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Home canning is a great way to preserve your own food. If you’ve never used a canner before, this beginner’s guide to learning how to can different foods will get you started on the right path.
What is Home Canning? Why Do People Can Food?
Canning is a method of food preservation. If you’ve ever grown vegetables in your garden and had a plentiful harvest, you may find yourself with more than you can eat! Canning fruits, vegetables, and other recipes allows you to preserve these foods for a longer time so they do not go to waste.
The process of canning is relatively simple. There are many different methods for canning, but the most basic concept is that you place items in a jar, and then you heat it up to a certain temperature. This process of heating the jars creates an air tight seal. Without air, the foods are able to stay edible for a much longer time.
There are two main types of canning: canning with a water bath canner and canning with a home pressure canner. Each one has different uses, and we’ll explain more about these differences later in this post.
Home canning dates back all the way to the late 1700’s. There was a great demand for being able to lengthen the shelf life of foods. The process of canning we use today in our own homes comes from the techniques developed by French cook Nicolas Appert.
Known as the “father of canning”, he developed a method of packing the food into jars, sealing them, and then boiling the jars. He was very successful with this process. Before long it became widespread as a way to preserve food.
How Canning Works
The basics of canning are quite simple. You start with clean jars, and place the foods you wish to preserve inside. You seal the jars using lids, and then you apply heat to the jar using either a water bath canner or a pressure cooker.
When the foods are canned, it provides an air tight seal to prevent air from coming in contact with the food. The heating process also successfully kills any bacteria that may be present which could cause food to spoil.
Different types of foods require different canning processes. What may work for fruits, jams and jellies may not always work for vegetables or meats. There’s a bit of science involved, because it relates to whether or not the foods are acidic and what temperature is necessary to preserve the food.
Acidic foods such as fruits or pickled items are naturally not a good home for bacteria, and so you do not absolutely need extreme temperatures necessary to preserve the food safely.
For these items, many people use what is called a water bath canner, as it boils the water to the right temperature of 212 degrees F. This is a very good way for canning beginners to get started!
However, when you are canning foods such as vegetables or meats, these are more inviting to bacteria. In this case, it is necessary to get the temperatures much hotter. For vegetables and meats, a pressure canner is necessary to be able to safely can these items.
The Two Types of Canners and How to Know Which One to Use
There are basically two types of canners used in making your own home preserves. The first type is a water bath canner. The second type is a pressure canner. Many people use both. The important thing is to know which one is used for what!
Water Bath Canner: Canning With Boiling Water
Water bath canners are sometimes also called boiling water canners, because it works by boiling water. They are relatively inexpensive and a great way to get started with canning.
A water bath canner can only be used for foods which are acidic in nature. In most cases, this is any type of fruit that is sweetened with sugar. Most jams, jellies and fruit based sauces will fall into this category.
Other foods that are acidic are salsas and pickled items, since vinegar is a key ingredient and vinegar is quite acidic. Many boiling water canner recipes will call for the addiction of citric acid or lemon juice to ensure the proper amount of acidity. Do not skip these ingredients if a recipe calls for these things!
Important! There are some things you should NEVER can in a water bath canner. These items would be most vegetables, unless pickled in vinegar first, and anything that contains dairy or meat. So for example, if you are making a meat based tomato sauce, that would need to be canned in a pressure canner. If you were canning a cream sauce or soup, this would also need to be preserved in a pressure canner.
Pressure Canner for Vegetables and Meats
A pressure canner is what you will need if you plan on canning any types of vegetables, meats, dairy and other foods which are not naturally acidic. This is required because the pressure canner is able to achieve higher temperatures than a water bath canner.
A water bath canner can only achieve temperatures up to 212 degrees, which is the temperature of boiling water. However, many types of foods require a temperature of 240 degrees F.
If a recipe requires you use a pressure canner, it is for a very important reason! The high temperature of 240 degrees will kill any potential bacteria that could cause the food to spoil.
Which Canner Should I Get?
The best type of canner to get depends on what types of foods you grow and wish to preserve. If you know you will only be making highly acidic foods that do not contain meat, a water bath canner is probably sufficient.
However, many people choose to use a pressure canner simply because it works for everything. You can use it to preserve everything that you would make with a water bath canner and more. Soups, sauces, vegetables – you name it!
Here are two popular canners that are great for beginners:
This water bath canner is an excellent choice for beginners, best for jams, jellies, pickles and other acidic foods. This set also includes all of the necessary tools and accessories to start canning right away.
This 23 qt pressure canner by Presto is a popular option and can also be ordered as a set which includes all the necessary accessories so you can start canning easily.
With a pressure canner, you are able to can everything – including vegetables, soups and meats in addition to your favorite jams and fruits.
Many people choose to start out with a water bath canner because it is less expensive to get started. Once they start canning regularly then they decide to invest in the pressure canner, especially as they begin to explore new recipes.
For many of us, having both is ideal. This way you can increase your productivity and can multiple items at once. Of course, if you start with a pressure canner, that gives you even more options on what types of foods to can!
Canning Supplies: What Do You Actually Need?
There are a lot of different tools and supplies available to start canning with. In addition to a canner, it is helpful to have a few tools, such as a jar lifter and hot pads handy.
The two canners we showed above have everything you need to get started included in the box, so that’s a nice feature about buying everything in a set. You can also often buy sets that include all the accessories separately, such as the Norpro Canning Essentials Set.
Here are the tools you will most definitely want for canning at home:
Tempered Canning Jars & Lids:
You must use jars specifically designed for canning. Do not be tempted to reuse jars from other foods!
One or two sets will likely last you a very long time, so it’s worth the investment – you’ll usually only need to buy them again when giving your homemade preserves as gifts! Jars come in many different sizes, depending on what you are canning and how much you have to can.
I personally like to stick with smaller half pint size jars for things like jelly, jams and salsas. For soups or sauces you may wish to use larger jars. Jars range in a number of sizes, from quarts to half gallon jars.
The important thing is to make sure you choose jars which are specifically labeled to be used for home canning. Otherwise, you risk the jar will break from the heat. Not all jars are canning safe! Jars should be sterilized and lids be boiled and kept hot prior to processing.
See our full Guide on Canning Jars Here to help you decide which ones are the best to start out with for your needs. You may even find something new if you are an experienced home canner!
You can buy canning utensil kits online pretty inexpensively and you’ll get all the utensils you need, such as jar lifter, funnel, lid wrench, thermometer, etc.
You could buy all of the things separately, but usually a kit is a good bet to start with and a better value, and you can get other things if needed as time goes on.
If you do not already have a canner, you could also purchase either the Graniteware Water Bath Canner set that has all of the accessories or the Presto Pressure Canner set which includes the necessary accessories.
Clean Towels and Oven Mitts:
You probably already have clean dish towels and oven mitts at home. It is a very good idea to have these on hand while you are canning.
Canning uses very hot temperatures, so it’s good to have the oven mitts if you need them for some reason. Towels are great for placing your materials on so they stay sterile.
There are other useful gadgets that can come in handy, such as racks for cooling the hot cans on. However, you can do just fine with a good set of potholders as well.
Once you have all of your supplies gathered, you are ready to start canning!
How to Start Canning for Beginners Step by Step
These directions will explain the step by step process of canning. Depending on what type of equipment you are using, some of the directions may be different. If in doubt, always use the directions provided by the manufacturer of your canning equipment.
Also, be sure you take into consideration your altitude when following a recipe. In certain high altitude areas, the times and temperatures will be different.
Step 1: Choose Your Recipe
When you first start canning, it is VERY important to use a tested recipe and to follow the directions exactly. These are recipes which have been proven to work well and are not likely to spoil.
While many people experiment with different home canning recipes, there is a bit of science involved. For example, if you do not add citric acid or sugar to your recipe for strawberry jam, you risk it not being acidic enough. This could cause it to spoil, and no one wants food poisoning!
You can find many tested recipes here on our website to start with. Most of these recipes have been adapted from popular recipes that date all the way back to the early 1900’s. Our Canning Applesauce recipe is a great one to try as a beginner!
You can also get a good cookbook full of canning recipes that have been tested to work. The All New Ball Book of Canning is a great one to start out with, as it has many different types of recipes to try.
While it is fun to experiment as you gain more knowledge and experience, it’s a very good idea to start with something you know will work! After you get the basics down, then we strongly encourage you to start experimenting as long as your recipe can meet canning safety requirements.
Another Important Tip: Use Fresh Foods! You will want to make sure that when you are selecting the foods for your canning recipe that you use the freshest fruits and vegetables available. You will have the best possible outcome by using fresh ingredients.
Most canning recipes will require that you first cook or prepare the items you are canning. For example, if you are canning applesauce, you need to first peel and core the apples and cook them down into applesauce. Even if you are canning something like green beans with a pressure canner, you still need to cook them prior to canning!
It is also important to know the USDA recommends “Hot Packing” which means food should still be hot when placed in the jars for canning. The hotter the foods are when packing the jars, the better. This is the safest way to ensure your preserves will not spoil.
Make sure you have completed steps 2 and 3 below around the same time so that your recipe is cooked and ready to be canned. This will ensure the food and jars will all be hot.
Step 2: Wash and Sterilize Your Jars
It is important to wash and sterilize your jars and the lids first before you start canning. This ensures no accidental contamination.
After washing your jars with hot soapy water, you will want to sterilize them first to ensure they are hot and ready for food. This can be done easily by placing them in your canner or a stock pot on top of a rack.
Fill the pot with cold water so that the jars are immersed and filled with cold water. Cover with a lid and allow it to come to a boil.
You will also want to sterilize the lids and seals. This is easiest done in a smaller saucepan on a separate burner on the stove. Simply cover with water and allow the water to come to a boil.
Step 3: Prepare Your Recipe
You will likely want to start cooking your recipe while the jars are warming up and being sterilized. Follow the recipe according to the directions. You will want to keep the food hot if the jars are not fully sterilized and warmed up yet.
Once the food is prepared and the jars and lids are sterilized, you are ready for the next step, which is to fill the jars.
Step 4: Fill The Jars
This step will get a lot easier with more practice as you develop your own system for moving around the hot jars and foods. It’s not difficult, but some have really fine-tuned their process to make it very easy!
Place the jars on a hot pad or towel to protect the surface you are working on. Fill each jar according to the recommended height depending on what you are canning.
How High to Fill Each Jar?
Fill the jar to about 1/4 inch from the top if you are making jams or spreads. If you are canning tomatoes or fruits, you will want to leave about 1/2 an inch. You need to leave the most room for vegetables and low acid foods – these require about 1 to 1 1 /4 inch of space at the top.
Be sure using a spatula to get rid of any air bubbles which could cause problems with sealing. Many canning kits also provide a tool that can be used for this step.
Once the jars are filled, you are ready to place on the lids. Most canning jars come with a seal and a ring that that you twist on around over top the seal. Some jars may be different however. Check the package of the jars you are using to make sure you put the lids on properly.
Step 5: Processing
This step will vary depending on whether or not you are using a water bath boiling water canner or a pressure canner.
If using a pressure canner, be sure that you follow all of the directions which come with it. Pressure canner instructions can vary a little depending on the brand and the model. Be sure to follow all of the manufacturer’s recommendations.
For a water bath canner, you will need to make sure the jars are covered with about 1″ of water on top of them. This helps the lids to seal properly.
The length for how long to process the cans will depend on what you are making. Follow the recipe directions for how long to process.
Keep in mind that your altitude can affect temperatures and processing times for the canner, so don’t forget to check with that as well. Most of our recipes here on our website include directions for different altitudes.
Step 6: Allow the Jars to Cool
After processing is finished, allow your preserves to cool at room temperature slowly for 24 hours before storing them. Store your jars in a cool, dark place once cooled.
Note: Do not try to force cool your pressure canner or your preserves, as this can cause spoilage or risks the jars breaking.
Also, do not be tempted to re-tighten the jar lids, as this could cause the seal to break. You can test the seal by looking to make sure it is indented in and does not spring when you touch it.
And after all of that, you’re all set! You’re ready to enjoy the fresh preserves year round!
Canning is Fun and a Great Way to Enjoy Your Garden Harvest!
One of the big reasons I became interested in canning was to be able to use foods from our garden as well as to preserve the many different fresh foods we get from various farmer’s markets each summer.
Learning how to can is a useful way to enjoy your garden even more. Preserves also make for an excellent gift to give to family members and friends.
Now that you know how to can, you are ready to get started!
Do you have any questions about the canning process? Need help understanding the different types of canning equipment? Looking for additional tips on how to can tomatoes, vegetables, or fruits?
I am always happy to answer any questions you might have! Share your questions about canning preserves and other foods in the comments section below!