The Basics of Home Canning for Food Preservation

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Canning is a relatively simple and often-misunderstood homesteading skill that just about anyone can benefit from! Here’s how to do it…

Properly canned foods can keep for months on end on the shelf, maintaining their color, nutrients, and flavor as long as they are stored in a cool, dry (and preferably dark) location. Canning is a great way to preserve the bounty of fresh summer produce for use during the winter months. Whether you have a huge garden, or shop at the local farmer’s market for great deals during the peak of harvest season, canning your own produce can save you money as well as avoid chemical preservatives and other added ingredients that you may find in store-bought canned goods.

When I lived in a tiny apartment on my own, I canned a flat or two of organic tomatoes from a local farm every summer, which kept me supplied with delicious homemade canned tomatoes well into the winter! Now that my husband and I have a huge garden, we can dozens of quarts every summer to last us year-round, and haven’t bought canned tomatoes, jams, or pickles from the store in several years. Not only does this save us money, but it also cuts down on waste as we can re-use the same jars year after year, rather than constantly tossing out cans.

When canning, you will want to be sure to choose only fresh, ripe ingredients, and avoid using any damaged or diseased produce. You should check the lids on your canned goods periodically, as well as before you use them, and discard any that are no longer sealed. However, most canned goods should easily last a year or more if they are properly sealed to begin with.

You will also want to make sure you carefully follow any canning recipes you use – there is no room for “fudging” with canned goods! The ratios of pectin, sugar, vinegar, salt, etc. are important for the safety and preservation of your canned foods.

The two main methods of canning are the water bath or the pressure method. Most fruits are naturally acidic enough to do just fine in a water bath, but for low-acid fruits or vegetables, the higher temperatures of a pressure canner will be more appropriate. Here is a bit more information on the proper use of both methods:

Water Bath Canning for Fruits

  1. Place the jar rack on the bottom of the pot and arrange the mason jars on top of the rack.
  2. Fill the pot (with the jars inside; no lids), with water at least 1 inch above the top of the jars.
  3. Put the pot on the stove, cover it with a lid and turn the burner on high. Use the time it takes for the water to boil to prepare the food that will be canned.
  4. Once the water has boiled, pull the jars out with the tongs, empty the water they contain and place them on a towel on the counter. Retain the water in the pot.
  5. Fill the jars with the food product using the funnel, if needed. The recipe should indicate how much space to leave at the top of the jar. (A quarter or half inch is typical—smooth-textured jams and preserves require less, while chunky fruits and vegetable suspended in liquid require more).
  6. Stir the contents of the jar to release any air bubbles that may be trapped in the jar.
  7. Wipe the rim of the jar clean with a damp cloth to ensure a good seal with the lid.
  8. Place the lid on top and screw the band snugly into place.
  9. Lower the jars into the pot of water. Use a glass heat-proof measuring cup if you need to scoop out excess water to prevent the pot from overflowing.
  10. Cover the pot, bring the water back to boiling, and set a timer for the length of time indicated by the canning recipe you are following.
  11. Once the timer goes off, remove the jars and put them onto towel-lined countertop where they must remain undisturbed for at least 12 hours.

After the jars have cooled, confirm that they have been sealed by pressing into the lid with your finger. If the lid can be depressed and pops back up, it is not properly sealed. The lid should not move when pushed if the process was successful. You can also take off the bands and lift up the jars by the edge of the lid to test them—they should remain firmly in place. If the seal is not successful on any of the jars, repeat the canning process or just store them in the refrigerator for immediate consumption.

Pressure Canning for Vegetables and Animal Products

Pressure canners vary by manufacturer, but the process for using them is similar to water bath canning. The main difference is that the jars will sit in just a few inches of water, rather than being submerged. There is a vent on top of the canning pot that allows steam to escape, which needs to be left open for the first ten minutes of boiling (to allow the air to escape) and then closed (to keep the steam in).

For foods that need to be preserved with a pressure canner, the canning recipe should indicate the amount of time to leave the jars in the canner, as well as the amount of pressure that is necessary (in PSI, or pounds per square inch). Pressure canners are outfitted with pressure gauges and the heat can be raised or lowered to achieve the correct pressure level.

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