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Are you ready to begin canning your food at home, but are not sure where to start? I’ve got you. This is my best explanation for learning how to can food, so make sure you bookmark it for future reference!
All information given in this post is based on information I have learned from my own experiences using recipes from the Ball Blue Book and from National Center for Home Food Preservation. I don’t use any recipes that I find on the internet, but rather, only those recipes that are tested and published by reputable and trusted sources.
You may have heard that canning is dangerous or scary. It isn’t. It’s actually very easy, so rewarding, and once you’ve got all of your equipment, it will definitely SAVE YOU MONEY!
The real issue is that there is a learning curve, and so it really helps to learn with a friend. I’ll be that friend for you! Stick with me, kid, and you’ll be puttin’ food by (that means canning your own food) in no time!
Two Types of Canning Explained
There are two methods of canning that you can use: water bath canning and pressure canning. Both are great methods to use, and if you can learn both, you will be able to can anything you can think of! The rules on how to can food using these two methods are different for each.
Water Bath Canning
Water bath canning (also called the boiling water method) is pretty much what it sounds like. It is when you submerge filled jars into vigorously boiling water which processes the food and seals the jar. A water bath canner full of vigorously boiling water reaches 212 degrees F (the temperature at which molds, yeasts, and some bacteria are destroyed in high acid foods) at 1000 feet above sea level or lower.
The reason this works is that the combination of the temperature and the time prescribed for processing from a scientifically-tested recipe (like those in the Ball Blue Book) provide the proper environment to kill off harmful yeasts and certain bacterias, as well as inactivates enzymes that cause deterioration and spoilage of food.
The water bath canning method is used for high acid foods–foods that have a pH of 4.6 or lower. Here is an exciting list of foods that you can make with just the water bath canning method:
- fruit (jams, jellies, marmalades, preserves, conserves)
- whole fruit/mixed fruit
- fruit butters
- fruit sauces (apple, pear, cranberry etc.)
- pie fillings
- pickles (dill/kosher, vegetables, relishes)
- tomatoes (whole, sauces, pastes, soups)
- vegetable sauces (hot, chili, taco, or even ketchup)
Tons of possibilities, right? I think so! When I was putting together this list, even I was getting excited, and I’ve been water bath canning for over 10 years! I had forgotten about all of the options for foods I can make using this method!
Here’s a pretty sweet water bath canning package deal:
Pressure canning is a bit more labor intensive than water bath canning, but it also affords you more latitude in what you can fill your shelves with for the year. It is the proper method to use to can vegetables, meats, beans, stews, chilis, and anything else that is low acid (including recipes with a combination of low and high acid foods). If what you want to can has any of the above mentioned ingredients, you will use the pressure canning method.
Pressure canning uses steam pressure to bring the temperature higher than the boiling point of water that is achieved through the water bath method. At 10 pounds pressure, a weighted gauge canner reaches 240 degrees F (the temperature at which bacterial spores are destroyed in low acid foods) at 1000 feet above sea level or lower.
Here is a list of foods where you would use the pressure canning method:
- meats (pork, beef, chicken, wild game, ribs, sausages, chopped meat, steak, chops, whole birds)
- seafood (clams, crab meat, fish, shrimp, oysters, tuna)
- entrees (soups, stocks, chilis, chowders, seasoned meats)
- vegetables (beans of all kinds, corn, carrots, mixed veg, peas of all kinds, mushrooms, parsnips, potatoes, peppers, okra, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes/sauces)
Add all those choices to the previous list of foods that you can process and you’ve got a whole grip of choices that will keep you busy canning healthy, delicious food for your family, which will definitely earn you that superhero cape you deserve!
This is the pressure canner I have used for the past 10 years:
What You Need to Begin Canning
There are a few things that you will need to know and to do before you start your first canning project: you’ll need to know your altitude, which you can find here. Next, you will need to shop for all your new canning equipment and supplies! Woohoo!
What is Your Altitude?
You read before in the section where I explained the two methods of canning that each method would reach a certain temperature if you are at 1000 feet above sea level or lower. But what if you are above that? Gotcha covered.
Water bath method adjustments:
for 1,001 – 3,000 altitude in feet, increase processing time 5 minutes
for 3,001 – 6,000 altitude in feet, increase processing time 10 minutes
for 6,001 – 8,000 altitude in feet, increase processing time 15 minutes
for 8,001 – 10,000 altitude in feet, increase processing time 20 minutes
Pressure canning method adjustments:
0 – 1,000 altitude in feet, weighted gauge 10lbs, dial gauge 11lbs pressure
1,001 – 2,000 altitude in feet, weighted gauge 15lbs, dial gauge 11lbs pressure
2,001 – 4,000 altitude in feet, weighted gauge 15lbs, dial gauge 12lbs pressure
4,001 – 6,000 altitude in feet, weighted gauge 15lbs, dial gauge 13lbs pressure
6,001 – 8,000 altitude in feet, weighted gauge 15lbs, dial gauge 14lbs pressure
8,001 – 10,000 altitude in feet, weighted gauge 15lbs, dial gauge 15lbs pressure
Remember, don’t forget to check your altitude. If you haven’t already, click here.
The cool thing about canning is that you can use nearly all the same tools for water bath or pressure canning. At one time I owned a large water bath canner, and while more convenient, it is less expensive time- and space-wise to just use my pressure canner for water bathing. I gave my water bath canner away to a friend who was just starting out. A win/win for both of us!
Here is the list of the basic items you would need to begin canning. I am adding a water bath canner to this list just in case you aren’t yet ready for pressure canning and don’t want to spend the extra money for one at this time.
- water bath canner
- pressure canner (I use a 23 qt so I can double stack my jars)
- pint mason jars or quart mason jars (depending on what you are making)
- lids and rings
- jar lifter
- lid lifter and bubble remover, and tongs if you are using Tattler reusable lids
- headspace tool
- canning funnel for regular or wide mouth jars
- kitchen timer (or you could just use the timer on your range or microwave if you have one)
- clean kitchen towels (I love these flour sack towels, but any clean kitchen towels will do)
There are other canning items you can get that may make the job easier. For instance, if you purchase a pressure canner to do both water bath and pressure canning in, you likely won’t receive a rack for lifting all of the jars out of the canner at the same time. Those come with water bath canners, but not with pressure canners. I have never tried to use one when water bathing in my pressure canner, so I’m not sure if it would even work. What I can tell you is that it is not that much harder just to use your jar lifter to lift each jar out of the canner, and it’s not as heavy!
You may want a second canning rack (different from the lifting rack I just talked about) because in tall canners, you can double stack the jars safely if you have a second one. This should only be done when pressure canning, unless you are using shorter jars than pint jars to can something like jam or any other item that is canned in smaller jars.
The Additives and Extras
There may be a few extra things you would want to have on your shelf for good measure, just so you don’t find yourself without them in the middle of a canning job.
- canning salt – acts as a preservative and adds flavor and crispness to pickles (do not substitute with flake, rock, Kosher, or sea salt, as they don’t measure the same as canning salt and can compromise the safety of a recipe)
- vinegar – high grade apple cider vinegar, or white distilled vinegar (both should be 5% acidity to be considered safe to use for a canning recipe, do not use homemade); always use exact prescribed amounts as changing them can compromise the safety of a recipe that calls for vinegar
- Pickle Crisp – used to add extra crunch to fresh pack and pickled vegetables (about $5 in stores)
- lemon juice – often called for in tomato recipes for upping the acidity in the recipe and maintaining safe pH levels in foods that are canned using the water bath method
How to Can Food
Let me start off by saying that it’s very important to make sure that the recipe you are canning has been tested, tried, and true–and not just by your grandma! Lord knows we all love our grandmas, but things were done according to their understanding back then, and many things were not known at all.
Nowadays, resources like the Ball Blue Book and the National Center for Home Food Preservation have taken all the guesswork out of knowing whether or not a recipe is safe to can at home. Often, people want to use that old family recipe that Grandma always made, but because her recipe was most likely not tested for heat penetration, botulism spores, safe pH levels in the ingredients used, etc., it’s best to let Grandma’s recipe be used fresh, rather than home canning it. Here’s a good article on that topic over at PickYourOwn.org.
I like things to be easy as much as the next home canning gal, however, directions must be followed on a safe, scientifically-tested recipe (like those in the Ball Blue Book) in order to be sure that what you can is safe to eat. Though there are many lovely “canning” recipes out there on the internet, it is more profitable to you to familiarize yourself with best practices when it comes to canning so that you can keep your family safe and healthy, and trust the food on your shelves enough to not have to throw it away!
Steps Before Processing (both methods)
There is a specific method to packing the jars before you process them, and for good measure, none of these steps should be skipped.
- Prepare the food – The recipe you are using will tell you how to prepare the food before you fill the jars. Sometimes it is cutting food the a certain size, and sometimes food needs to be cooked. Prepare your food first.
- Wash, inspect, and sterilize the jars – Wash your jars in warm, soapy water, inspecting them for cracks, chips, or anything else that can compromise the integrity of the jar. Rinse and set aside if the water in your canner is not yet simmering. If it is, carefully place your jars into the simmering water for 10 minutes and allow them to remain there while you remove one at a time to fill. You can also use your dishwasher to wash and heat the jars, just allow the jars to remain in the dishwasher, taking them out one by one as you fill them.
- Fill the jars – Any recipe you use will call for your to either pack foods raw, or cook them and pack them hot. Raw pack is when you pack the food into the jar raw; hot pack is when you pack partial or fully cooked food into the jar while it’s hot. Usually you would raw pack delicate or easier-to-handle-raw foods into the jar
- Measuring headspace – Head space is the amount of space you leave between the food and the top rim of the jar. Usually, I just eyeball this, but for a beginner, I would suggest using a headspace tool. As a general rule, leave a 1-inch headspace for low acid foods, 1/2-inch for high acid foods, and 1/4-inch for fruit juices, jams, jellies, and other soft spreadable foods.
- Removing air bubbles – Once your food is in the jars and you’ve got the right amount of headspace, you will want to run your bubble remover tool around the sides of the jar, gently pushing in toward the center to release air bubbles from inside of the food.
- cleaning jar rim – With a clean moist towel or cloth, wipe around the rim of the jar to remove any spilled food that can interfere with the jar’s ability to seal.
- adjusting the lid and ring – Place a lid on your jar and finger tighten a ring around it. Don’t force, just enough to where you can feel it resist while you are screwing it onto the jar.
- processing – Follow instructions below of water bath or pressure canning.
Water Bath Processing
- Fill your canner about halfway with water and bring water to just above a simmer (180 degrees F). Begin placing your jars into the water with your jar lifter. If you are using a water bath canner, add your jars to the rack; if you are using a pressure canner, add them directly to the pan. Do not allow them to touch, as much as you can help it. If you need a second level of jars, use a canning rack between the levels.
- Once full, all jars should be covered by at least 1-inch of simmering water. Add some boiling water to the canner if needed, then adjust heat to medium/high to bring it to a rolling boil.
- Once the water is at a rolling boil, begin timing the processing. Maintain a rolling boil until the timer goes off indicating the end of the processing time.
- Turn off heat and remove canner lid. Allow to sit for 5 minutes.
- Scroll down to follow the instructions in the “Steps for After Processing” section below.
Pressure Canning Process
- Make sure your rack is inside of the canner, and fill with about 2 quarts of water (double check the instructions that came with your canner to make sure you are adding the appropriate amount of water). Bring water to a simmer.
- Begin placing your jars into the water with your jar lifter. If you are using a water bath canner, add your jars to the rack; if you are using a pressure canner, add them directly to the pan. Do not allow them to touch, as much as you can help it. If you need a second level of jars, use a canning rack between the levels.
- Once full, lock the canner lid into place and adjust to medium/high heat. Once you notice steam steadily flowing from the vent pipe, time it for 10 minutes.
- Next, place gauge on your vent pipe and allow your canner to pressurize (about 5-10 minutes). When you notice your gauge has reached the correct pounds pressure, adjust the heat to maintain that pressure and begin timing the processing. Monitor the canner, making sure the pressure continues to be maintained throughout the whole processing time.
- When processing is finished, turn off heat and allow the canner to depressurize on its own. When it’s at zero pressure, you may unlock the lid of the canner. Make sure to open it in such a way that the steam escapes away from you, to prevent injury. Let canner cool 10 minutes with the lid off.
- Scroll down to follow the instructions in the “Steps for After Processing” section below.
Steps for After Processing (both methods)
- cooling – Once the processing is finished, you will now remove the jars from the canner and place about an inch apart on a kitchen towel on the counter. Do not attempt to touch the jars because they will be very hot for a few hours. Let them sit for 24 hours.
- testing seals – After the 24 hours is up, remove all of the rings and test the seals. I actually like to clean the jars up with a damp kitchen towel, and while I’m cleaning each jar, that’s when I make sure the seal is tight. If you find any jars that are unsealed, put the ring back on and place it in the fridge to use for a meal this week.
- storage – Store your jars without the rings on them, with proper labeling (name of food inside and processing date), in your cupboard. Most foods are good for a year, but do your homework to decide how long you will keep them on your shelf.
I’m with you, and you can feel free to comment below with questions, send me a message on my Facebook page, or post in my Facebook group (which you are welcome to join) if you need a little more hand-holding. I have done this a few times with friends, and I don’t mind at all because teaching people is pretty much my jam. Pun intended. 🙂
Canning Books and Resources
Ready to get started? Check out my canning archives!