applesauce where I’m canning 30 jars or more, this makes it easier. I’ll cook up the goods in several pots on the stove and then place the lid on while it’s still boiling and turn it off. This keeps it sterile until I’m ready to can the next day. There are only so many burners, so this method is more efficient for me.

If you’ve never canned before, start with something simple like tomatoes or applesauce. Take your time and follow the directions. That’s my best advice. I promise you’ll find great satisfaction in canning and it just might become a habit. My husband and I do much of our canning late in the evening when it’s not too hot to heat up the kitchen with all the boiling pots. We enjoy the time together, listening to music and creating food that will nurture our family all year long. Canning is more fun with company, so enlist some help.


  1. Hi Cara! I just got all my stuff out to can and the rack that holds my jars in the pot is bent and rusty. Do you know where I can get another one around here?

  2. Sandra -
    If you can bend your rack back in to workable order, that's what I'd try first. The rust won't hurt anything. Mine is so rusty it leaves rust marks on the outside of my jars. I would look somewhere like TrueValue (they have a great canning section) for the rack and they might be able to order it for you, but most likely you'll have to look online. Pots are sold with the racks inside, I'm not sure I've ever seen them sold seperately. Hope that helps! Happy canning!