Preservation Tips and Tricks – Canning 101

Canning is, in my opinion, one of the most work intensive forms of preservation. It takes a few years to get the hang of it. I finally feel like I’m more than comfortable working with a big pot of boiling water, lifting heavy jars up and down, and timing everything so that my recipe is ready to go by the time the jars are sterilized. I find it to be the most fun when I do it with a few other people around – have a canning party! Typically, Jason is my canning partner and we enjoy doing it together.

The benefit of canning is that, once you’ve made the initial investment of time and work, you have jars of shelf-stable food that won’t take up room in your fridge or freezer. Plus, they make great gifts – who doesn’t love to receive a mason jar of homemade jam or pickles?

So, without further ado, here’s the rundown on canning.

Pressure Canners Vs. Water Bath
All my life, I’ve canned with a water bath canner  – a large pot with a rack that holds mason jars so you can submerge them in boiling water to seal the lids. Like I mentioned before, my siblings and I gave my dad a pressure canner for Christmas but we have yet to give it a try.

My understanding of the the main different between a pressure canner and a water bath canner is temperature – pressure canners can achieve a higher temperatures at which they jars are sealed and therefore is able to kill off more bacteria. Water bath canners can only get so high in temperature and therefore whatever you’re canning needs some preservation aids – acidity (in the form of vinegar, citrus juice, or natural acidity in the product) or sugar. Typically, you’re limited to pickles, jams, and salsas when you can with a water bath. I use the term “limited” loosely because there is quite a bit you can do in those categories!

Pressure canners, on the other hand, have almost no limitations to what you can can because they don’t need any acidity or sugar to aid in the preservation process. While I’ve never worked with one myself, I’ve enjoyed a few of the products of pressure canning here and there.  I’ve also heard some of the tantalizing recipes people have preserved with pressure canners – beef stew, fingerling potatoes, and any type of vegetable you can imagine.  I’m a bit intimidated by something that can blow up if not used properly…but I’m sure that, like anything, once you learn how to do it you become comfortable and even efficient at it.

Boo gave me my water bath canner as a birthday gift two years ago.

It came with the rack for the jars and some nifty tools – a funnel, a jar grip, a magnetic wand for the lids, and a nice pair of tongs. My husband sure knows how to give me good gifts! I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a rototiller this year ;).

Jars
When you can with any type of canner, you will store your preserves in mason jars fitted with a two-part cover that consists of a metal band a flat metal lid with a rubber seal. You can’t reuse old jars you get from buying pasta sauce or pickles because you won’t be able to get a good seal with the lids. Some people buy their mason jars from thrift stores, but personally I’ve found that it’s just cheaper to buy them new in the summer – my Goodwill charges between .49 and .99 cents a jar, while I can get a 12-pack of new jars for $6. Once you buy the jars and bands, you can reuse them over and over provided they don’t get cracked or rusted. However, the seal on the flat lids is only good for one use. After that, you can reuse them to store things like beans or seeds, but not for preservation purposes.

Because it’s just Jason and I, I can almost everything in pint-size jars. I make a few quarts here and there to bring to parties or to give as gifts to larger families, but for the most part a pint jar is the perfect size for us to finish off.

Time and Effort
Canning requires heating up a large pot of water to boiling point, which means it requires water, time, and energy. Keep in mind that a lot of your canning will need to be done during harvest periods to get the freshest product – you will likely be sweating up a storm in a steamy kitchen while you do this. Depending on the complexity of the recipe I’m using, I find that canning a batch of something will take about an hour to two hours, so budget your time accordingly! Things like pickles and jams take less time than something that requires a lot of chopping, like salsa. Also, items with lots of sugar or acidity will spend less time in the boiling water – tomato based products are the lowest acidity item you can water bath can, and so they need a longer soak.

Recipes
There are LOTS of recipes out there that are suitable for water-bath canning. I’d avoid anything that contains dairy or seems to lack in preservation aids (acidity or sugar). Feel free to make substitutes with acidity – swap out regular vinegar for apple cider vinegar, add lime or lemon juice to tomato recipes, or add a little bit of citrus zest to jams. Personally, I prefer my pickled goods with ACV instead of regular vinegar.

Here’s how it’s done:

Here is a basic routine for water-bath canning:

  1. Wash all of your equipment – jars, lids, bands, canner, and tools – in warm, soapy water. You could also run them through the dishwasher.
  2. Fill your canner up with water so that you have a good inch to two inches  above the tops of the jars.
  3. Get that water boiling! You can work on your recipe while this is going on to save yourself some time.
  4. When the water comes to a rolling boil, set your empty jars in the rack and toss in your lids and bands. Submerge the whole thing – your jars may tip over as they fill up with water, and that’s totally OK.
  5. Let the jars and lids boil for ten minutes. This is the sanitizing step that will (ideally) kill of any bacteria on the jars.
  6. After the ten minutes has elapsed, turn the burner off but leave everything in the hot water to keep it sterile.
  7. When your recipe is ready (and this varies by recipe) pull the jars, lids and bands out with your tongs and set them on a clean towel. If you’re pickling something, this is when you would add the veggies into your jars and then pour the vinegar mixture over them. If you’re doing salsa or jam, just add the mixture to the jars leaving the recommended amount of headspace (usually 1/2 to 1/4 inch).
  8. Using a clean rag or paper towel, wipe any excess mixture off the rim of the jars and put the covers on. Tighten the band until it can’t turn anymore.
  9. Pop those jars of goodness right back into your pot of hot water and submerge them. Turn on the heat, and start timing the water bath from when the water begins boiling again (again, timing varies by recipe). Note: you may need to add more water due to evaporation.
  10. When the recommended amount of time has elapsed, pull the jar out and set them on clean towels.
  11. Now comes the fun part – the heat will create an air tight seal on the lids that you (should) be able to hear – a nice little “pop” as they snap smooth against the tops of the jars. Sometimes, stuff “pops” while in the water, so it’s always a good idea to gently tap the tops to make sure there’s no give.
  12. I usually give my stuff a couple of hours to seal, and then leave it sit on the counter for a day undisturbed. If you notice one of your jars hasn’t sealed up after a few hours, stick it in the fridge and eat it up right away.

That’s it! You did it!

Links
Here is the canner I use.
Here is an idea of what I use for canning tools
Here is the pressure canner we bough my dad
Pickled banana peppers
Rhubarb Ginger jam
My favorite pickle recipe

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