Canning with Friends (Canning Basics)

>> Sunday, August 26, 2012

Whenever I can some produce, I remember my mom and grandmother putting up bushels of tomatoes, gallons of applesauce, jars of jewel-like preserves and just-picked veggies. I remember the sweetness of fruits melting into jam and my mother's purple hands after pressing Concord grapes through her screw press and then putting up the juice in jars. There's a satisfying feeling of self-sufficiency, too, in storing your own food supply, like in the pioneer days when most of the summer was spent in preserving food for the winter.

When my mom brought me a bushel of organic Jonathan apples from her farm, I knew I was going to need some girlfriend help to can them. And some wine, of course. They brought cucumbers and peppers and caprese pesto salad for lunch. We giggled and goofed and produced six quarts of applesauce, eight pints of hot kosher pickles, three pints of mild koshers, and five quarts of pears in coriander syrup. 

Talea, my organic hippie free spirit friend, danced around me in the kitchen as if we'd been cooking together forever. She also helped me understand why I often drop jars while using my jar lifter. I have been using it upside down for years. I think she was literally rolling on the floor when she noticed this, but I swore her to silence; now I've outed myself. And I'm an expert, guys! I wrote a book and everything!

Jo, the newbie to canning, dove right into our jar-stuffing and apple-spicing after we had a welcome glass of wine. I am pretty certain my grandma didn't drink wine when she was canning, but my grandma also didn't look like the ethereal Jo. Anyway, we were thirsty. Canning is hard work.

I reminded my friends that "organic" meant that we were probably going to find worms and bad spots and oddly shaped produce. They didn't flinch. They also had a surprising amount of fun with oddly shaped produce. What happens on Canning Day stays with Canning Day. I'll just say that it might be dangerous to let Jo stand behind you when you're bent over taking a picture.

Everything is more fun when you do it with friends. Here is the basic canning process. At the end of this post are several recipes for you to try; you can also click on the canning link on the right side to find more canning recipes.

Canning jars are designed to create a seal between the lid and rim by the band of rubber-like material on the lid when the jar is heated to a certain temperature. The jars have three parts, the lid, the band that screws down and holds the lid, and the glass jars. Lids should be thrown away after you have used them once. Bands can be reused until you see any rust on the inside; jars can be reused indefinitely.

Canning works to preserve food by cooking foods to a temperature that kills viruses and bacteria, by making the foods acidic enough to kill viruses and bacteria, or both. It's kind of gross to think of viruses and bacteria on our food, right? In our normal diets these things are either too weak or undeveloped to harm us, but if they are allowed to bloom in a jar for a couple of months they can kill you. That's why we sterilize, follow processing guidelines, and check our food after it is canned.

Things you will need

Depending on what you are canning, you will need some or all of these things. Most of them are probably in your kitchen already.

  1. A jar lifter—a set of tongs specially made for canning jars with rubber-coated handles—for lifting boiling hot jars out of your canner.
  2. Modern canning jars with self-sealing lids and screw-on bands.
  3. A small-bladed plastic or rubber spatula to remove bubbles out of jars before processing. Some instructions recommend a metal knife, but metal can cause certain fruits to turn color.
  4. An accurate kitchen timer, measuring cups, and spoons. Canning recipes are very exact, and proper timing and measuring are crucial to your success.
  5.  Saucepans for warming lids and cooking sauces.
  6. Colanders for draining produce.
  7. Knives and cutting boards for processing fruits and vegetables.
  8. Pitters for removing the stones from cherries, olives, and other fruit with pits.
  9. A food processor, if desired, to chop up ingredients.
  10. A ladle.
  11. Cheesecloth, if the recipe calls for fine straining of foods.
  12. Pot holders or mitts to protect your hands.
  13. A big spoon for stirring.
  14. Towels or racks for cooling your canning jars.
  15. Large, deep pots for boiling water canning, or a pressure cooker for high-pressure canning.

Boiling Water or Pressure Cooking?

Boiling water bath
Boiling water works fine to seal the jars of high-acid foods like tomatoes or apples. It even works for low-acid produce like pears if you increase the acidity by adding lemon juice, or like pickles which makes veggies acidic when you add the vinegar. The nice thing about canning things in boiling water is that they retain a slightly better texture than pressure canned foods.

A pressure canner is a special sealed pot that both seals the jars and heats the contents to at least 212 degrees Fahrenheit, which kills the nasty things that could ruin your food and possibly your day. All foods can be canned this way, but vegetables and meat should always canned this way.

It's possible to cook foods at over 212 degrees for 20 minutes or so, then can them in sterilized jars in a boiling water bath, and I'm sure people have had good results doing that. But I'm going to go with the USDA and Ball canning company's Blue Book guide on this.

Whichever method you choose, there is a processing time for each type of food. A chart of food items, canning methods, and processing times can be found here at the National Center for Home Food Preservation. If you're currently frustrated with government policies or you just generally don't believe what the government says, you can also find it on the Ball canning site (I don't work for them) or my book, The Complete Guide to Food Preservation. If you buy my book, you'll also learn how to make cheese, wine, and jerky!

What you do next

I'm going to talk about boiling water bath canning for produce because that's what Jo, Talea, and I did this week. The first steps are the same, though, for both canning methods.

  1. Wash your produce. Don't be afraid to scrub it good with a sponge or scrub brush. If you're working with berries, a strong rinsing will do it. Drain them or dry them.
  2. Sterilize equipment. Boil jars, rims, bands, and other equipment for 20 minutes at a rolling boil. Remove them with something sterile and then don't touch anything (inside of jars, tongs, spoons) that will then touch the uncanned food.
  3. Remove skins. Foods like apple slices, tomatoes, or peaches will taste better if you skin them. If you can use a paring knife or peeler to remove the skins, do that. If it is something delicate like tomatoes or peaches, boil a large pot of water and then dump in the fruit. Remove it 20 seconds later and plunge it into icewater for 2 minutes. The skins should slip off easily.
  4. Cut up your food and pack it. I swear, the hardest part of canning is getting the food into the jars and getting them packed evenly. If you are following a recipe in which the food is added first and a liquid later, cram it in the sterilized jars as tightly as you can. If you are pouring in food and sauce together, pour it right up to the space the recipe tells you to.
  5. Get out the bubbles. Those little unsterile air bubbles can spoil food, mess with the space around the seal, and cause the food to become discolored. Run a knife around the edges and into the air bubbles to release them upward.
  6. Screw on the lids. Wipe off the rim of the jar and screw it down hand-tight. "Hand-tight" means something different to me than it does to macho man Joe. Screw the bands down until the threads of the jar are fully engaged, but not too tight. The lids need room to seal. After the bath is done and everything is cooled, you can screw them down some more.
  7. Put them in the water bath.  This part is tricky. Glass jars, especially if they are old, can crack or break under temperature changes. Lower each jar very slowly into the water, or heat them in a sink of hot water before lowering them into the water.
  8. Process them in the bath. Once the water reaches a rolling boil again, start timing the jars according to the recipe.
  9. Cool the jars.  Pull them out of the pot with a jar lifter, used in the proper position, and put them on a draining rack or dish towel to cool. It helps if you haven't had too much wine at this point. Like Jo said, boiling water and wine are not a great combination, but talented chefs can make it work.
  10. Test and store. While your jars cool, you'll probably hear a few pops. This is good. The rubbery seal substance and the contraction of the cooling food will pull the seal down into place. When the jars are cool, press the center of each lid. If it bounces, it didn't seal so you should put it in the refrigerator and use it soon. If it is firmly in place, tighten the band and store it in a cool, dark place until you're ready to eat it.

Try these canning recipes:


Hot Dill Pickles

Apricot-Ginger Preserves

The Complete Guide to Food Preservation

You can find other canning and preserving recipes in my book, The Complete Guide to Food Preservation: Step-by-step Instructions on How to Freeze, Dry, Can, and Preserve Food


LB,  August 27, 2012 at 9:03 AM  

The church ladies have some fun on week days. Canning debauchery(sp?) and fun make us glad to be alive.
Great post!

Angela Williams Duea August 28, 2012 at 7:50 PM  

LB, that sounds like so much fun. I'd love to hear some of your stories and recipes!

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