Everything You Need to Know About Canning and Preserving Food

Berries, tomatoes, and zucchini everywhere! When blessed with too much of a good thing, it's time to get canning. Here's how to can like a pro.

canning 101: Everything You Need to Know About Canning and Preserving Food
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If you enjoy eating in season, meals can get really, well, boring in the dead of winter. Wouldn't it be nice to reach into your pantry and pull out a jar of summer-perfect peaches on a blustery day? It's possible with canning to preserve food in airtight containers that can be stored at room temperature.

Once the domain of grandmothers, canning is making a comeback. Sales of home canning products have risen as the popularity of local, seasonal eating has grown. "It's a craft we've gotten away from, but home food preservation is the way we've fed ourselves since we've been upright," says Sherri Brooks Vinton, author of Put 'em Up! A Comprehensive Home Preserving Guide for the Creative Cook ($20, amazon.com).

What to Can

When deciding what to can, think about your favorite seasonal foods. In the summertime, do you prefer plump strawberries or sun-kissed tomatoes? Also, notice what's abundant and affordable. When plums are piled high on farmers' market tables, you're likely to get a good deal. Not ready to can when corn hits its peak? "You can freeze it and can it later," says Vinton.

Canning isn't limited to summer produce, however. Vinton makes hot pepper jam in the fall, citrus curd and marmalade in winter, and pickled asparagus in spring.

Types of Canning

There are two ways of canning food at home: the boiling water method and the pressure-canning method. Both canning methods work essentially the same way. The ingredients are prepared and loaded into jars with special lids that allow steam to escape. The jars are heated and as they cool, the food contracts and creates an airtight seal that preserves the contents for up to a year.

Pressure canning is for low-acid foods, which includes most vegetables and meats. These need to be heated to a higher temperature in a special pressure-canning appliance to keep bacteria at bay. For big batches, we recommend the Presto 23-Quart Pressure Canner, which is also a great large-capacity pressure cooker.

The boiling water canning method is an easy way to get started because the equipment investment is minimal, says Vinton. It's suitable for acidic foods, like fruit jams and jellies, salsas, tomatoes, and vegetables that have been made more acidic with the addition of vinegar, lemon juice, or citric acid.

Choosing a Canning Recipe

Once you know what you want to can, find a recipe from a trusted, current source. As tempting as it might be to use your great aunt's yellowing jam recipe, guidelines for safe canning have evolved significantly over the years.

For the best (and safest) results, follow canning recipes precisely. A tweak here or there could change the acid level and invite bacteria to grow. "But canning doesn't require a degree in chemistry," says Vinton. "If you follow a modern canning recipe and commonsense kitchen cleanliness, then everything will come out just fine."

Canning Equipment for Beginners

If you're new to canning, ease into it with the Ball Canning Discovery Kit ($9; walmart.com), which includes three 1-pint jars, a polypropylene rack with a handle for lowering the jars into hot water, and a beginner's guide to canning with recipes.

If you're not starting out with a kit, for the boiling water method you'll need:

  • Canning jars with two-part lids—a flat lid with a rubberized gasket and a ring to hold it in place
  • A stock pot at least 3 inches taller than your jars
  • Canning tongs for lifting jars out of the boiling water (find them at the grocery or hardware store; don't substitute regular kitchen tongs)
  • Canning rack to raise jars off the bottom of the pot (a cake cooling rack or a layer of extra canning jar rings will work in a pinch)
  • Wide-mouth funnel to make filling jars easy
  • Bubble tool to release trapped air in the jars (substitute a plastic knife, chopstick, or skewer)
  • Magnetic lid lifter (an optional tool for grabbing lids from the hot water)

Canning Labels

Before tucking your jars away in the pantry, label them with the contents and the date they were made. Masking tape or an adhesive mailing label will work, but if you're planning to give jars as gifts, try something more special, like custom-printed food labels you can design yourself ($8 for 20 labels; etsy.com).

Canning Resources

  • The National Center for Home Food Preservation—the authority on home food preservation safety—houses a wealth of information about canning, as well as fermenting, freezing, curing, and drying.
  • First published in 1973, Putting Food By by Janet Greene, Ruth Hertzberg, and Beatrice Vaughn ($14, amazon.com) is a classic, comprehensive guide to food preservation newly updated for today's kitchen.
  • The Best Little Book of Preserves and Pickles by Judith Choate ($16, amazon.com) contains great starter canning recipes along with unexpected gems like Papaya-Lime Preserves and Basil Jam.

How to Make Preserves

If canning is too much of a long-term commitment for you, try your hand at preserving with one of our refrigerator recipes. They'll last just a few weeks—rather than months with the boiling water method—but they're so good, you shouldn't have a problem using them up.

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