Home-canned food is better than commercially canned food and often cheaper. Follow this series as we explain the home canning process.
I love canning food!
I love going to my canning pantry and gazing at all the beautiful jars of food all ready to feed my family. It’s great to have a variety of stuff in the pantry for those last-minute meals.
And I love that I know exactly what has gone into every jar on the shelves. You can read about all the reasons I can here.
If I’m not growing it myself, I load up on stuff at the peak of the season from my farmers’ market.
For things like tomato based products, corn, & green beans I do large batch canning. So, I’ll do 40 pounds of tomatoes at a time or 2 bushels of corn.
That sometimes makes for a long day, but, OH the joy that comes from hearing that sweet “pop” as the lids seal!
And the satisfaction you get as you place the jars in your pantry, and then later when you feed your family, is indescribable!
This article is a brief rundown on the basics of home canning food and how to store canned goods.
There are links at the bottom that will take you to detailed articles for both waterbath and pressure canning. Those more in depth articles will take you step-by-step through that particular method of canning and offer troubleshooting tips.
You can use these links to jump to different sections of this article:
- Canning Guidelines
- Things You Can’t Can
- Large Batch Canning vs. Small Batch Canning
- Checking Seals
- Storing Home Canned Goodies
- Other Canning Equipment
OK, you know what they say, “Safety first!”, so let’s talk a little about that.
Canning Food Safely
When you are canning food at home you need to make sure that everything is clean. You don’t need to go crazy with scary industrial sanitizers or anything, just clean.
Your jars just need to be clean and hot (even for cold pack, which we will cover later). You need to be familiar with the instructions for which ever type of lids you are using, before you start the process.
Read the instruction manual for your pressure canner a few times to become familiar with the process. There are different kinds of pressure canners and you need to know how to use the one you have.
If you picked it up somewhere and it doesn’t have a book, go to the manufacturer’s website and download one.
NEVER reuse a one time use lid! I have seen online where people have said that’s OK to do, but it isn’t.
The seal integrity would be compromised. It just isn’t safe and the risk of making someone sick just isn’t worth saving a few bucks on new lids. Clostridium botulinum is not something you want to play around with. Botulism toxin is a very real thing and can be deadly.
So even if you don’t like rules, please follow them when you are canning. As long as you follow the rules everything will turn out just fine.
There are lots of people who will say, “My granny did it this way her whole life and no one ever got sick so I’m gonna do it like that, too.”
I totally get that! So did my grandma. And my mom. I grew up making jam and jelly and pickle relish using the open kettle method.
You can read about open kettle canning and why to not do it here. Heck, we used to just melt paraffin wax to put on the top of the jelly jars. But no more!
Here’s an article I wrote in the Most Common Canning Mistakes that home canners make. Give it a quick read!
Over the years safety guidelines for canning food have changed as more research has been done. I’m not sure exactly what has changed to cause things to be unsafe now that used to be done all the time.
Maybe it’s just better to err on the side of caution. Or maybe all the hybridization of fruits and veggies has caused them to be less acidic.
Maybe it’s because the soil is depleted of nutrients in so many areas. Or it’s because most of us have compromised immune systems and are more susceptible to disease.
Maybe all of that. Or none of that. I really wish I knew. Because “enquiring minds want to know”.
What I do know is that I check my old canning recipes to see if anything has changed. Even ones I’ve made for a long time.
And I always check recipes I find online on blogs or recipe sites. ALWAYS.
There are many extension websites that provide safe canning recipes and there is also the USDA’s National Center for Home Food Preservation. I actually have this site bookmarked on my computer. All of these places will have the most up-to-date information for canning food at home.
No Can Do’s
And just know that there are some things that you simply CANNOT safely can at home. Period. No matter what someone online may have to say about it.
Things like butter, milk, cheese, pumpkin puree, and cream of something soup are some of the things that are definitely out.
But really, the things you can’t can are absolutely eclipsed by the things you can can.
Can Can Do’s
And focusing on what you can can is a lot more fun anyway. And it’s not just tomatoes and green beans either, you know.
I have an incredibly diverse canning pantry. Fruits, veggies, broths, and meats are kinda the staples.
But I also have things like sloppy joe sauce, ketchup, chili, pork ‘n’ beans, enchilada sauce, black beans and pinto beans, pickled asparagus, and brandied plums to name a few of the non-staple type things.
You just might be surprised at the huge variety of things you can add to your pantry this way.
Large-batch Canning vs. Small-batch Canning
This seems to be a good place to talk about large-batch canning vs. small-batch canning. Remember when I talked about processing 40 pounds of tomatoes or 2 bushels of corn?
Obviously that’s large-batch canning. It involves multiple canner loads and sometimes multiple canners to speed things up a little.
Small batch, on the other hand, would be just one canner load, or maybe not even a full load. So, when would you want to do one over the other?
My family loves Mexican and Italian food. We go through a lot of tomato based products in a year.
I can about 300 pounds of tomatoes in the summer. So those I do in large batches. Crazy, right?
But when you open up one of those jars in the dead of winter when all you can find at the store are those tasteless, styrofoam balls they call tomatoes…it doesn’t seem nearly as crazy then.
If you are canning from your home garden, sometimes you only have enough green beans for 3 pints. I go ahead and process those 3 jars.
And sometimes I process things for someone in the family that only one or two people eat. Like the pickled asparagus.
Or something that we don’t use a lot of, like cocktail sauce.
Canning food in large batches and small batches both have a place in the canning kitchen.
Oh, and if I’m trying a new recipe, I’ll scale it way down to maybe just one or two jars. If we like it, I can always make more.
And if we don’t I haven’t wasted a lot of time and money on something that will just sit on the shelf because no one really wants to eat it. Cuz that’s just sad.
I guess I should also point out here that you shouldn’t be canning food your family doesn’t normally eat. But you already knew that, didn’t you?
Once you have your bounty processed, what then, you may be thinking. I’m so glad you asked!
Checking the Seals
After you process the jars, let them sit for a minimum of 12 hours and a maximum of 24 hours without moving them. After that time, remove the rings and check the seals.
To check the seals for metal lids, see if the lids are concave. The metal lids will be pulled down by the vacuum and you should not be able to press the center in.
If you can press the lids down the jars are not sealed. Even if it stays down when you press it.
After I canned some spiced plums I waited 18 hours and checked the lids. In this picture, the jar on the left has a concave lid that is sealed.
The jar on the right has a convex lid and is not sealed. So we had them for dessert.
With the Tattler lids you need to remove the rings and carefully pick up the jars by the edges of the lid. If the lid stays on that means it’s sealed.
Anything that has not sealed should be refrigerated and eaten within a week or so.
The jars that are sealed need to be washed before you put them in storage just in case there is any food residue on the outside of the jar.
Storing Home Canned Goodies
The best place to store your home canned goodies is where ever you have room.
Just kidding. Sort of.
It’s best if the jars don’t freeze or get too hot. So nowhere that’s over 95°F. They should be kept in a dry place so mold doesn’t grow on the jars. And in the dark because light will change the color of the food and cause it to degrade faster.
Light and heat are really the two biggest things to stay away from.
If you have a dry root cellar, that is the perfect place. Basements are great too, as long as there isn’t too much light.
Sadly, most people don’t have cellars and basements any more, so you might have to get creative.
I’ve put stuff in closets and under beds when the main pantry was full.
Just have a system in place to remind you where you stashed stuff. Because after you’ve gone to the trouble of canning food, you sure don’t want things to go bad or get lost!
Rings, or No Rings, That is the Question
And it’s one I get asked a lot. Do you take the rings off or leave them on the jars?
I have checked all the pertinent websites of The Canning People Who Must Be Obeyed.
And the answer is: Do what ever works for you.
If you don’t have very many rings then you should store your jars ringless so you can reuse the rings.
After you wash them, of course.
If you have plenty of rings like I do, you can absolutely store your jars with the rings on them.
I have no idea where I would put a thousand or so rings if I left them off of the jars.
Just make sure that the jars and the rings are completely dry before you put the rings back on and move them to storage.
Wet rings will rust and make it harder to get the jars open.
One last thing about storage. People ask all the time about stacking the jars.
If you can get by without stacking the jars, that is the best way to do it.
But if not, the rule of thumb is no more than 2 high unless they are back in their boxes or have something in between the layers.
So if you don’t have a lot of shelf space for storage, make sure you keep those boxes!
I would say to keep the boxes anyway because that is the best way to store the jars after you have emptied them.
OK! Let’s talk canners.
There are two different methods for use in home canning food.
Boiling water bath canning and pressure canning.
I’ll give you a very basic overview now and go into detail in the waterbath canning and pressure canning articles.
Waterbath canning uses a big pot of boiling water. The jars are sealed and submerged in boiling water for a specific length of time. The contents of the jars never reach a higher temperature than the boiling point of water.
You can actually use any pot that is deep enough to have at least one inch of water over the top of the jars without it boiling out all over the stove.
You have to make sure that the jars don’t touch the bottom of the pot. That is easily accomplished by putting a cooling rack or even a dish towel in the bottom before adding the water.
Waterbath canners that have the raised rings in the bottom are not recommended for the newer glass top stoves. The canner doesn’t make enough contact with the heating surface to get a good boil going.
When I tried using one last year, my water never even came to a boil at all. Very frustrating!
In fact, if you have a glass top stove be sure to check your manual to see if either method of canning is recommended. I have heard that sometimes the top cracks under the weight of a full canner.
Use a waterbath canner for jams, jellies, pie fillings, pickles & relishes with added vinegar or lemon juice, and other high acid foods like fruit.
YOU ABSOLUTELY CANNOT CAN MEAT IN A WATERBATH CANNER.
Sorry to shout, but that’s another one of those things that I see online a lot. Anything with meat, even just little pieces, or just broth, needs to be pressure canned.
Pressure canning uses a large pot with a lid that seals and locks. This canner only requires a little bit of water and builds up pressure using steam. The build up of pressure allows the contents of the jars to reach high temperatures that are far above the boiling point of water.
Pressure canners come in both dial gauge and weighted gauge types which I explore in detail in the pressure canning article.
You can pressure can anything that you can process in a waterbath canner, although some things do better texture-wise in a waterbath.
You must use a pressure canner for meats, poultry, fish and seafood, most vegetables, and any other low acid foods.
Now let’s talk a little bit about some of the other items you’ll need.
Other Canning Equipment
The jars that you use for any canning project must be made for canning. These are called Mason jars, after John Mason, the gentleman who first invented them.
If not, they have a distressing tenancy to explode in the canners. And sometimes on the counter while they are cooling.
Canning jars come in several sizes from 4 ounce jars all the way up to quart jars and even half gallon jars. The half gallons are recommended for ONLY canning apple juice and grape juice in a waterbath canner.
There are several brands of Mason jars available at the local big box stores that are relatively inexpensive. Those would be Ball, Kerr, and Golden Harvest.
There are other brands of mason jars available for purchase online from Canada, France, Italy, and Germany. Some of these are really pretty jars, but they are a little pricey.
Lids and rings
These can either be flat metal lids that are one time use, or the Tattler reusable lids that have a flat food safe plastic lid and rubber gasket.
Both of these lids require the use of the metal rings (also called screw bands) during processing.
Most canning funnels are made to fit both the regular mouth (2 1/2″) and the wide mouth (3″) jars.
They not only help get the food in the jars, but they keep the rims from getting a lot a stuff spilled on them that you have to clean off before putting the lids on.
Bubble remover or thin knife or spatula
Unless you are canning something that is all liquid like broth, you will need to slide something down the sides of the jars to get the air bubbles out. Plastic and wood are recommended, as metal can be a little harder on the jars.
Lid Lifter (optional)
A lid lifter is a handy-dandy little wand with a magnet on the end. This allows you to pick up the lids and rings out of the hot water with a minimum of fuss.
For decades I did not know these amazing things existed and used a pair of tongs instead. Lets just say my lid lifter would be something I would grab if my house was on fire…
It is essential that your process times are accurate and as specified. I have several timers that I use when I’m doing more than one batch at a time.
Jar Lifter (optional)
This is specially designed for removing the jars from the canners after processing. The jars will still be very hot and often the contents are still boiling.
While you can use other methods, jar lifters are safe and easy.
After you remove the jars from the canners, place them on a couple of layers of towels. This keeps the jars from possibly cracking or breaking from contact with a cold surface.
You always need to label your jars. Labels should include the contents, the date, and also a batch number if you are doing more than one batch in a day.
That way if, say, you left something out of the recipe, you don’t have to guess which jars are from the same batch.
I don’t use the stick on labels anymore because I hate trying to get the goo off the jars.
So, now I use a sharpie marker and write everything on the lid. That way I know I already used the lid and I don’t try to use it again.
Now, you may be thinking, I can tell the difference between corn and beans, I don’t need to label my stuff. And some things are very easy to tell what they are.
But if you have 5 different tomato products, those can be a little more tricky. So it’s best just to get into the habit from the start. 🙂
Depending on what you are processing, you will also need assorted knives, cutting boards, colanders, sieves or food mills, bowls, pots, spoons, measuring cups and spoons, and possibly a blender or food processor as well as a clean rag to wipe the rims of the jars before placing the lids.
It is possible to get several of the items listed above in sets or kits. I have seen several different ones that contain different things, and you can usually save a little money when you get the kit. And who doesn’t want to save some money?
All right, all the equipment we’ve talked about so far has applied to both waterbath canning and pressure canning.
Click the links below to get down to some specific details and processes about the two methods.
Then, when you’re ready, click the recipes link to take you to all the canning recipes I have here on the blog.
I add new recipes all the time, so check it out periodically.
And remember, keep calm and process on!
Using a Waterbath Canner
Using a Pressure Canner