Canning Q & A, 2011

Q: Total beginner here. Do you recommend starting with a water bath canner or a pressure canner? And what are some good first canning projects?

A: I recommend starting your canning career with a hot water bath canner because it's cheaper to purchase. Most people also find a water bath canner less intimidating (it's only a big pot, after all). Just remember, you won't be able to can soups, meats, or veggies - unless you pickle those veggies. This is a safety concern; a water bath canner can't bring low acid foods to a high enough temperature to make them shelf-stable.

The two first projects I recommend are some kind of pickle (click here for a super-easy method) or tomatoes. Pickles are easy (just be sure to can the freshest produce you can find) and tomatoes are not difficult, yet so much tastier than store-bought.

For step-by-step water bath canning instructions, click here.

Q: I've been using a water bath canner, but I'd like to do some soups and things. But my friends all agree that using a pressure canner is just - well, scary. What do you think?

A: For some reason, many people find pressure canners intimidating. Maybe it's stories of them blowing up in grandma's kitchen (something that won't happen today, due to modern safety features). But I encourage you to take the plunge. I was nervous the first time I used a pressure canner, too, but after my first batch I realized pressure canning isn't so different from canning with a water bath canner. Pressure canners also keep the kitchen cooler, which is nice during the summer.

Q: How long do home-canned foods last?

A: According to the U.S. government, one year. However, home-canned foods can last many years.
Mostly it's a matter of quality, taste, and nutrition; the longer the jar sits, the more the quality declines. Low acid foods (mostly things you'd use a pressure canner for) last the longest; for example, there is a true story about a 118-year-old can of meat that was eaten safely (by a cat).

Q: I had an incident last week where a few of my jars broke in the canner. Why did that happen?

A: First, I want to assure newbies I've never had this happen in 10 years of canning. There are a few reasons this could happen, however: 1. If jars have cracks in them. 2. If you don't use a rack on the bottom of the canner. 3. If use non-canning jars are used. 4. If jars are exposed to rapid temperature changes.

It's true canning jars can take greater temperature fluctuations than ordinary glass jars, but they still should be warmed and cooled gradually. If you pour hot contents into a cool jar, or if you put jars filled with cool food into boiling water, the jars may break. So be sure the water in the canner isn't boiling when you put jars in it, and always keep jars hot while they are waiting to be filled. You can do the latter by putting jars in a canner filled with cool water, then bringing the water to steaming, or by placing the jars in a sink of hot water, or by washing the jars in the dishwasher and keeping them hot in the heated (drying) cycle.

Q: What causes seal failures? I recently had a few jars not seal.

A: There are actually quite a number of reasons lids might not seal, all of which are preventable:

1. Over- or under-tightening screw bands.

2. Not wiping the jar rims clean with a fresh cloth or paper towel; any bit of food or debris on the jar rim makes a seal impossible. (This includes bits of cloth or paper from your towel.)

3. Jars without smooth rims; before using them, always run your finger over the rims of jars to ensure they don't have cracks or chips.

4. Leaving an incorrect amount of headspace; if you leave only 1/2 inch of headspace when the recipe calls for 1 inch, you will have seal failures.

5. Not allowing a pressure canner to vent or exhaust 10 minutes before you begin timing the processing.

6. Allowing the temperature in the canner to fluctuate during processing.

7. Re-using canning lids; they are considered suitable for only one use.

8. Using screw bands that are bent, warped, or rusty.

Q: Can I can fruit without sugar? What about jams and jellies with lower sugar?
A: In home canning, sugar does not preserve fruit while it is sealed in the jar. However, fruit canned in water tends to have very little flavor. For those limiting the amount of sugar in their diet, use a light syrup of 5 cups of water for every 1/2 cup of sugar. It's also possible to can fruits with fruit juice or honey. For more information on this technique, read Canning and Preserving Without Sugar by Norma Macrae.

Jams and jellies made with less sugar can result in a watery product, but you may lower the overall sugar levels in the food by using a "no sugar needed" pectin. Pomona's Pectin is the only brand that truly doesn't require lots of sugar. (Other "low" or "no sugar" pectins require lots of sugar in the form of fruit juice.)

Q: When I can my fruit, it floats. I notice yours does, too. What's up with that?

A: Floating fruit is normal and is especially prevalent if you can fruit without cooking the fruit first. Fruit is full of air, and when it is cooked or canned, it loses air. This results in jars that don't look nearly as full as they did before you packed them with fruit. Instead, the fruit floats at the top of the jar. It is not a safety issue. (So why not just cook the fruit first? You certainly can. But I don't because the food then loses additional nutrients - and I have to add another step to the canning process.)

Q: I bought a rocker gauge for my pressure canner, but it didn't come with instructions. How do I use it?

A: If you don't want to have your pressure canner's dial gauge tested every year, you should buy a rocker gauge for your canner. For complete info on this, read this post. To use the rocker gauge, remove the weight vent that came with the canner and replace it with the rocker gauge. The gauge has three parts. If you use just the bottom piece, it will bring the canner to 5 lbs. pressure. If you use the bottom and middle part on top of each other, they'll bring the canner to 10 lbs. pressure. Add the top part, and the canner will come to 15 lbs. pressure. When the gauge rocks steadily, you know you've reached the right pressure.

Be sure to also check out last year's Canning Q & A.

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