Canning 101 {how-to}

This summer, I went a little bit cuckoo for canning.  I bought all kinds of equipment, ingredients, books, and magazines.  And jars!  Jelly jars, pint jars, wide-mouth, sample-size…  I’ve spent entire days combing through recipes.  I’ve gotten up at 6 AM to get first pick at the farmer’s market.  I’ve jammed, salsa’d, syrup’d, and pickled.  I have made GIANT MESSES in my kitchen.  And I have stuffed myself silly with the tastiest spreads imaginable.

Canning may seem intimidating at first.  It’s not a hobby that you can dip a toe in to see if you like it.  You kind of just have to take the plunge.  Fortunately, besides the actual canner, the equipment is pretty cheap and easy to find.  Grocery stores, Wal-Mart, hardware stores, and even Target all sell jars, pectin, and utensil kits.  Most places will also sell an enamel water-bath canner for around $75, which is fine for most stoves.  However, if you have a flat glass-top range (like me), you’ll have to spend a little bit more to get a flat-bottomed canner.  I ordered mine from a third-party seller on Amazon, but you might also be able to find one in a well-stocked hardware store.  Ball does sell it directly from their website, but the shipping is astronomical.

There is a “Discover Canning” kit available, like this, which includes a plastic canning rack and a few jars.  It’s cheap, and if you just want to try canning something simple in a very small batch, then I guess it’s not bad.  But I really think that it’s kind of a waste of money.  If you have realistic expectations about the process (that it takes all day and makes a giant mess), and you decide to do it anyway, you’re going to become addicted to it.  Also, 99% of canning recipes aren’t written for batches small enough to only fill 3 jars, and not being able to process all of your jars at once is a big pain in the neck.

I should mention that the process I’m describing here is water-bath canning.  It’s a process that heats the jars in boiling water to kill microorganisms.  This process should ONLY be used for high-acid foods like fruit, or foods that are submerged in a high-acid liquid like pickles.  Low-acid foods (vegetables, and tomatoes that haven’t been treated with acid) must be processed in a pressure canner.  Most canning resources that you’ll find, especially magazines, only feature recipes for water-bath canning.  Jams, pickles, and salsas–the most common things that beginners put up–are all high-acid, water-bath processed foods.

Like the arancini, canning takes some planning.  Can stuff when it’s in season.  It’s fresher and (most importantly to me) cheaper.  Canning books usually have recipes sorted by season.  Obviously, the glut of canning is done during the summer, but there are some wonderful spring and autumn recipes too, and citrus recipes abound in the winter.  I like to plan my canning days a week or two in advance.  It gives me plenty of time to choose a recipe, study it thoroughly, and map out a timeline.  You don’t want to be surprised by anything in the recipe smack in the middle of the process!  “Oh, you mean I have to peel these 8 pounds of tomatoes before I can chop them?”  Yes, you do.  And it takes for freaking ever.  

On canning day, I like to start out with a super-clean kitchen and low expectations.  I know it’s not going to stay clean.  I know that at some point fruit is going to land on the floor, I’m going to burn my tongue, and–although I won’t remember how it happened–every spoon in my house will wind up in the sink.  Before I begin, I run through my recipe one more time.  I gather up my ingredients and drag all of the equipment out of my canning closet.

Next, I fill my canner with a little more water than I think I need (depending on the height of the jars I’m using…you want the jars to be covered by at least 1 inch of water), and I start washing my jars, lids, and screw bands.  Jars and screw bands can be reused, as long as the jars aren’t cracked and the screw bands aren’t dented or rusted.  You need to use brand new lids every time because the rubber sealing compound on them is a one-time use kind of thing.  While I’m washing my jars, I take the opportunity to check the rims for nicks.  I don’t bother drying my jars…I just use my jar lifter to lower them into the canner after washing.  My stove takes eight solid years to boil water, so at this point I’ve already got the heat cranked up to high.  Once it starts simmering, I adjust the setting to maintain the water’s temperature.  I also put the washed lids directly into a small pot of water–but keep an eye on this pot, because you don’t want to let the water boil.  It should simmer (to sterilize the lids), but if it boils, it can ruin the sealing compound.  Dry the screw bands and set them aside.

While my jars and lids are simmering (if your recipe calls for a processing time of 10 minutes or less, it is critical that your jars & lids simmer for at least 10 minutes, in order to sterilize them), I start preparing my recipe.  With most canning recipes, you’re going to peel and chop the produce and simmer it with some liquid.  Jam, for example.  Chopped fruit + water + sugar + acid + pectin = jam.  It simmers for 10 minutes or so.  The whole thing takes maybe an hour (during which time I hope that the water in my canner has come to a simmer/low boil–I’m really not kidding about the amount of time it takes for my stove to boil water!).  Some recipes require a much longer simmer time; salsa, for example.  When I canned salsa, the tomatoes had to simmer for 90 minutes before I added the other ingredients.  On that occasion, I didn’t start heating my canner until after I had peeled, cored, drained, and chopped the tomatoes.  While the tomatoes were simmering, I chopped the chiles, onions, and garlic.  Another method, called raw-packing, is how pickles are made.  Raw produce (chopped, sliced, or whole) is packed into a sterilized jar and a hot vinegar mixture is poured over the produce.  The bruschetta topping we canned this weekend was raw-packed.  The hot sauce was “hot-packed” (much like jam).

Once your recipe has been prepared, you’re ready to start the canning process.  Some sources say that you can fill all of your jars at once.  Personally, I don’t have enough space to do that.  It also just seems easier and less overwhelming to me to work with one jar at a time.  So, use your jar lifter to remove one jar from the canner (keep the lid on the canner at all times unless you’re adding or removing a jar), tipping it to pour out the water.  Fill the jar, raw-pack or hot-pack (depending on your recipe).  I like to use a funnel for hot-packing, but I find it cumbersome when raw-packing.  You can use a ruler to measure headspace, but make sure it’s sterilized.  It’s easier if you use a tool like the one pictured below, which comes in canning utensil kits.  The other end of this tool can be used to remove air bubbles.  Headspace is the amount of room between your preserves and the rim of the jar.  For pickles and salsas, headspace is usually 1/2-inch.  For jams and the hot sauce we made, it’s 1/4-inch.  Your recipe will specify how much headspace is required.

Before you can seal the jar, you need to remove air bubbles by taking a long tool (I use the headspace tool; a chopstick is also OK) and running it around the inside walls of the jar.  Pockets of air left in processed jars can be havens for microorganisms, and I find that they’re most common in raw-packed foods (because air gets trapped between a chunk of fruit and the jar).  Headspace may be affected by removing air bubbles (mostly when your tool gets coated in jam or sauce), so re-measure it and add more stuff to the jar if necessary.  Wipe the jar rim and threads with a damp paper towel–even if you’ve used a funnel, the rim can get messy, which will interfere with the formation of a proper seal.

Using tongs or, preferably, a magnetic wand, remove a lid from the pot of simmering water.  Center the lid on the jar (rubber compound side down), trying not to touch the rubber compound or the rim of the jar.

Screw a clean band onto the jar, just until it’s “fingertip tight,” which is a confusing way of saying that you start to meet resistance.  You don’t want to screw the band on too tightly, but you don’t want it too loose either.  But don’t be alarmed if the bands are loose when you remove your jars from the canner after they’re done processing–it’s completely normal for the heat of the water to loosen them, and it’s not going to interfere with the seal.

Using the jar lifter, lower your filled jar back into the canner.  Repeat these steps for the remaining jars.  Don’t try to overload your canner.  A pot like this made specifically for canning will typically hold about 7 pint jars, although I don’t usually load that many in at once.  You want to have a little space between jars, for the heat to completely surround them.  If your recipe makes more jars than your canner will hold, you can process them in batches.  However, after processing your first batch, you will need to sterilize your second batch of jars AND bring your recipe back to a simmer.

Once all of your jars have been filled and loaded into the canner, make sure the lid is on the canner and bring the water to a full rolling boil.  Once the water is fully boiling, set a timer for the amount of time specified in your recipe.  When processing is finished, turn the heat off and remove the canner lid.  Let the jars sit in the water for an additional five minutes.  Use the jar lifter to remove the jars to a wire rack or kitchen towel to cool.  Put them in an area free from drafts, where they can sit undisturbed for 12-24 hours.

Sit back and listen to the blissful symphony of popping lids.  It truly is music to a canner’s ears.  They say it can take up to 12 hours for a jar to seal…but in my experience, if they haven’t sealed in the first hour, they’re not going to.  It’s normal (for me) to have 1-2 jars that don’t seal, especially if my processing time was less than 15 minutes.  It’s frustrating, but I tell myself that I would have opened a jar ASAP anyway.

Leave the screw bands on the jars for at least 12 hours (and don’t tighten them if they loosened during processing), but after that they should be removed so that they and the threads of the jar can fully dry.  This prevents them from rusting.

I hope this post has been informative (if overwhelmingly so).  Canning is so much fun, and it’s such a wonderful feeling to give a jar of something you’ve handcrafted to a person you love.  It seems so intimidating from the outset…there are so many rules and guidelines, and looming ominously in the background is the vague notion that you might kill someone with the big bad botulism.  Truly, botulism doesn’t like high-acid foods much, and the other microorganisms that might grow in your preserves leave a trail (mold is fuzzy and yeast is smelly).  I have canned 7 different things this summer, with varying methods, jars, and processing times–and I have yet to make anybody sick.  If a jar doesn’t seal, stick it in the fridge and use it within a couple weeks.

If you’re curious about canning, I encourage you to read through a few recipes.  Ball has almost 200 recipes on their site (including the Bruschetta in a Jar recipe that I made this weekend).  The Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving is also an excellent resource.  My favorite book of canning recipes is Canning for a New Generation, by Liana Krissoff (including the other recipe we made this weekend, Mango & Peach Habanero Hot Sauce, and a great method for extracting natural pectin from green apples).  But these are just the tip of the iceberg.  Canning is an increasingly popular hobby for people who grow their own fruits & vegetables, want to reduce their reliance on chemical-laden foods, or just like giving meaningful homemade gifts to their loved ones.

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