Few things in the world can match the succulent taste of perfectly ripe, just-picked food. But if you haven’t enjoyed juicy tomatoes or ripe blackberries in the depths of winter, you might be surprised to discover how home-canned food can almost deliver that same garden-fresh flavor. Your taste buds likely won’t notice a difference as they savor flavor-packed, nearly fresh produce as the snow falls outdoors. Home food preservation is also one of the easiest ways to do two things we all love: save money and buy locally. You can stock up on surpluses of peak-season food from local growers when prices are lowest, and put it up for year-round delight.
Many people are afraid to try canning because they’ve heard it’s difficult and have been warned about potential food contaminants. While these are valid concerns without proper guidance, canning is safe and healthy if you follow a few simple steps, as outlined here. This article details the easy method known as boiling water-bath canning. The other method, pressure canning, allows you to preserve a wider range of foods, but it’s more complex. We recommend experimenting with inexpensive, easy water-bath canning before graduating to pressure canning. If you start with small projects that produce mouthwatering results (see "Put 'Em Up! Easy Home Canning Recipes"), you are bound to be pleased with the payoff for your time investment.
Find the Best Food
If you’re growing your own food, you’re all set! Otherwise, check farmer’s markets or community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs for great deals on peak-season items. If you’re not sure when it’s your favorite foods’ peak season—and when you can nab the lowest prices and highest quality—just ask the farmers.
To save money and reduce waste, don’t disregard another time-honored way to score loads of inexpensive but delicious food: gleaning. Not so long ago, farmers let peasants glean what was left in their fields after a big harvest. These days, many farmers love it when you approach them and offer to glean when they’re ready. Misshapen strawberries that aren’t attractive enough for market may be just fine for your strawberry jam.
To get the most out of your efforts, plan to can the foods you like to eat, the way you like to eat them. If you don’t like spicy carrots, by all means don’t can them! If your family goes through a jar of pickles a week, you know what to do.
Choose the Right Canning Method
Bacteria won’t survive in acidic foods—such as tomatoes, fruit and pickles—that are preserved in a boiling water bath. Low-acid foods like veggies, beans and meat, however, are a perfect home for bacteria, and boiling isn’t enough to knock them out. For any recipes that contain low-acid foods, you must use a pressure canner, which reaches bacteria-killing temperatures higher than the boiling point. All good canning recipes will indicate the necessary method. After you’ve had success with water-bath canning, you can move on to pressure canning.
What You'll Need
Water-bath canner with internal rack ($20 to $80 new)
Canning jars with metal seals and rings (always use new seals; wide-mouth jars are easier to fill)
Long-handled spoon and slotted spoon
Lid-lifting wand (optional) or tongs
Pots, bowls, measuring cups and spoons for cooking preparation
Plastic knife or wooden chopstick to stir contents with (metal knives can potentially scratch the jar’s glass)
The canning recipes in any good canning cookbook, will tell you everything you need to know. Before canning anything, read the entire recipe carefully and make sure you have everything you need.
Step 1: Sterilize. Wash all of your equipment and line it up on a clean work surface. Discard any jars with nicks on the rim or cracks in the glass. Steam the jars and lids, or dunk them in simmering water for 15 minutes. You can leave them in the water until you need them. Or wash them in the dishwasher and keep it closed until you need them. Keep the lids in simmering water, and remove them one at a time. A magnetic “magic wand” (hyperlink to Easy Home Canning) makes easy work of lifting jar lids out of simmering water.
Step 2: Prep. Sometimes a recipe will call for you to blanch something. Simply boil water and dunk the food for the recipe’s prescribed amount of time (begin timing after the water returns to a boil), then drain and dunk it in ice to stop the cooking. Some recipes will require you to cold pack raw food in the jars, then pour hot liquid over them. With others, you’ll need to precook the food, then hot pack it into the jars.
Step 3: Fill. Be sure to leave the proper amount of headspace, which is the amount of space between the top of the food and its lid. This is of utmost importance, and any recipe should indicate how much headspace is necessary. Here’s the general rule: 1 inch for low-acid foods (which likely require pressure canning); 1/2 inch for acidic foods such as tomatoes and whole fruits; 1/4 inch for pickles, relishes, jellies and juices.
Step 4: Seal. Remove any air bubbles by stirring the contents with knife or chopstick. Wipe the jar’s rim clean, set the lid on the jar’s rim and twist on the band just until it resists. Don’t overtighten.
Step 5: Boil. Fill the canner with water almost to the top and bring it to a boil. Place the jars in the rack and let the water return to a boil. The jars should be covered with 1 inch of water. Begin timing in accordance with the recipe when the water returns to a boil.
Step 6: Cool. Set the jars on a towel with a little space between them. You’ll hear the telltale popping sound, which indicates the jars have cooled and the seals are intact. If any of the jars do not “pop,” they haven’t sealed properly. Just stick them in the fridge and eat the contents soon.
Step 7: Label. Remove the metal rings, because they can corrode during storage. These can be reused. Wipe off all the jars, then label the date and contents clearly.
Step 8: Eat! Throw out any jars that lost their seals during storage. (You’ll know if the lid slips off easily.) Eat from the oldest jars first. And the last, most important step? Delight in the bursting fresh flavor of juicy red tomatoes in January, the crisp crunch of dilly beans in February, the sweet slurp of blackberry jam in March. Your work has paid off!
For easy home canning recipes, see the article "Put 'Em Up! Easy Home Canning Recipes."
Home Canning Resources
The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest by Carol W. Costenbader
The Busy Person’s Guide to Preserving Food by Janet Chadwick
National Center for Home Food Preservation