Canning at home is one of those things that makes you seem like magic.
Making your own jams and spreads, pickles and chutneys, sauces and delicious things, and preserving them for another season is a fantastic combination of art and science, frugality and fanciness, and demonstrates your mastery over death and decay. At least of the fruit and vegetable variety.
Basically, home canning relies on a couple basic scientific processes–sterilization and oxygen removal. Heat and water are the mechanisms by which these processes work. Whether you’re canning by boiling water bath or pressure canner (the only two methods recognized as safe in the United States), your goal will be to create an environment in which bacteria, including good ol’ deadly Clostridium botulinum which can trigger botulism and KILL US ALL, just like in East of Eden, when Kate covers up her slow poisoning of the madam at the brothel by making it look like the home canned green beans weren’t safe. Canning is Steinbeckian, y’all.
But most likely, if you follow basic precautions and use common sense, you won’t poison anyone at all.
The benefits of home canning are many:
- You can control your ingredients, including the type and amount of sweetener.
- You can make fancier or rarer things more inexpensively. Pear Vanilla Jam? Peach Jam with Brown Sugar and Brandy? Don’t mind if I do!
- You can take advantage of sales and surpluses of produce.
- And, you know, fight the power and take your toast into your own hands.
- Decide what to make. Start with a small batch of something relatively simple. You can get big and grand later. If you’re new to canning, you probably don’t want to drop the money on a pressure canner, so stick with boiling water bath recipes. Fruit in syrup, a few jars of tomatoes, a batch of pickles, these things are solid. Jam and jelly aren’t hard, exactly, but they do have the fiddly quality of needing to set, which involves a lot of stirring and checking. You want to choose a recipe that is suitable for canning, and from a tested, trusted source. I love Food in Jars for small batch recipes.
- Gather your supplies. To get started canning, you will need some stuff. My basic instructions for boiling water bath canning are here. To refresh, you’ll need:
- jars–available at your local hardware store, larger groceries (look in “seasonal”), and the Internet.
- lids–new ones every year. Available at all those same places.
- rings–to hold the lids on during processing, will probably come with your jars
- A tested recipe and the items to make it
- a jar lifter–this is an insulated tong-like contraption, and it is designed for lifting jars. You need one. Don’t try to use your salad tongs for this. You will drop a jar and splash yourself in the face with boiling water. Don’t ask me how I know this.
- a jar funnel–A funnel sized for a standard jar top. I use mine daily. I don’t know what people who don’t have a jar funnel do. Spill things and curse a lot, I’m guessing.
- A canning device, be it a big old kettle, a canner, or a pressure canner. You need some method for keeping the jars from touching the bottom and sides of the canner, and each other. Canners have racks for this.
- A timer or clock
- Create the best of all possible worlds. At least, the best of all possible canning worlds. Give yourself enough time. Pick a cool day, if you can. Clean your kitchen first. Double check that you have all the ingredients for your recipe. Figure out where you’re going to put the jars while they’re cooling Maybe listen to this to get in the mood. I have disregarded each of these things at one point or another, to my detriment.
- Follow your recipe and canning directions. Until you get the hang of it, it’s best not to riff on recipes for canning. Use what it says, in the amount it says, for as long as it says. Once you’re used to the process, then you can start playing around (a little! within reason and safety!).
- Enjoy the satisfaction of having canned something. Marvel at it in your pantry. Show it to guests. Chuckle happily to yourself, as you imagine a winter full of fresh and delicious things.
- Wear shoes–You’d think this was obvious, but I often don’t do it, and it’s never a good decision. The dangers are many, the benefits few.
- If you can handle it, wear long sleeves–I also rarely do this, because canning is hot, and thus, I have the splash and steam burns to prove it. A very large oven mitt is a good substitute for sleeves.
- Eat a snack first–Many canning problems are instantly more solvable if you are not hungry. Something you’ve already prepared, or doesn’t get your kitchen dirty is ideal. This is when I make use of gross convenience food without guilt.
- Canning is not an activity for pets or young children–Canning is all about glass and boiling water and hot things. Confine pets and young’uns to not the kitchen.
You can do it!