Food Preservation 101: Part 1 – Home Canning

A couple of folks have asked me for a quick how-to on making jam. I realized I couldn’t jump straight into recipes & tips until I covered some basics on canning itself. What is home canning and how does it work? What do you need to get started? Do you really need to take a Master Food Preservation class before you can start? Do you need a pressure-canner? Well, here are my thoughts, as someone who has been canning for close to ten years now…

What is Home Canning?
Home canning is the process of vacuum sealing food into glass jars using bit pot of hot water, oodles of clear glass jars, and time spent stirring and ladling food into those jars. The air is forced out of the jars as the jars sit in a bath of boiling water (the “canning bath”) and as the jars cool, the disposable lids, which have a heat-activated sealant, seal tight to keep the food inside fresh for up to a year (OK, that’s the official story–I have no problem using food that I myself have canned and that looks and smells fine for up to two years).

There is a lot of great information on CSU’s Nutrition Resources Pages if you want to learn more from the experts in addition to what I’ve put together below.

How do you can food?

First, I am not a high-tech canner. I do not own a pressure canner, which means that anything low-acid (like green beans or carrots, for example) gets dried or frozen, not canned. Texture is better anyway, in my opinion. So I primarily can things like jam, pickles & high-acid fruits and use a very simple and inexpensive canning bath that came in a kit like this one. Some of the kits are upwards of $50 now, so watch for sales, borrow from a friend, or look for a used set if you’re looking to invest less at the beginning.

The great thing about these kits, though, is that they also come with the Ball Blue Book, which is essentially the canner’s Bible. If, like me, you have one of your Grandma’s old copies from 1952 hanging out on your bookshelf, keep it for posterity, but double-check the recipes from a newer edition. The kits also typically have a pair of canning tongs for moving hot jars, a funnel for getting hot food into the jars, a nifty magnet for lifting hot lids onto the tops of the jars, and, depending on whether you get the simple or deluxe kit, some canning jars, canning lids, and some plastic lids to use once you’ve opened a jar of canned food.

Although most grocery stores carry lids and jars, you can often find them at thrift stores, on Craig’s List, or even Freecycle. As long as the jars are not chipped and the canning bands are not rusty, you might as well get the freebies, because once you’re obsessed with canning, you’ll need lots of jars in lots of different sizes (wide mouth quart jars for canning peaches, for example, narrow mouth quart jars for apple cider and grape juice, wide mouth pint jars for pickles, and narrow mouth pint & half-pint jars for jam).

Selecting food & recipes

Once you’ve got the supplies assembled, it’s time to consider a recipe. While I think the Blue Book has the best overview of canning and is a great resource, many of the recipes are the traditional ones you might have eaten years ago (adjusted for the additional safety guidelines that now exist, of course), but are not, perhaps, as contemporary as your palate. So poke around on the Internet for recipes or consider one of several great new canning books that are out there (I personally have not ventured much beyond the Blue Book because I mainly can staple foods like jam & fruits).

When selecting food to can or preserve, the fresher, the better. If you can get it picked the day you’re going to can it, do. Our canning season starts with strawberry jam in late June/early July, then moves on to apricots for both jam and canned halves, cucumbers & onions for pickles, and the first of the peaches (also jam & canned halves) in July, then plums, grapes, tomatoes and more peaches in August, and wraps up with pears & apples in September & October. While you can preserve the very last tomatoes you pull from the vine in October, the ones you pick at the peak of ripeness in August will last longer and taste better.

The quality of the fruits & vegetables you select is the most important factor in the success of your canning. A tie for close second goes to the recipe you choose and the techniques you use in canning, which I’ll touch on in part 2 tomorrow.

8 thoughts on “Food Preservation 101: Part 1 – Home Canning

  1. Good question on the peaches. Similar to my experiences with tomato shrinkage, I have had a lot of peach shrinkage in the past when canning (but, unlike with the tomatoes, I think they taste great canned!). I seem to have found a pretty good cure:

    1. Cold pack them. This means packing the peaches into the jars while the peaches are still cold rather than heating them in the syrup first. It’s a lot easier to handle a cold, slippery peach than a boiling-hot, slippery peach.

    2. Really cram the peaches in there. I’m serious. I’d say I added about 50% more peaches to each jar with this batch we did over the weekend and the results are beautiful (I’ll have to post a picture).

  2. Perhaps Romas are better to cook down put through a tomato sieve or Foley food mill before cooking with seasoning to make a sauce which can be canned. More acidic tomatoes are better to can whole (slipping skins off first).

    Do you know how to avoid having so much shrinkage when canning whole (small) or halved peaches? The recipes tell you to pack them then cover with the hot sugar syrup. Seems to me that cooking them first would draw out water from the fruit. Would that spoil the fresh taste?

  3. I don’t really like how the canned tomatoes I’ve done have turned out (mushy texture, not enough tomatoes per quart, etc.), so I typically dry a ton (I did 50 pounds last year!) and then I make tomato sauce and freeze it.

    I have tried freezing whole tomatoes to use, but that didn’t turn out very well either. But I have read you can take the dried tomatoes and powder them to make a sauce. Might have to try that!

  4. Have you canned tomato sauce or tomatoes? I am about to be inundated with ripe roma tomatoes from my garden and getting a little apprehensive. I’ve made 3 batches of jam and feel like I have that down, but tomato sauce seems so much more unpredictable!

  5. Oh, I can’t wait to see the book! I really need to get one, but probably just one and I just haven’t been able to decide. I like the idea of it covering freezing & dehydrating too.

    I’m telling you, canning is addictive! I’m glad you’ve got Cora hooked.

  6. Hi Julie! I was thinking about you guys when talking with Cora about your upcoming camping trip so I decided to stop by and see what was new. I just tought Cora how to can this summer and she’s hooked. I have several recipe books on canning which feature the more fancy things like chutney and creative salsas. I’ve also found a great book Called Putting Up the Harvest which covers how to put up everthing in your garden by either canning, freezing, or drying and has recipe suggestions for combining all three. I can send them with Cora for you to look through on your trip if you like. I’ll have to check back to see Canning part 2!

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