You need very little specialized equipment for home canning. I use a 16-quart kettle with a cooling rack that just fits in the bottom. You can use a smaller kettle; you just won’t be able to process as many jars at a time. A small pair of tongs is handy for removing the flat lids from a pan of scalding water, as is a large, plastic-covered pair for lifting the jars into and out of the boiling-water bath. A wide-mouthed plastic funnel facilitates filling the jars.
Use jars specifically made for canning, preferably those with two-piece, vacuum-seal lids. The jars may be reused, but make sure that they are free of nicks or cracks. Rings may also be reused, but use only new flat lids. Although the flip-top, rubber-seal lids that attach with a wire clip have a wonderful old-fashioned appeal, the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not consider them safe for canning. If you want to use them anyway, buy only those recommended for water-bath processing and always use new rubber seals.
Wash and rinse jars and lids well. Pour boiling water over the lids, and leave them in hot water for at least 3 minutes before using. After filling a jar with fruits or vegetables, run a nonmetallic utensil down the inside to remove trapped air bubbles. Then wipe the rim and threads with a clean cloth. Put a lid on top, then screw the band down firmly.
While you’re preparing the food for the jars, place a wire rack or several layers of cloth in the bottom of a deep kettle and half fill the kettle with water. Bring the water to a boil. Lower the hot, filled jars into the water, placing them at least 1 inch apart. Add more boiling water as necessary to cover the tops of the jars by 2 inches. Cover the pot, bring to a hard boil, and boil for the prescribed time, which depends on the size of the jar, the food inside and how it was prepared, and the altitude. For half-pint and pint jars at sea level, 15 minutes is adequate; for quarts, 25 to 30 minutes. Jellies require 5 to 10 minutes. Add 1 minute for every 1000 feet above sea level if the total processing time is 20 minutes or less; add 2 minutes for every 1000 feet above sea level if the total processing time is longer than 20 minutes. For specific directions, consult a canning guide.
When the time is up, turn off the heat and remove the jars to a cooling rack away from drafts. After the jars have cooled, press the center of the lids. If it does not move, the jars are sealed. Remove the bands, label the jars, and store them in a cool, dark place. Refrigerate after opening.
Maggie Oster writes extensively about herbs, food, gardening, cooking, landscape design, flowers, and crafts. Her books include Recipes from an American Herb Garden (New York: Macmillan, 1993) and Herbal Vinegar (Pownal, Vermont: Storey Communications, 1994). When she’s not on the road, she’s in her garden or kitchen in Indiana or Kentucky.