Preserving The Best Of The Harvest

Introduction

Whether you are looking for the simple basics you need for getting started preserving and canning your harvest, or you’re looking for invaluable advice for taking your canning to the next level, you’ll find all the motivation and information you need in this chapter. You’ll learn what equipment is essential to have on hand (and what is unnecessary), quick and easy precautions you can take to keep your treats safe and tasty, and troubleshooting tips that address all the common messy mistakes and storage conundrums awaiting every novice and veteran canner.

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Water Bath Canning Vs. Pressure Canning

Jars of pickled vegetables on display at a market stand

Water bath canning and pressure canning are similar in that they are both ways to preserve food in your own kitchen. The general process of putting food in jars, attaching lids, heating to seal, and storing are the same. However, there are some major differences you should know.

All foods have natural acidity levels. Many fruits and tomatoes are highly acidic. These foods can be water bath canned. Or, produce can be incorporated in a recipe that makes it safe for water bath canning, such as pickles: cucumbers (a low-acid food) are canned in an acidic pickling solution.

Water bath canning, or boiling water canning as it’s sometimes called, is the method of submerging filled jars into hot water and boiling for a specific period of time. This means the internal temperature of the food in the jars is heated to 212°F (100°C). It’s a great way to start canning and the most common way to make popular pantry items such as jams, jellies, and pickles. However, to get a wider range of foods in jars, you need to learn the art of pressure canning, which is discussed in detail in The Pressure Canning Process.

Pressure canning is the preserving method by which filled jars are placed into a large pot with just a few inches (7.5 to 10 cm) of water in it. A locking lid is placed on the pot and steam develops inside the pot. The jars’ contents reach an internal temperature of 240°F (116°C) under a specific pressure (in pounds, see here), and the recipe states a specific period of time to hold that pressure. Pressure canning can be used for a wider variety of foods. You can process vegetables and fruits with low or high acidity, meats, poultry, fish, sauces, and even whole recipes—such as soups or stews. Pressure canning generally means less mess, and my jars always seem to seal when I pressure can. (I also admit some bias—I love canning meat. On the farm, we raise much of our own meat, and being able to process it myself means I can fill my pantry with healthy food that has been raised ethically.)

Pressure canning, as you might expect, is done in a pressure canner. A pressure canner is a large pot designed specifically for the canning process; do not confuse a pressure canner with a pressure cooker. A pressure cooker is very useful, but it’s a different piece of equipment meant for general cooking. Although there is some crossover, and electric pressure cookers can be used to can a couple of jars at a time, they are two distinctly different kitchen items with similar names. Read about how to make kefir.

Canning Equipment

Canning is much easier and safer if you make use of the equipment readily available in your local hardware, farm, or home supply store or online. Jars, lids, and canning-specific ingredients like pectin are available at most grocery stores.

The Canner

Jars of granola and dried fruits organized on a wooden shelf

The most important piece of equipment is the canner itself. The two types of canners available are boiling water bath canners and pressure canners.

  • Boiling Water Bath Canner: This type of canner consists of a large pot with a canning rack and a lid. Canning pots are usually 21 or 33 quarts (about 20 or 31 liters). You can use regular pots with lids as long as they are large enough to allow for at least 2 inches (5 cm) of water over the jars.
  • Pressure Canner: This type of canner consists of a large aluminum pot with a twist-on, locking lid, inner sealing rim, a rack, and a pressure gauge. The most popular pressure canner sizes are 16 or 22 quarts (about 15 or 21 liters). The smaller pressure cookers, usually 4-, 6-, or 8-quart (3.8, 5.7, or 7.6 liter) sizes, are great for daily cooking but are not approved for home canning. We will discuss pressure canners in depth in Pressure Canning Basics.

Essential Canning Equipment

  • Canning Rack. Most canners come with a canning rack. The rack for boiling water bath canners has slots for the jars and handles to lift the rack in and out of the canner. Pressure canners come with flat, plate-style racks that sit at the bottom of the canner. A rack protects the jars from direct heat on the bottom of the pan and prevents them from bouncing around during processing. Make sure to use a canning rack every time you can!
  • Jars: These come in a variety of sizes and your recipe will indicate the correct size for the food you are canning. Jars are typically sold by the dozen for the most common jar sizes, though higher-end, fancier jars may be sold individually. For more information on jars, see Let’s Talk About Jars.
  • Jar Lids: The lid is critical to a well-sealed jar, not just for the covering you can see it provides but also for the seal it creates underneath. The most common type of canning jars and lids are the variety made by large manufacturers such as Ball. The lids have two pieces: the flat lid itself and a screw band that goes around the outside of the lid (see the next item in this list). If you look at the underside of one of these canning jar lids, you will see a reddish-brown ring around the edge. This ring softens during processing and forms an airtight seal as it cools. Jar lids with this sealing compound are not reusable; however, you can reuse the jars and screw bands. Just buy a new pack of lids before the next canning session.
  • Screw Bands: These bands are designed to hold the lid in place during processing. Since they can be reused, carefully inspect them for nicks, rust, and other signs the band has been weakened. As you’ll read repeatedly in the recipes, the bands are screwed onto the jars until hand-tight, also called fingertip tight, and no tighter. They need to be loose enough to allow the jar lid to release air during processing. Screw bands can be removed after the jars cool completely to room temperature. Removing the band does not affect the lid seal and with no band to hide the seal it is easier to watch for any signs of leakage while the jar is in storage.
  • Canning Funnel: Use a canning funnel to fill your jars. You might think this would be an optional piece of equipment; however, keeping the rim of the jar clean is very important. Because you will be working with very hot foods and liquids, using a funnel will help keep your hands from getting burned as well. A canning funnel has a wide mouth and is wider than a normal funnel at the bottom to accommodate big pieces of food. They are inexpensive, and I recommend buying a few. I have both metal and plastic funnels in my canning supplies and both work equally well.
  • Electronic Scale: I recommend a digital scale that is reliable and that includes a tare function. (Tare means you can place your container on the scale and then set it back to 0 before weighing your ingredients.) I also prefer battery-powered scales so you don’t have to deal with a cord.
  • Jar Lifter: This specialized item makes your canning experience much easier. You’ll use the jar lifter to safely lift hot jars from the canner and protect your hands from hot water and steam. This tool has handles that stay cool, and the business end is rubber-dipped and curved to match the curvature of a jar. I have an old one and a newer model; the only difference is the newer one has plastic-covered handles and my older one has wooden handles. They both work equally well.
  • Wooden Chopsticks (or a similar tool): When canning, there will be times when you need a long, straight object like a chopstick or the long handle of a wooden spoon. Really, you can use almost any (nonmetal) object that can safely be poked into a jar to release trapped air bubbles and move food around as needed so it fits better. I like using chopsticks because they are cheap and effective. You can also use skewers, as long as they’re wooden—you don’t want to damage the glass jars. One other advantage or using chopsticks or skewers is you can use them in a pinch for other tasks, such as lifting bands out of hot water. You can also purchase a plastic tool called a bubble freer that is designed specifically for this task.
  • Lid Lifter: Not to be confused with a jar lifter, this little tool is a must have. Once again, it comes into play when you’re handling hot items—the best way to do anything at this stage is to do it safely. Your lids will be sitting in steaming-hot water and keeping them hot while they are being placed on jars is important. A lid lifter has a small magnet on the end that lifts the lid easily, allowing for an easy transfer to the jar. Before I owned one, I had to use tongs and it was often difficult to get the lids out of the water without burning myself at least a little. Save yourself from the same experience and buy a lid lifter.
  • Lid Wrench: While the recipes in this book recommend hand-tightening lids before canning, there are times when lids are tough to remove after canning. If you sometimes struggle with the lids on jars, this tool will make your life easier.
  • Dish Towels: I can’t imagine canning without a clean stack of dish towels for a variety of tasks. I use linen towels so there is no lint, but you can also use tightly woven cotton blends that have no nap. Just avoid fluffy towels that leave lint behind! Use your towels as a landing place for jars when removing them from the canner, for wiping jar rims before adding the lid, and for cleaning up spills as soon as they happen. I also use my dish towels at various other times, to protect my hands from steam, for wiping off spoon handles if needed, etc. I start my canning session with at least 6 on the counter and usually end up using every one. I recommend white towels that don’t look like your everyday towels, so you keep them just for canning and bleach them as needed.
  • Knives: I was taught a sharp knife is safer than a dull one and I have yet to find any evidence to the contrary. Canning involves a lot of food prep, and that means a lot of cutting. Sharp knives reduce hand fatigue and help you cleanly cut uniform pieces of food. You will not need a large number of knives; a paring knife and an 8- or 10-inch (20 to 25.4 inch) chef’s knife will suffice. Keep them super sharp and learn how to cut properly with each if you don’t already have strong knife skills. A little time spent learning will immediately pay you back in saved prep time.
  • Measuring Cups: Plastic, metal, or glass, it doesn’t matter which you choose as long as the markings are clear. What is important is having more than one set of measuring cups available. Having a second (or third) set at the ready will save you from stopping to clean in the middle of canning.
  • Measuring Spoons: Just as with measuring cups, it’s essential to have a spare set of spoons if you don’t want to be caught unprepared while canning. Also, as much as I love the novelty of newer measuring spoons that slide or adjust to the measurement you need, I don’t think they’re as reliable for exact measurements—especially when measuring liquids. I stick to the easy-to-read, standard measuring spoons that have served cooks well for generations.
  • Saucepans or Stockpots: Stainless steel or enamel-surfaced pots and pans work best when preparing recipes for canning. Aluminum and copper pans are considered “reactive” and will impart a metallic taste to acidic foods.
  • Rubber Spatulas: While not necessary for every recipe, they are perfect for scraping out and moving sticky items such as jams and jellies. Rubber spatulas are easy to clean and they don’t absorb flavors. They are also safer to use inside glass jars. I buy the type with a rubber end that can be removed from the handle for better washing and sanitizing.
  • Tongs: You probably have a pair of tongs in your kitchen already. They’re perfect for handling hot food while keeping your hands far away—and that’s true whether you’re grilling or canning. I prefer the longer style that most people use for the grill, but shorter tongs will work as well.
  • Pot Holders: Remember that even the thickest pot holder will allow steam through the fabric, so use them with caution. Having said that, pot holders are the tool of choice for moving hot, heavy pots around your stove. They can also insulate hot jars if you need to set one down on a cool countertop. Use a pot holder in a situation like this to avoid the possibility of cracking the glass jar or damaging your counter.
  • Ladles: A ladle should have a long handle and although I love metal for many utensils, for ladles, plastic rules! Why? A ladle will spend quite a bit of time in boiling-hot foods when canning and a metal handle can conduct heat. The last thing you want is a ladle that’s too hot to handle! I most often use a plastic ladle rated for high temperatures that measures ½ cup (120 ml) of liquid and can double as a measuring device in a pinch.
  • Wooden Spoons: Wooden spoons will not become soft or excessively bendable when submerged in hot liquid, unlike some cheaper plastic spoons. I use wooden spoons when cooking, and canning is no different. Actually, it just gives you the opportunity to use a wooden spoon even more—for example, you can use the handle for releasing trapped air bubbles. Get more details about lacto-fermentationx.

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