Your garden is bursting at the seams, and your freezer is full. What are your other options to store this bountiful produce? You can dehydrate or you can preserve produce by home canning. Canning can be an enjoyable way to save your food for storage, if you follow just a few basic rules.
Getting Started With Home Canning
To begin with, you will need a few items:
A water bath canner or pressure canner. You don't want to skimp on this and use an old stock pot. Sure, it may “work” but it may not be safe (speaking from experience here). You can find them at second hand stores, or even garage and estate sales. If you are buying a used one, be sure to inspect it for holes in the metal, and that the pressure canner lid ring is intact. You MAY be able to find a replacement silicone ring on Amazon, but if it's an older model, it may be hard.
You will need jars. They come in many different sizes such as quart, pint, half pint, and 1 ½ pint size (also called bologna jars) in both wide mouth and narrow mouth openings. Again, you can find these at yard sales or thrift stores, but inspect them for cracks or breaks in the jar. Buying new can be pricey, but they can be reused many times over and should be considered an “investment”. Jams, jellies and salsas work best in pint and ½ pint. Veggies, applesauce and pie fillings can easily be canned in quart sized jars. The bologna jars are great for meats and soups.
You will need lids. If you are using the regular metal lids, you will need new ones each time you can. DO NOT reuse lids, please!! The seal may not be “true” and your food will grow bacteria that you can't see. The only way to get around that is by using Tattler lids that have a hard plastic lid, and a rubber ring that IS reusable. Buying new lids each time seems like a worthless expense, but it's better than not having something seal or someone getting sick.
You will need bands. Bands CAN be reused over and over for canning, as long as they maintain their shape. Once they are bent, you should toss or re-purpose them for something else. Bands are sold with new jars, or with new lids as well. Just remember to wash and dry before storing to help avoid rust issues.
Another thing to note with bands is that you will want to remove them from the jar AFTER the canning process is finished and the lid tested for seal. You don't want to store jars with the bands on them, due to a possibility of a false seal, where the lid will come undone on it's own, allow air in, and then appear to be sealed.
Other things that are nice to have are a lid lifter, jar holder and jar funnel. A lid lifter looks like a pencil with a strong magnet on the end. It helps lift lids from simmering water, without burning your hands. A jar holder is a “pot holder” in the shape of your hands. Your fingers fit into protected areas, and your hands don't get burned when filling the hot jar with hot food. A funnel will avoid spills while you are filling your jar.
Canning IS possible on all types of stoves, including glass tops. My personal preference is to can on our outdoor propane stove, where I can control the flame and keep the heat and humidity outside. Work with what you have, though.
To actually begin canning, first review your canner's directions and times suggested. I do this every single year, even though I am pretty confident at what I am doing. Relying on memory has resulted in making mistakes in the past, so it's best to take a moment and review the booklet. If you don't have the booklet, find the directions online if you can. Inspect your equipment to ensure it's in proper working order and gather jars, lids and bands. If you have a dishwasher, you can run the jars and leave it on a “hot dry” cycle to keep them hot and to clean and sterilize them. Knives that you will use for cutting food need to be sharpened and cleaned. A sharp knife will reduce the chance of slippage and getting hurt as it will take less to cut through the food. Cutting boards should be cleaned and sprayed with vinegar to sterilize them as well. This will lessen bacteria getting into your canned foods.
You will want to review a TESTED recipe for the foods you are canning. This may not be the time to rely on your Grandmother's old ways or recipes. The reason is that bacteria has mutated, the soil our food is grown in has changed, and we know more about the “science” of preserving food safely than she may have back in the day. The best resource is the Ball Book of Canning. It's the canner's Bible in a way. It has tested recipes that are going to be safe for home canning. Once you have settled on a recipe for canning, the fun is going to begin! Some other safety reminders:
- Cut your food up into as equal pieces as possible, to keep the canning times even in the jars.
- Start the “clock” on the processing time when the water in the water canner is BACK to a full rolling boil or the pressure canner has reached the FULL pressure, either by the gauge or when the rocker has started rocking.
- Always allow the pressure canner to cool on it's own. NEV ER run water over it or lay cold towels on it. This can cause jars to break inside, or even cause you to get burned. It only takes about 20 minutes to cool, so you can be preparing another canner load of food while you are waiting.
- Use the jar lifters to remove the hot jars from the canner. Using hot pads may not allow you to get a hard enough grip and cause the jar to slip or break. Bare fingers will get burned (trust me on this one, mmmkay?)
- Canned food DOES have a shelf life. 12 months is usually the recommended time for storing foods. After that, the food can lose nutrients, or not taste as fresh. I have seen people store their foods for up to 5 years before eating, but it's best to use it within 12 months.
Enjoy your new skill as a food preserver and feel great when you are feeding your family produce you grew and saved yourself!