Everything You Need to Know to Start Home Canning

How to Start Canning Food at Home
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There's no doubt about it; home canning is back - and in a big way! Whereas my parent's generation found canning food at home too much of a bother when grocery stores were so readily accessible, today, people are realizing home-canning gives their family more nutritious and healthy food than what comes from a store. Often at a lower price, too!

But many people are also intimidated by the process of home canning. It seems mysterious - even scary. (And it doesn't help that the media highlights seemingly every incidence of botulism related to home-canned food. But rest assured, these rare cases only occur because people egregiously break canning rules. For more info on this, hop over to "When Home Canned Food Goes Bad" and "What You Need to Know about Home Canning and Botulism.")

My own canning history reflects some of these feelings of intimidation. My initial interest was piqued in the 1990s, when I saw a magazine ad by the canning jar manufacturer Ball that offered a recipe for blueberry jam. My mother had several prolific blueberry bushes, so I was gung-ho to try this whole canning thing. But gathering the equipment seemed overwhelming. I thought it would be expensive to buy the things needed. (I was wrong, by the way.) And my mom, who recalled her own mother using wax to seal jars, kept telling me canning was a big pain. I gave up on the idea.

Home-canned applesauce.
Years later, after I married, my husband's grandmother re-introduced the topic of canning. She lived nearby and had a prolific vegetable garden. Wanting to share her abundance with us, she called me one day and said, "Would you like to learn how to can tomatoes?" I jumped at the opportunity.

Not only did we can those tomatoes together, but she then gave me her Ball Blue Book (with canning recipes and instructions), a water bath canner, and a few accessories. I was off and running! Using the Ball Blue Book and, later, The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, I taught myself to can everything from apples and peaches to meat and stew. I've now been canning for nearly 20 years.

I hope I can make canning easy for you, too. In this post, I'll discuss what you need to gather before you begin canning. When you're ready to actually can, check out my old posts on water bath canning and pressure canning. This year, I hope to update these posts with more photos (and maybe even video).

The Simple Science Behind Home Canning
(Or: Why Home Canning is Safe)

Many people fear canning because they don't understand it. That is to say, they don't know the science behind why canned meat, for example, stays safe to eat when it is stored on a shelf at room temperature. With that in mind, here's a simple explanation.

All food contains microorganisms that make it spoil. These microorganisms are in the very air we breathe. But correct home canning procedures control the growth of these microorganisms.

High acid foods (which include fruit, jams, jellies and other fruit spreads, pickles, relish, salsa, chutney, and tomatoes with added lemon juice or vinegar) must be heated to 212°F for a certain length of time in order to inactivate these microorganisms. Since this is the temperature of boiling water, this is easily achieved at home through the process of water bath canning (also called "boiling water" canning).
Canning salsa.

Low acids foods (which include vegetables, meat, soups, stews, and tomato-based sauces) must be heated to 240°F for a specific length of time in order to destroy the growth of botulinum (which is naturally occurring in the environment). Botulism spores can survive boiling water and they love a low acid environment free from air, which is why low acid foods cannot be safely water bath canned. Boiling water simply doesn't get hot enough - no matter how long you boil the food - to kill botulism spores. Therefore, low acid foods must be pressure canned.

Yes, there are people who water bath low acid foods. Don't be like them. This is a firm canning rule that if broken may cause botulism poisoning, like this lady, who water bath canned green beans, experienced.

Please also note that pressure canners are not the same as pressure cookers. For canning, only use a pressure canner, even if the manufacturer of your pressure cooker says it's acceptable for canning. (For more on that topic, click here.)

Generally, I recommend beginners start with water bath canning. It's not that pressure canning is difficult, it's just that most people are more intimidated by the pressure canner itself. Once you've had a bit of experience water bath canning, pressure canning will come easily.

Tools You'll Need to Water Bath Can
A water bath canner and rack.

Water Bath Canner: You can use a large cooking pot with a rack on the bottom, but because the water must be two inches above the top of your largest jars, it might be hard to find such a pot. (A heavy stockpot is a good option.) Also, it can be tricky to find a canning jar rack that fits the bottom of a cooking pot. (Such a rack is absolutely essential because without it, your jars will break during the canning process. Probably the best solution to this problem is to make your own jar rack.)

Fortunately, water bath canners (which come with racks) aren't terribly expensive, so it's probably easiest to just buy one. If you're on a tight budget, check thrift stores; I often see them for $10 or so. New ones cost about $30 on Amazon. I've seen them sell for less locally.

Jars: Best practice is to use actual canning jars. Yes, glass jars used for store-bought foods such as spaghetti sauce can work for water bath canning (definitely don't use them for pressure canning; they can't withstand that process), but you will find most are the wrong size for home canning lids.

When I was building up my collection of jars, I bought new ones when they went on sale, and I scoured thrift stores for boxes of used jars. (Jars can be used over and over and over again; just make sure they don't have any cracks or chips and that the jar rims are smooth; otherwise, jars may break in the canner or not seal properly once they are filled with food.) These days, Facebook Marketplace is a good place to look for used jars.

Although I have both regular ("narrow mouth") and wide mouth jars, when I have a choice, I always pick wide mouth jars. This is because they are easier to clean and easier to fill (unless you're canning a liquid, in which case regular jars work fine). They are also suitable for use in the freezer. (Regular canning jars have "shoulders" that crack when the food inside freezes and expands.)

In addition, canning jars come in different volumes: pint, quart, 24 oz. (perfect for canning asparagus), 4-, 6-, and 8-oz. (for jelly/jam), and gallon jars (which are only suitable for canning juice). Which size you choose depends on two things:

1. Your recipe. (Some recipes are only tested safe for a specific size jar. Never, ever use a larger jar than what is called for. You may use a smaller jar, but you must still use the processing time specified for the jar size called for in the recipe.)

2. Your personal preferences. (For example, I prefer to can chicken in pint jars because this is an ideal size for the recipes I use the chicken in.)

Canning jar rings.
Rings: New jars come with rings, which are metal, circular objects that hold jar lids in place. Rings can be used over and over until they become rusty. (To prevent rust, dry well before storing and keep away from moist areas, like basements.) If you have used jars and no rings, you can buy rings separately.

Lids: New jars come with lids, but lids should only be used once. Yes, there are some people who re-use them, but this is again one of those things that can lead to foodborne illness. (Used lids may not seal properly.)
Canning jar lids.

Lids come in regular ("narrow mouth") and wide mouth sizes. You do not need to match the brand of lid to the brand of the jar. I've taken to using Walmart's Mainstay's lids; they are less expensive and I think I get a better jar seal rate with them than I do with Ball or Kerr lids.

Jar Lifter: When jars come out of the canner, they are hot. The only safe way to remove them is with a jar lifter.  (There's a lot of confusion about how to hold jar lifters. The correct way is to put your hands on the straight handles and pick up the jar with the curved ends.)
Canning jar lifter.

Funnel: You'll probably need a funnel to fill jars. Not using one leads to dirtier jar rims, which can lead to the lids not sealing properly, which leads to the food spoiling. Use a funnel specially designed for canning jars.

Jar Bubbler: This little tool helps remove air from the jars before they go into the canner. But you can also use the handle of a plastic spoon. Don't use anything metal because it could damage your canning jars.

Headspace measurer: Headspace - the amount of empty space between the food in the jar and the lid - is really important. You can buy a special headspace measurer, or you can use an ordinary ruler, or you can just go by the screw bands on the jar. For more on that, hop over to "The Importance of Headspace in Canning."

Finding Safe Canning Recipes

My favorite canning book.
Do not use just any canning recipe you find on the Internet. A lot of them are not truly safe for canning. Instead, I recommend buying The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving (my favorite canning book, which also includes complete canning instructions) or the current Ball Blue Book. The National Center for Home Food Preservation is also a great, free online source, as is the Ball website. There is also the Bernardin website. (Bernardin is Ball's Canadian brand.)

In addition, there are canning recipes on this blog. They are all tested safe, unless otherwise noted. (I have posted a recipe for canning ham, which, after years of using, I discovered is not tested safe because there are no tested safe recipes for cured meat. The recipe is marked thus.)

Finding Food to Can

You may already have ideas on what types of food you want to can, but before you go out and buy (or grow) those foods, do be sure you're familiar with one of the recipe books above. This will ensure it is safe to can the food, and it will give you a complete picture of what you'll need to safely can it.

Ideally, the food you can will be either homegrown or purchased from a local farmer you trust. This way you know exactly what is (and isn't) in your food! It will also produce a better end product, assuming the food is harvest when ripe and was picked not long ago. That said, grocery store food is also perfectly safe to can.
A pantry of home-canned, high acid foods.

For even more info to get you started on canning, see these Canning Q & A posts:




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