The first time I did canning by myself was by accident. I really just wanted to make corn relish and mentioned it to my roommate. The translation: “Hint, hint. Help me make corn relish, k?” Turns out she had plans (selfish, right?), but she found me a recipe, verbally described the process, and imparted a bunch of her canning tips to my panicked ears. Then she left.
I had made jams and pickles before, but always with the oversight of skilled friends. Being left with a bin of corn, a simple recipe, and a bunch of scary new information was intimidating. Still, I analyzed the recipe, got to work, and ended up making a relish that I am still proud to pull out at any barbecue.
Once I took the leap, canning got less scary. I realized how much joy could be had from putting up jars of my own produce, and I proceeded to do so throughout that season. I also went on a mission to learn about safe practices. I’m usually very flexible in the kitchen as I adjust and change recipes on a whim. This is fine with baking and cooking, but not so with canning.
I’m going to share some of the essential canning tips I had to learn before preserving confidently on my own. These are the things I either gleaned from those more experienced (and verified), learned through trial and error, or frenetically looked up as I went. Canning at home doesn’t need to be scary. A little knowledge can go a long way!
Canning tips for beginners: Things to know before preserving at home
But first, a disclaimer: These canning tips are compiled from my own experience and research alone. Always ensure that you are following approved canning procedure and use due diligence in ensuring the safety of yourself, your family, and your food. Some links in this post are affiliate products, which helps support GWR at no additional cost to you. Thank you!
Know what food acidity is and what it means for canning
When you start to look into safe canning, food acid levels is one of the first concepts that you will come across. Why is it so important? High acid levels inhibit the development of botulism toxin. Botulism is a rare-but-deadly risk with preserved food. Water bath canning does not create temperatures high enough to eliminate this risk, so it is important that low-acid foods are preserved by pressure canning (more on that in the next point). High acid foods are limited to most pickles, fruits, and jams. Some foods, such as tomatoes, can be safely canned in a water bath if acid in the form of vinegar or bottled lemon juice is added. This is the main reason why it is essential to follow an approved canning recipe exactly.
Water bath canning method: If you are new to canning, you will probably start out with the water bath canning. This method requires a water bath canner. Food is put into jars and then immersed into boiling water for a specific amount of time before being carefully removed. It is a relatively simple process, and many classic canning recipes are made using water bath canning.
Pressure canning method: Pressure canning is a little more complicated. This method requires a pressure canner, not a pressure cooker. You might want to invest in a high-quality pressure canner such as the All American brand.
For pressure canning, jars are placed on a rack in the canner. The lid is replaced and the water inside the canner is brought to a boil. Steam must be vented (exhausted) from the canner for 10 minutes. The vent can then be closed or weighted and the pressure is maintained for a specified amount of time. Once completed the pressure canner is left to return to zero pressure. The jars can then be removed and left to seal. This method allows for higher temperatures than water bath canning, which is why it is safe to use on a wider variety of foods such as meats, vegetables, stews, and sauces.
Other canning methods: What about the other methods? That’s easy. They’re not safe. This includes sealing with wax, canning in a dishwasher or oven, using a steam canner, and open kettle canning (where hot food is ladled into hot jars and sealed immediately without processing). Your grandma may have done it, but current knowledge dictates that only the two methods mentioned above should be practiced.
Gather the basic canning gear required
We’ve already discussed water bath canners and pressure canners, which are the most basic tools needed to get started. You will also need jars, lids, and rings. It is worth becoming familiar with the different sizes of jars before canning. Most of them will be either wide or narrow mouth. Some older Canadian jars have a middle-size mouth.
I would also include jar tongs in the necessary list. A wide-mouth jar funnel is the only other canning-specific tool that I personally use regularly while canning. You can just get a canning set that has all these basic items. You will also want to have simple kitchen items on hand such as plenty of clean kitchen towels, a ladle, and a spatula.
Know how to pack jars (And what is hot pack versus raw (cold) pack?)
I personally find that packing the jars is the most potentially stressful and work-intensive part of canning. A little experience does really help with timing. You will also need to make sure to leave adequate head space (see The Role of Headspace in Home Canning). Also refer to your recipe to see if a hot or cold (raw) pack is required.
Raw (cold) pack: For a raw pack, raw food is put tightly into the canning jar before hot liquid is ladled over the food. This method is generally used on vegetables that will be processed in a pressure canner or for pickles.
Hot pack: For a hot pack food is first brought to a boil and simmered. It is then ladled directly into the canning jar before being closed and processed.
With either pack, work needs to be done quickly while canning is in process. Being organized will help immensely as you juggle the preparation of jars, filling the jars, closing the jars, and then processing your canning. While it may be tempting to work through extremely large batches of canning, one of my top canning tips is to start with smaller amounts. This is especially true if you are canning on your own and don’t want to spend all night processing your jars.
Look up your local altitude
Knowing the altitude of your location is tied to processing times. The National Centre for Home Food Preservation states that those canning at over 1,000 feet of elevation should add 1 minute for every additional 1,000 feet. Read more in the canning tips document For Safety’s Sake. You can also refer to Find your Altitude.
What causes jars to break or to fail to seal
Breaking jars: Nothing is more frustrating then finishing all the work of getting your jars in the canner only to have them break, spilling your precious work (as well as causing more) and wasting your precious resources. Fortunately, this can be almost eliminated with a little attention. Be sure to only use canning-approved jars that are chip and crack free. The rings should be snug for processing, but not wrenched on tight (air does need to escape). Perhaps the most common mistake is overfilling canning jars by ignoring head-space requirements. I have also had jars break because of sudden temperature changes when putting too-cold jars into too-hot water. Avoid swift temperature changes at every step. Also be sure to always use the rack that comes with your canner.
Sealing jars: As far as sealing, a little attention to detail can also help matters considerably. Resist touching or poking your jars once removed from the canner until they are cooled completely. You will want to also use approved lids on crack-free jars, and don’t reuse single-use lids. Also wipe the mouth of the jar clean before applying the lid! If you notice that your jars have not sealed you have options. Within 24 hours you can reheat and pack your preserves for reprocessing—this is a good canning tip if an entire batch didn’t seal. Alternatively, put the failed jar directly into the fridge to consume at once, or put your preserves into the freezer and keep them that way until you’re ready to eat them.
Learn where to find good recipes
Back away from Pinterest. I know. I know. Pinterest is the best place for ideas on the internet. You can even find and follow my preserving board. However, anyone who is new to the canning scene will have a difficult time assessing the safety of canning recipes on the internet. And here’s the thing; Anyone can make up a canning recipe and put it online. I could write and publish about canning peanut butter using a cardboard box method, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. There are some wonderful canning tips and recipes online, but if you don’t know if a source is trustworthy than it’s simply not worth the risk.
I recommend making the very small investment of a canning book or two. My favourite is the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. Get the current version and you will never have any problems finding a safe and trustworthy canning recipes. Of course there are lots of other fun cookbooks that you can find and try. Let me know in the comments if you have a personal favourite! I’d love to check it out.
Know how to appropriately sterilize jars and lids
Of all the points I’ve covered in this post, this one seems to be the least understood. I have had only a vague understanding in this area, and have generally erred in the direction of over-sterilizing. Which, I suppose, is better than the alternative. Here are the recommendations from the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
Sterilizing jars: All jars should first be washed in hot water with dish soap, and then rinsed thoroughly. You can also wash them in a dishwasher, although this won’t sterilize them. Jars do not need to be sterilized if they are being processed in a pressure canner. The jars do need to be sterilized if you are canning anything in a water bath with less than 10 minutes of processing time. The most recommended method for sterilizing jars is to place them right-side-up on the rack in your canner. Fill over the tops of the jars bring to a boil for 10 minutes (following the rules for altitude). Remove and drain before filling. You can use the heated water in the canner for processing the jars.
Sterilizing lids: You should always start with brand new lids that haven’t been damaged in any way. Officially, you should follow the lid manufacturers instructions. However, most modern lids do not need pre-sterilizing. Mind blowing, right? In fact, boiling a lid for too long could affect the seal. Most information I have read says to warm them before using. You can place the lids in water and bring it barely to a boil before removing from heat and using them directly from the pot. You can also take a ladle of boiling water from your canner and pour it over the lids before you plan to use them.
How to store and use finished canning
Congratulations! You have some beautiful jars of preserves that will last through the winter and beyond. You will want to store them in a cool, dark, and dry area. Remove the rings before storing, which will help you know that your canning is properly sealed. Also write the type of preserve and the date (or at least the year) on your canning before you store it. Trust my experience—your memory is not as good as you might think.
If you do find that a jar is not sealed when you retrieve it from storage than treat it with care and dispose of immediately. The same goes for any canning that appears or smells spoiled. Check out the canning tips on identifying and handling spoiled canning for more.
Now get canning!
With all these canning tips in mind you should be ready to get started! If you have an experienced friend, see if she can give you a hand at first. Once you have gained some preserving confidence I am certain you will find it both fun and fulfilling, as I now do! You’ll see; It is very satisfying to have bright home-preserved raspberry jam or sweet-pepper relish in January.
What are your best canning tips or favourite/most embarrassing stories? Let me know in the comments!
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