If you’ve never preserved your garden abundance by canning, the system can be a little confusing. A friend of mine—one who’s never canned before—was asking about home preservation. Her questions reminded me that although I grew up understanding the process of home canning and the necessary canning equipment, many people just don’t.
Preserving food at home
Food preservation is the process of extending the life of perishable foods like produce and meat. There are a number of ways to preserve foods, including dehydration, fermentation, and freezing. Here, let’s talk about canning food — processing food in jars to create a long-term, shelf-stable method of storing otherwise perishable foods.
Home canning as a method of preservation is one that takes just a bit more effort than other home preservation methods. It requires some specific canning equipment (there’s no getting around it) and an understanding of the canning process. It’s not hard to do, but you will need to resign yourself to learning something new. The good news? As soon as you hear the first “ping” of a successfully sealed jar, you’ll be hooked.
The basic canning equipment required includes the jars in which your food will be stored and the canner in which you’ll process the jars. Each of these come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and some are used for specific reasons. Let me lay out below the basic canning equipment you’ll need to be familiar with before you make your first batch of jam or jelly.
The jars most commonly used for home preservation these days come from Ball and Kerr (both made by Jarden Corporation). They are glass and come in a variety of sizes, from small four-ounce jelly jars to half-gallon sized. All of these jars are approved for home canning use except for the half-gallon size (I use the half-gallon size for storing dry goods). The small sizes are good for jams and jellies, especially those that you plan to give as gifts. Jars come in both a standard or wide mouth, referring to the size of the jar’s opening. Wide mouth jars are useful for preserving larger items like peach halves or for pickles that need to be placed in the jar by hand.
Glass canning jars can be washed and reused from year to year. I’ve collected a good quantity of jars over the years by keeping my eyes open at garage sales. If you’re looking for second-hand jars, just remember that jars with chips around the rim should not be used for home canning, as the chip can compromise the seal. (They’re fine for storing dry goods, though.)
The lids (or flats)
Canning lids are typically metal, a flat disk with a ring of rubber around the perimeter. They’re also called “flats.” This rubber ring allows the food to remain sealed inside the jars after processing. Lids come in both standard and wide mouth sizes to correspond with the jars. Jarden rolled out BPA-free lids in early 2013.
Metal canning lids cannot be reused for home preservation. Once a lid has been used, the seal becomes compressed and it will be more difficult to get the necessary airtight seal. (That seal is critical to creating a product that is safe and free of botulism.) You must purchase new lids for each new canning project. Lids are sold in sets of twelve and can be purchased separately from jars and rings.
An alternative to metal canning lids are the plastic lids made by Tattler. These come in two pieces — a plastic disk and a rubber ring. Tattler canning jars are BPA-free and can be reused from year to year.
Metal rings (also called bands) also come in both standard and wide mouth sizes. These are screwed over the lid to hold the lid in place during the canning process. Once your jars have cooled and the lid is sealed, rings are removed and can be used to process another batch of jars. This means that you don’t need as many rings as you have jars. Rings can be reused indefinitely, but they do tend to rust over time.
The jars from Weck are in a category of their own. Both the jars and lids are made from glass, and thus reusable. The sealing ring is rubber and also reusable. The sealing process with a Weck jar requires a couple of metal clips that hold the rubber ring and glass lid in place during processing.
Weck is a European company and while the jars are available on their website, you won’t find them readily available in the USA.
Canning equipment for filling jars
With an understanding of canning jars and how they work, let’s talk about filling those jars. Many recipes use a “hot process,” meaning that the recipe is heated to boiling and then transferred to to jars. Trying to pour hot salsa or jelly into a jar without spilling it all is not fun. A canning funnel eliminates this problem. Made to fit both wide and regular mouth jars, a canning funnel makes it easy to transfer hot ingredients to jars.
A kitchen ladle can work for canning as well, but some canners (including myself) prefer a larger-capacity option. Canning ladles generally have longer handles, too, so you won’t accidentally lose your ladle in a big batch of applesauce!
Once your jars are filled and sealed, you’ll need to transfer them to the hot canner. You’ll need a jar lifter. This rubberized lifter allows you to hold jars securely as you lift them into and out of the canner.
What kind of canner you use depends on what you’re processing. Fruit, pickles, and other high-acid foods can be processed in a water bath canner or a steam canner. Low acid foods like vegetables and meat must be processed in a pressure canner.
Water bath canner
As you might imagine, a water bath canner is one that is filled with water. Filled and sealed jars are submerged in water and processed in boiling water. These canners come with a wire rack that holds the jars in place and prevents them from sitting directly on the bottom of the canner.
A deep stock pot is something most kitchens are already equipped with and can stand in for a water bath canner in a pinch. You just need to be certain that the jars are completely surrounded and covered by one-to-two inches of water. Use a wire cooling rack on the bottom or — in a pinch — tie several canning bands together and use them as a rack.
A steam canner can be used much like a water bath canner. Recently approved for home canning, steam canners use substantially less water than a water bath canner and heat up much more quickly. These canners have a shallow base that is filled with water. Jars sit on a rack above the water and a deep lid sits in place above them, retaining the hot steam. Check these guidelines for safe canning in a steam canner.
A pressure canner is large, deep pot with a lock-on lid and a pressure gauge. Like water bath canning, this method requires heating jars in water. It’s the only safe way to can vegetables, meats, and other low-acid foods. Pressure canning essentially creates superheated water, with temperatures reaching substantially higher than the 212 degrees Fahrenheit achieved by simply boiling water. See these 15 tips for ensuring success with your pressure canner.
My favorite home canning recipes
- Easy Canning Recipes for the Novice Home Canner
- Pineapple Jalapeno Jam Recipe
- Mango Chutney: Add Tropical Flavor to Your Next Meal
- Caramelized Onion Jam with Balsamic Vinegar
- Zucchini Relish
- Homemade Applesauce (sugar free)
- Tangerine Marmalade with Vanilla and Ginger
- Green Tomato Chow Chow
- Tomato Chutney
- Salsa Recipe for Canning
- Liliko‘i (Passion Fruit) Jelly
- Watermelon Rind Relish
- A Day of Food Preservation (Just for Fun)