Friday, October 5, 2012

The Food Hoarder's Twelve Steps: How To Can

Dear preservation addicts, food hoarders, and handy housewives,

Canning seems so complicated ... 
The procedure for canning is quite simple; it is all about cleanliness, hot water, and timing.  The following step-by-step instructions are basic, and you can use them to follow any recipe that uses the boiling-water bath method of canning.  The other method of canning is pressure canning; we will not address that here.  For a brief overview on canning and an explanation of the differences between pressure-canning and boiling-water bath, click here.

Where do I ... what?  A jar lifter?  
At the end of this post, I will provide some resources if you are looking for the tools and gadgets required for canning, as well as a few recommended books on the subject.

Tools needed for canning: 
Jars, lidsrings, canning pot - any pot deep enough to hold the jars on the rack with about an inch and a half or more of headspace above, canning rack or twist-tied or zip-tied rings to make a rack, jar lifter

From left to right: lid lifter, jar lifter, and canning funnel. 
Optional tools that make life easier: 
Funnel, lid lifter, reusable lids, a really nice canning pot (this is my drug, er, pot of choice)

Step 1. Wash jars and rings.  If you have a dishwasher, run them through the sanitize cycle and keep the dishwasher on heat-dry to keep jars hot.  Hot jars are less likely to break when you put hot food into them for canning.  Honestly, my jars are usually not hot any more by the time I fill them (I do not have a dishwasher).  You can keep them in hot water if you want to keep them hot.  I've never broken any from filling.

Jars should be chip-free.  Older jars may break upon boiling;
this is ok, it happens from time to time.  

Step 2. Place lids in a saucepan on low heat, or in a bowl and pour hot water over them.  You do not want to boil lids, as this will damage the rubber sealant (that orange ring).  Keep them in the warm water during the canning process; refresh the water occasionally if you have them in a bowl, not on the stove, to keep the rubber soft and pliable.

To make it easier to lift jars from the hot water, I put them in front-to-back
so that they don't stick together.  You can use a fork, your fast fingers, or a
lid lifter to remove the lids from the hot water.  
Keep a teakettle of hot water on the stove, if you are not so
fortunate as to have a hot water tap!  

Step 3. Have your food ready to can - it should be clean, free of spoilage or bruising.  As the saying goes, whatever it is when it goes in the jar, it will be more so when you take it out.  That is to say, if you try to save yucky, withering food by canning it, it'll just come out yuckier and grosser than when it began.  Food should always be canned at the peak of perfection.

Step 4. Prepare the canner by filling it with water and bringing it to a boil.  It can be nice to do the boiling outside so the house doesn't get too hot!

Step 5. Fill the hot, clean jars (as I said earlier - my jars are rarely ever hot when I fill them.  This is easier to achieve with a dishwasher!) with the desired food, leaving the headspace required by the recipe - we'll check the headspace in a minute.

A funnel makes filling easier.

Step 6.  After filling the jar, "bubble" the contents by running a small plastic knife or spatula around inside the jar, and tipping the jar gently from side to side.  With some items, like thick jam, or chunky pickles, there will be more bubbles.  With others, like juices, you obviously do not need to bubble the jar.  Do not use a metal knife.  Not only can this shatter the bottom of the jar, but it can leave tiny scratches in the glass that will cause it to break while boiling.  Canning jars can take a beating, but a metal knife is their kryptonite.

Step 7. Check the headspace; do not leave more or less headspace than the recipe calls for.  The headspace will adjust after bubbling the jar, so it is best to check your headspace after bubbling.  A ruler is handy for learning what an inch, half inch, or quarter inch of headspace looks like.  After a few jars, you'll just be eye-balling it.

Step 8. Wipe the rim with a clean, damp cloth.  Any particles of food on the rim will interfere with a good seal.

Step 9. Center a hot lid on the jar.

Step 10. Screw on the band, finger-tip tight.  Don't crank it on, but don't leave it loose.

Step 11.  Using a jar lifter, put the jars in the boiling water on a canning rack (here is a homemade one like I used to use, although I used twisty-ties instead of zip-ties).  Jars must not touch the bottom of the pan directly.  Contact with direct heat will crack the jars.  Boiling water should be about an inch over the tops of the jars.  Boil for the time required by the recipe.

If you need to stack jars, they should not be centered on each other.  Preferably, they are stacked on the rings of the jars beneath them (as in picture below).

Step 12. Remove jars after boiling time is complete per the recipe instructions; do not twist rings or press down on lids.  Small bubbles may be seen rising from the contents of the food; this air will continue to exhaust as the jars seal while they cool.  Set jars aside to cool for 24 hours.  You may hear a tinny "pop" from time to time, as they seal - music to a home-canners ears!  After jars are cooled, remove rings and check seals.  If the lid pops up when pressed, the seal did not complete.  If you pry gently at the lid and it slithers right off, the seal did not work.  See the end of this post for what to do with these jars.  Lids should be firm.  Wipe jars and lids/threads with a damp cloth and wash rings to use for your next batch of canning.

What to do with unsealed jars? 
You can re-heat the contents of the food, put into clean jars and re-can with new lids; but this is a lot of work.  Generally, if a jar or two doesn't seal, I just put those in my fridge for immediate use, and enjoy.

Why should I wipe down the jars after canning and cooling is complete, and remove the rings? 
This step isn't entirely necessary for the canning process, but Miz Carmen, a time-hardened home-canner, taught it to me and I appreciate it. Wiping the jars down is a great opportunity to check seals and label jars, if you wish.  It also ensures that you do not have sticky jars, and that there are no food particles on them to grow mold while in storage (it happens more than you might think, and mold on the outside of a jar doesn't necessarily damage food in the inside but it sure is gross).

Resources: is a good source for canning kits and jar lifters, lid lifters, and pressure canners.  I do not recommend them for canning pots or jars, lids or rings because their prices on those items tend to be fairly high.

At, blogger Marisa McClellan has assembled a handy collection of resources for the home canner.  She also writes prolifically about canning, with delicious recipes and many, many helpful posts on canning advice.  See her resources page here.

Canning jars, lids and rings can be purchased new from many grocery stores, Target, and sometimes hardware stores, although places like Fred Meyer and Walmart are cheaper than stores like Safeway/Vons.  If you are military, your local commissary may carry jars and tools during season and these prices beat all others, including most sale prices at other stores.  Check around to see the cheapest prices if you are doing a lot of canning, and ask stores if they do seasonal sales.  Many will have a spring or fall canning sale on these items, and you can stock up.  If I see jars on sale, I buy indiscriminately!

Yard sales and thrift stores can be a great source for jars and tools.  I have purchased hundreds of jars at yard sales, and almost all of my canning pots from thrift stores (I have eight Graniteware canning pots and three Presto pressure canners).

Recommended reading: 
Ball Blue Book
Putting Food By
Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving
Food In Jars
There are many other excellent home preserving books out there, and you can see a few of my favorites listed on our Recipes and Cookbooks page.

I can't imagine life without canning; it has enabled us to eat organic and local food year-round for a very decent price, on a very strict budget, with minimal waste.  I love freezing foods, too, but canning is the most stable way to preserve food when I don't know if a move is pending with the military, or if you don't have much freezer space.

I know there are many other wonderful questions about canning, and I am thrilled to answer them as more and more women (and men!) join the tribe of home-preservers.  If I left a step incompletely answered here, please leave a comment and let me know if I should clarify!  Also, if you have questions about canning in general, do let me know as I receive many inquiries and would love to create posts that benefit the excellent readers that you are.  

Yours in boiling,

Mrs H
twittering @_mrs_h
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Do you can?  Share this information with your friends! 
Make sure to check out this blog on some basic canning questions



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