Canning 101: The Basics You Need To Know Before Starting

Canning is a great way to have delicious produce to use for cooking year-round. Follow these simple steps to get you started.

Why can?

In the depths of winter, do you dream of those delicious tomatoes you found at the farmer's market last summer? Or does your mouth water at the thought of a delicious peach pie, but the thought of frozen make you shudder?

Canning is a great way to always have some of your favorite foods on hand year-round. Canning, or to some people, preserving, is a way to store perishable foods in your pantry for up to a year. This includes veggies, fruits, jams, sauces, and event some meat.

The trick is: removing the chances of microorganisms making a home in your jars of food. Botulism is so not trendy.

With a little basic understanding of food science and a little bit of gear, you can be canning in no time.

A quick science lesson:

How do I prevent bacteria from getting into my canned goods?
There are three main ways to prevent this:
1) heating or cooling to a high enough or low enough temperature to kill off all the bacteria present
2) removing all of the air the bacteria needs to live
3) making sure there's enough acid to make the environment as unfriendly as possible for the bacteria.

Canning takes advantage of all three of these ideas.

According to the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving (2014) "The normal cycle of food decay is interrupted when food is home canned according to the tested recipes, processing methods, and specific processing times in the book. Heating food in a sealed jar to a specific temperature for a precise length of time destroys the normal levels of heat-resistance microoragnisms present in food and forces air from the jar. The vacuum seal that forms prevents new bacteria from entering the jar and contaminating the contents. Storing processed, sealed jars at the correct room temperature, 50 to 70 degrees F, is the last essential step to ensure flavorful, nutritious, safe foods are at hand when you're ready to serve them."

Understand the pH level of your foods

The canning process will differ based on whether your foods are considered low-acid or high-acid.

High-acid foods include lemons, plums, apples, berries, peaches, sour cherries, and tomatoes. Also included is anything that has a lot of acid added into it, like pickles or sauerkraut. These foods can be canned with the boiling water method.

Low-acid foods include beets, peas, corn, beans, and asparagus and require pressure-canning methods to properly disinfect.

Altitude can affect your canning process, too

The higher your altitude, the more time you have to add to processing your canned goods. A quick google search of your town can give you your altitude. Most recipes (unless indicated otherwise) are written for sea-level to ~1,000 feet above. For every three thousand more feet you increase altitude, you should add five more minutes to boiling your cans (i.e. 1,001-3,000 = 5 extra minutes, 8,001-10,000 = 20 extra minutes).

WOW that's a lot. Bottom line?

Only use recipes from a verified canning source (Ball Mason or Southern Living are a good place to start) and follow the directions exactly. Canning isn't something you should improvise.

Equipment Basics

  • 1 pot large enough to fit several jars, rack, and water to cover 2 inches above your jars (test out the space before you start boiling)

  • A rack, or something to sit your jars on top of in the pot. Specialized canning racks, like this one exist, or you could just use a trivet that fits in the pot.

  • Tongs. They also make specialized jar lifters, like this one, if you prefer.

  • Wide-mouth funnel

  • Measuring cup

  • New canning lids (lids are only intended for one-time use for canning)

  • New or used canning jars

  • New or used bands (the screw-top rings that hold the lids in place)

Basic process for Boiling-water processing

1) Prep your cans and lids. Make sure there are no cracks or defects in your glass jars--toss the ones that aren't perfect. Wash jars, lids, and rings in warm, soapy water. Dry lids and rings and set to the side until ready to use. Place your jars (still warm from washing) into simmering water and keep them there until each jar is ready to be filled. This will prevent any cracked jars from adding in very hot ingredients.

2) Fill the jars according to the recipe. Some foods will be raw packed--placed into a jar with hot liquid (like brine or syrup) added in after. Others will be hot packed--the ingredients are cooked in the hot liquid and placed into the jar. Leave about 1/2 to 1/4 inch of space between your food and the top of the jar (your recipe will specify).

3) Remove air bubbles (there are always some hiding) by taking a chop stick or the end of a wooden spoon (nothing metallic!!) and pushing it into the jar between the food and the side of the jar. Gently push against the food. Repeat several times around the jar.

4) Clean the rim of the jar with a clean, damp cloth.

5) Place the lid on the jar so only the sealing portion is in contact with the rim. I like to use my tongs (that have been sitting in the simmering water with the jars) to place the lid, rather than my fingers. Place the ring over the lid and screw until finger-tip tight.

6) Process the jars in your boiling water (make sure your rack or trivet is in the bottom of the pan) and boil per the specifications of the recipe (keep a rolling boil!). Once the specified time has been reached, turn off the heat, remove the lid, and let everything cool for ~5 minutes before removing the jars.

7) Wait for the POP! While your jars are cooling, the vacuum seal created by boiling should start forming. You'll know you've successfully canned if the lid is sucked in, making a popping noise. If you press on the middle of the lid and it gives, your seal was not successful. You should place this jar in the fridge and eat as soon as possible. If you're not sure, remove the ring and try to lift the lid with your fingers--if it doesn't open with gentle force, the seal is successful and should be good to store at room-temperature for up to a year (check the recipe for specifics).

8) Label the lids with the expiration date to prevent any confusion.

Now go forth boldly, and CAN!

Stay tuned for some of my favorite canning recipes.

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