Tuesday, October 27, 2009

How to Get Started: Water Bath Canning at Home

My friend (From high school and college! Thank you, Facebook!) Michelle asked about canning. I'm no expert, but she asked if it's a big deal, and I have to say...no. No, it totally is not a big deal. In a nutshell, it comes down to this: sanitize, fill, boil.

So here's my primer on how I got started, and a few links that I personally find indispensable. There are way more knowledgeable people, all over the place, but if you're really brand new (as I was last season) you might find this helpful.

First, there's some basic equipment I needed to start preserving food at home. At home, you can either water bath preserve or use a pressure canner. A big pot and the jars are the must haves, and most people would add a jar lifter and wide-mouth funnel to that, but I've done quite a bit and never gotten either one, so, there you go.

The big pot needs to be large enough to fit the jars, and hold enough water to completely cover the jars when the water is boiling. I used my stock pot until I bought this one for water bath canning. It's nice because it has this tray inside, which is the main reason I've gotten away without buying a jar lifter. I use my silicon tongs to lift the handles of the tray out of the boiling water, then I use potholders to carefully lift the tray and hook the handles over the side of the pot. This pulls the jars out of the water far enough to be able to lift them out using a pot holder. Everything I've ever read says don't drop and don't jostle the jars during the process. I've been okay, but to be honest, I'll end up with a jar lifter someday, I've no doubt. I'm just kind of lazy, so who knows when I'll get around to buying one?

The jars I use are the Kerrs or the Balls, for canning, with the two-piece lids. My understanding is that once you've water bath canned the jars, you can take the outer ring off the lid and reuse it with other jars in the canning process, leaving just the vacuum-sealed flat part on top of the jars. I've never done that, I leave them all together. It's never come up that I need that ring again before I've used whatever is in the jar and can use the whole set up again. These jars can be a little pricey, but since I'm so lucky, I hold out hope that I will come across a box of them under a table at a rummage sale for a dime a piece. Knock wood. Until that day, I made the investment, because I know I'm going to use them over and over. When the red rubber on the bottom of the flat lids starts to wear away, you can buy replacements without buying the jars.

Second, you have to prepare everything. Of course you have to clean, chop, cook, or otherwise prepare the actual food.

You also need to sterilize the jars (in the dishwasher or set them to boil in the same pot you'll do the water bath in) and the lids/rings, too. I don't usually run the lids through the dishwasher. I've heard of people just putting them in a bowl of hot water. I personally drop them into the water bath for a minute or two, then remove them right as I'm ready to put them on the jars. The jars I boil, now, though in the beginning I ran them through the dishwasher. I also use a ladel or a make-shift 'funnel' (cut the bottom from a yogurt container, that's worked) to get the food into the jars. A wide-mouth funnel is included on most people's "basic starter kit", but I've gotten on without one.

Fill the jars to within a half-inch of the top. (If you're going to freeze the jar ~ and I've done that ~ leave a little more room than that, maybe an inch to inch-and-a-half ~ so it can expand.) In one of those "not-sure-why-I-have-this-in-my-head" moments, I am under the impression that it's not safe to leave too much room. Like, I don't think you're supposed to try to water bath a half-full jar. I have no idea why that's in my head, but I follow that rule.

Finally, you put the jars in the water bath. Again, make sure the jars are all completely submerged. Most recipes will give you a time...20 - 45 minutes, in my experience. Here is what I wish somebody had told me: The 'sealing' of the jars doesn't necessarily happen in the water bath. They mostly come out with the lids 'popping' when you press the tops. After they're removed from the boiling water, as they begin to cool down, the vacuum seal is created. Within just a short time, an hour or two, I've always had a seal...when I push on the top of the lids, there is no movement, no 'clicking' or 'popping' noise, and it's been good. I still usually leave them to cool completely, and put them away the next morning. Also, if anything doesn't seal, you can restart, or (and this is what I would do) pop it into the refrigerator and treat it as fresh food.

Not everything is safe to can at home.
Here's my short list, but always do your research: I've personally canned anything apple related, berry jams, plum jam, and anything tomato related. When it comes to corn and whole tomatoes, I blanch them (drop them into boiling water for a minute) and then freeze them in ziplock bags. When it comes to zucchini and squash, I shred it and freeze it. When it comes to pesto, or anything herb related, I freeze it.

Next summer, I plan to get enough cucumbers to pickle! And when I do, I'll head right over here, to pickyourown.org and I'll give it a go.

I've yet to have a bad experience, but I ALWAYS pour out my home preserves into a bowl separate from what I'm cooking, and as I give it a stir, I check for any suspicious growth and anything that doesn't smell right. If I had any doubts at all (so far, knock wood, it hasn't happened!) I'd just toss it and get a new jar out and try again.

It's funny, when I write it out like this, I have to say...it sounds like work! I guess it kind of is. But it's enjoyable, noble work. I'm not prone to hyperbole, but that might be getting close. :)

Anyway, the great thing is that it actually saves time in the long run. You can eat better, less processed food, with full quality-control on all ingredients, any time you want! Plus, if you want to cook from scratch, it's great to make a large quantity, and then you're just adding on these small steps: sanitize the materials, fill the jars, submerge and boil. That's really what it comes down to! That little bit of extra work is totally worth not having to start all over with the cooking, or dirtying up a bunch of dishes every time you want some homemade applesauce or tomato sauce.



  1. Have fun! Remember, the only "equipment" I bought the first year I canned was the jars themselves. I used whatever I had in the kitchen already, and it worked fine for the tomato sauce and jam I was making. Let me know how it goes! xoxo