Canning your own food can be daunting when you’re first starting out. Preserving expert Sherri Brooks Vinton has some reassuring advice.
If you were to ask me the hardest thing about preserving your own food, I would have to say it’s simply getting started. For many home cooks, taking their first turn at preservation can be intimidating. But preserving your own food doesn’t have to be difficult or frustrating.
The boiling-water method is the most popular method for home food preservation. If you can boil water, you can do this process. It’s that simple. The only, very important, cannot-stress-it-enough thing to know about the boiling-water method is that it is only to be used for acidic recipes. That includes a lot — all of your jams, jellies, chutneys, relishes, salsas, whole tomatoes, whole fruits, and pickles can be canned with this method. But it is not appropriate for vegetables without added acid (such as green beans in water, corn in water, and so forth) or meat, fish, or recipes that contain animal protein or tofu. (For example, you will find boiling-water method recipes for tomato sauce, but you cannot use the boiling-water method for tomato sauce with meat.)
The questions and answers below are all related to this perfect-for-beginners method.
Q: Is canning dangerous?
A: Canning is as dangerous as any other type of cooking. Careful, clean preparation and trusted processes are essential to a good outcome. But if you can boil water and follow some very basic kitchen–common sense rules, there’s nothing to fear. Here are the golden rules. Always:
- Follow your recipe.
- Use the appropriate processing time.
- Keep your work space neat and tidy.
There you have it!
Q: I’ve never canned before. What’s a good recipe to start with?
A: Welcome to your new obsession! I’ve met so many eaters who held off on canning for years and the minute they jumped in became instantly hooked. Why not? It’s pretty easy and very delicious.
For recipes, I would start with pickles. Pickles are easy and inexpensive to make, and there are so many varieties that you can make some kind of pickle almost anytime of year. All you need to remember to get a good pickle is to follow your recipe — use the type and amount of vinegar and produce indicated and they will taste great. Then you just dunk them down into the canner and process using the boiling-water method for the amount of time indicated in the recipe.
Many eaters start with jams and jellies. I don’t recommend it. Not that they are terribly difficult — these sweet spreads use the same boiling-water method that all acidic recipes do. But it can take a little practice to get the right gel. So you might save them for your second or third time at the canner.
Q: What kind of equipment do I need for home canning?
A: Here are the items you need to have on hand or on your list for the boiling-water method of canning, which I recommend for beginners (pressure canning can come later).
- Boiling-water-method canner (substitute: stockpot, lobster pot, or pasta pot)
- Canning jars and lids
- Canning tongs
Nice to have
- Kitchen scale
- Food mill or immersion blender for puréeing
- Parchment paper
- Plastic gloves for working with items such as chiles or beets
- Cherry pitter
- Canning rack (substitute: cake cooling rack, grill rack, or layer of canning jar rings)
- Bubble tool (substitute: plastic knife, chopstick, or wooden skewer)
- Canning funnel (substitute: small ladle or regular funnel with spout end cut off)
- Lid lifter (magnetic) (substitute: soft-tipped tongs or your heatproof fingers)
Smart to have
- Tea towels
- Paper towels
- Oven mitts
- Bowls of varying sizes
- Sharp knife
- Cutting boards
- Baking sheets for carrying jars
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Indelible markers for labeling jars
- Extra lids and rings
Q: Don’t I need a big kitchen to can?
A: Everyone wants a giant kitchen these days, and why not? They are the center of the home, full of warmth, and a great place to hang out. For all of those reasons, a big kitchen can be a joy. But you don’t need a big space to can. I have friends who manage to do just fine in the tiniest of city kitchens. Two burners and about a tea towel’s worth of space is all it takes to get your can on.
The two burners will allow you to preheat your canner at the same time that you prepare your recipe for canning. You can have a cooktop larger than that, but two is the minimum number of burners you will need.
The tea towel’s worth of space is where you will lay out all of your equipment and fill and lid your jars — think of it as a filling station. Ideally it is next to your stove, but if not, you can make do. Just lay out the towel to create a filling station nearby — on the counter opposite your stove or on a nearby table or island. You can also set up a temporary space to fill and lid your jars, such as a folding table or rolling cart. It’s not as convenient, but if necessary, you can even set up your filling station outside or in another room.
If the filling station is far from your stove, you might want to put down a hot pad next to it so that you have a place to set your freshly cooked jam, salsa, brine, or whatever it is you may be ladling into your jars. You may also want to set your jars on a sturdy baking sheet as you fill them so that you can easily transport the filled jars back to the heating canner. No matter where you set up your filling station or rest your filled jars, make sure it is on a stable surface — you don’t want a pot of hot jam or piping-hot jars teetering on wobbly legs.
If you have another area in the kitchen, also about a tea towel big, where your jars can cool as you remove them from the canner, that’s convenient. If not, line a baking sheet with another towel and use it to transport your processed jars to cool elsewhere.
Q: What is the difference between the hot-pack and cold-pack methods?
A: The difference between hot and cold packing is simply a matter of whether the food is cooked or raw before it is loaded into your canning jars.
Salsas, jellies, jams, and chutneys are all cooked and, therefore, are hot-pack recipes. When preparing hot-pack recipes, it’s important to move directly from the cooking process to the canning process, as the processing times for these recipes assume that the food will be piping hot when it is loaded into the jars. (The 5-minute rest that jams and jellies are sometimes given to set their gel will not cool them enough to impact your results.) Because the food is ladled into the jars cooked and hot, hot-pack recipes generally have shorter processing times.
Cold-pack foods are generally those that you want to organize in the jar nicely — such as asparagus or carrot spears — or those, such as apricots or tomatoes, that would fall apart into a sauce if cooked before being packed. Cold-pack recipes often call for the food to be covered with a hot brine or syrup. Careful attention to processing time ensures that the raw food will be heated through to the core of the jar during the canning process. These processing times can seem excessive, but are necessary to ensure that the food is completely cooked through. Never skimp on processing time or else cold-pack foods can remain raw and subject to rot during storage.
Q: How tightly should I pack my raw vegetables into the jars for cold pack?
A: You want to pack your jars so that they are full enough to keep the food from bobbing around but the produce isn’t so tightly crammed in the jar that the brine or syrup cannot circulate. For firm vegetables, such as carrots and asparagus, the jar should be filled tightly enough that you could turn it upside down after packing (but before adding spices or ladling in brine) and not have the items fall out of the jar. Soft fruits should be gently compressed to fill air pockets as much as possible, without crushing or mashing. Be careful not to overfill cold-pack jars. It’s not uncommon for the food to swell a bit under the heat of processing. Overfilled jars can push up against the lid of the jar and prevent a good seal.
Q: It’s getting hot in here. How can we beat the heat?
A: Even with a powerful AC unit going full throttle, canning can really make your kitchen cook. After all, you are bound to have at least one large cauldron of water on the boil and another pot simmering away. It can lead to some steamy moments. Here are a few ideas for beating the heat:
Can at night. I have had some of my best, most enjoyable canning sessions at night. The kids are tucked in, the house is quiet, and the air is cooler. Pop open a cold one, turn up the tunes, and get your can on.
Can outside. It’s not great for pressure canning, because the heat has to be so steady to maintain pressure. But it’s terrific for the boiling-water method. I have a two-burner camp stove just for the purpose. I set it out on my patio and then hose down the “kitchen” when I’m done.
Freeze your food. While not the best idea for pickles, you can freeze fruits such as berries and turn them into jam in the winter. The canning/snow day is a delight!
Give in to it. It’s hot out. The canner is boiling. Add to that the effort of chopping, dicing, and stirring, and it can be a bit warm. Rather than fight the heat, give in to it. Wear your coolest clothes (or littlest clothes, you canning minx!), pull your hair back, and enjoy the sauna. (And think of how great all the humidity is for your complexion.)