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Canning 101

Have you harvested all of the delicious vegetables you grew in your garden this year? That bounty of home-grown produce is one of the best (and tastiest) benefits to rural living. Gone are the sad, little tomato plants in pots on your urban deck! You're done coaxing a spindly basil plant to life on your kitchen windowsill! You have the land to plant a proper garden that will help you feed your family all year long. But that's the thing about having a big garden. You need a way to preserve those vegetables so they'll last throughout the winter and beyond. Canning is a great way to do it.

Many people think canning is the practice of filling Mason jars with your favorite fruits and veggies and popping those jars into boiling water. While canning is simple enough for even newbies to do at home, there's a little more to it than that.

There are two types of canning, water bath and pressure canning, but they're not interchangeable. Learning the basics of both methods and, just as important, which method you should use for the particular food you want to preserve, is the key to success.

Water bath canning basics

This is the popular method of filling sterilized Mason jars and putting them into a pot designed for water-bath canning, then bringing that water to a boil. According to the Farmer's Almanac[i], water bath canning should be used for naturally highly acidic foods that resist bacteria, including:

  • Most fruits, like apples, pears, peaches and berries
  • Pickled vegetables and relishes
  • Tomatoes
  • Sauces and salsas
  • Jams and jellies

Water bath canning process

Better Homes & Gardens[ii] offers these water bath canning steps:

  • Wash your jars in hot, soapy water and rise well.
  • Sterilize the jars by placing them in your canner, cover with water and simmer for 10 minutes. Do not boil the lids. Instead, place them in a bowl and pour hot water over them.
  • Take one jar out of the pot, and pack your contents into the jar using a jar funnel. Ladle hot water into the jar according to your recipe, leaving as much "headspace" (to the top of the jar) as the recipe requires.
  • Remove any air bubbles.
  • Wipe rims and cover it with the lid.
  • Using a jar lifter, place the jar back into your canning pot.
  • Repeat steps for all the jars, and make sure water covers the jars by at least one inch.
  • Boil according to your recipe's directions.
  • Use the jar lifter to take the jars out of the water and place them on a wire rack or kitchen towel to cool.
  • Once cooled, test your seals. Press the top center of each lid. If it bounces, it's not sealed. You'll need to open it and reprocess it within 24 hours.

This is simply a basic guide. BH&G recommends using the steps outlined in your particular recipe for the best success.

Pressure canning basics

Pressure canning[iii] also preserves food in glass Mason jars, but unlike water bath canning, it doesn't use much water. Just a few inches. You do it in a pressure canner which has a lid that locks in place and the steam created by the heat builds up pressure. Your grandmother probably had a pressure cooker, and the principle is similar here. Good news: Your grandma's pressure cooker could explode. Today's models are much safer.

Pressure canning is best for low-acid foods, like:

  • Vegetables
  • Legumes
  • Meat, poultry, seafood
  • Wild game

Pressure canning process

According to BH&G[iv], this process is similar to that of water bath canning, with the exception of the pot. And that pot is important. Instapots are becoming very popular these days, and people can assume, since it's a pressure cooker, it can be used for pressure canning. It cannot. You need a pressure canner specifically designed for the job. BH&G's steps to pressure canning:

  • Add 2 to 3 inches of water to your canner, do NOT lock the lid, and bring water to a low simmer.
  • Place jars in the water with a little liquid in each, and heat for a few minutes.
  • Fill the jars tightly one at a time with a jar funnel. Ladle hot water into the jar according to your recipe, leaving as much "headspace" (to the top of the jar) as the recipe requires.
  • Remove air bubbles with a spatula.
  • Wipe the rim and cover with the lid.
  • Repeat with the other jars.

Now is the time to lock the lid, vent the canner, achieve the correct pressure and depressurize when your jars are ready. Follow the directions for your pressure canner exactly.

Essentials to remember for both methods

Some essentials for both methods, according to Better Homes & Gardens[v]:

  • Invest in a water bath or pressure canner. Use the right tool for the job, and follow the directions exactly. Both methods involve intense heat, and the pressure method involves controlling steam.
  • Use new Mason jars made for canning. Not glass jars you might have picked up someplace.
  • Use a recipe. According to BH&G, you should use "tested recipes from reliable, current sources, and follow instructions exactly." This is not the time to get creative. It could affect the safety of the food. Also, the recipes should be no older than about 20 years. That's because techniques have changed. Your grandma's method might not be the safest anymore.
  • Be careful about cleanliness. That means hot and sterile.

And what about these canning recipes we keep talking about? You can find cookbooks devoted to canning in your favorite bookstore or online. By learning this skill, you'll be able to take advantage of all of those delicious vegetables you've grown all summer long.

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[i] Farmer's Almanac

[ii] Better Homes & Gardens

[iii] Farmer's Almanac

[iv] Better Homes & Gardens

[v] Better Homes & Gardens

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