Canning & Preserving Food for Beginners
Learn to preserve fresh fruit and vegetables in homemade jellies, jams, chutneys, pickles, & more
by Debbie Wolfe of the Prudent Garden
People have been preserving food for centuries. It was how our forefathers survived the winter when they no longer could harvest from their gardens. With modern technology, food preservation is not needed for most people-you can pick up almost any type of produce at your local grocery store. So, why bother to preserve your own?
Why Bother to Preserve Food?
For me, it’s a sense of pride. All the work I put into growing my own food can be appreciated when I pop open a jar of blueberry jam and spread on my toast on a cold January morning. With one taste of my jam, canned at the peak of ripeness, I’m immediately transported back to my garden in its full summer glory.
For whatever reason you decide to preserve your own food, it’s not as hard as it looks. Understanding a few basics will keep you on the right track and keep your food safe. Food is preserved by one of three methods: drying, freezing or canning. Canning takes the most prep work, but once you get started, you’ll soon find it easy to do.
What is canning?
Simply put, it’s a method of preserving that involves applying heat to food in a closed-glass canning jar and removing air from the jar to create a seal. This process stops the spoilage, thus making it shelf stable. There are two home canning methods: water bath canning and pressure canning.
Water Bath Canning
Water bath canning is a faster, lower temperature preserving process that is for high-acid foods. The acidity of the food is VERY important for water bath canning. The acidity kills the bacteria that will lead to spoilage and botulism, a rare, but fatal disease spread by a bacteria. Fruits and vegetables perfect for water bath preserving, include:
- Fruit juices
- Jams and jellies
- Fresh tomatoes (with added acid)
- Pickles and relishes
Canning with Pressure Canner
Pressure canning is used for low acid foods, meats and seafood. A pressure canner is designed to heat the contents of a jar to 240° F, effectively eliminating the risk of foodborne bacteria. Foods that are ideal for pressure canning include:
- Green beans
- Sweet peppers
For a complete recommendation on what food can be processed via water bath or pressure canner, check out University of Minnesota Extension Service.
Equipment needed for Canning
The tools needed for the mostly the identical, except for the canning pot. Water bath canners are inexpensive and will run anywhere from $20-$30 dollars for a large canning pot with a rack. Pressure canners, on the other hand, can start at $60 for a small one and go up to $200 or more. Here are the basics needed for both methods of canning:
- Pressure canner with rack, lid, and a dial gauge or weighted gauge (low acid food)
- Water bath canner with rack and lid (high acid food)
- Jars, lids, and screw bands
Additional Canning tools: (get all of the below in this pack)
- Jar lifter for easy removal of hot jars from canner
- Funnel or jar filler to pack small food items into jars
- Plastic knife, or spatula to remove bubbles from jars
- Lid wand with magnet to lift metal lids from hot water
- Clean cloths for wiping jars rims
Always begin with a reputable and tested recipe*. There is a science behind the amounts of sugar, salt or vinegar, as well as, the processing time for each recipe. None of the ingredient amounts, or processing time should be altered unless the recipe says you can.
A proper recipe* will also provide the appropriate processing time and head-space amount. The head-space is the distance between the surface of food and the underside of the lid, which allows for expansion of the food or bubbling up of liquid during processing. The head-space is crucial for proper sealing.
Use ripe, unblemished produce for preserving. This will ensure that your finished product will not only taste delicious, but will have the right color and eliminate any bacteria living in the spoiled part of the fruit or vegetable.
Wash all produce in warm water with a food safe detergent. Your produce can be contaminated with bacteria, viruses, and parasites at any point from the garden to your table. This will keep your food safe from contaminants before you start canning.
Wash all jars, lids and rings in hot soapy water. Sterilize the empty jars, right side up on the rack in a boiling-water canner. Fill the canner and jars with hot (not boiling) water to 1 inch above the tops of the jars. Let them sit in the hot water (lightly boiling) for 10 minutes or so. Remove and drain hot sterilized jars one at a time. In a small saucepan, keep the rings and lids in hot water until needed.
Leave the jars in the hot water until ready to be filled. Add your hot preserves into the jar with a funnel. Leave the appropriate amount of headspace as your recipe recommends. Wipe down the lip of the jars with a clean towel and then add the lid and ring.
Again, consult your recipe for the proper processing time. The processing time starts when the water is boiling. Use jar lifters to lower your jar onto the canning rack in the pot. If using a pressure canner, make sure you choose the canner pressure (PSI) that matches the recipe. Once processed, let the jars sit undisturbed on the counter (or pot if pressure canning) until cooled.
Test the Seal
For water bath canning, you will hear the signature “ping” once the jar is sealed. The lid will be concave and will not “give” when pressed. Any jars that did not seal can be reprocessed or refrigerated. Store the jars without their rings in a cool, dry place. The rings are only needed to alight the lids to the jars and should be removed before storage. The lids will not pop off unless the seal is broken.
Enjoy your summer bounty
Once your garden is put to bed for the winter, you can enjoy your summer bounty anytime of the year! Preserved garden goodness makes great gifts for friends and family. Canning your own food is a cinch once you get the hang of it.
* Many tried and tested recipes can be found in the Ball’s Blue Book of Canning. These recipes have been used for generations.
Debbie Wolfe is a mom of two rambunctious boys, wife, and work-at-home mom from Georgia. In her free time she is in the garden or hidden away reading. As interests, Debbie is an obsessive crafter, home chef, and gardener. She is a freelance writer, blogger, and is a co-author and photographer behind the garden blog, The Prudent Garden, a collection of tips, crafts, and articles that highlight home gardening.