Choosing the Canner That's Right for You

Choosing the Right Canner for You
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These days, buying a canner can be confusing. There are lots of options out there, and sorting out what you truly need - and won't be a waste of time and money - can be daunting. So allow me to walk you through what you do - and don't - need to start canning at home. 

What Do You Want to Can? 

The first and most important question to ask yourself is: "What do I want to preserve?" There are two basic types of canners, and which you select depends entirely on the type of food you wish to can. 

If you want to can pickles or fruit or fruit products (such as jam, jelly, applesauce, apple butter), you may use either a water bath canner or a steam canner to preserve them. 

If you want to can non-pickled vegetables or meat or meat products (like broth or stock), you will need a pressure canner to preserve them. 

Which Water Bath Canner is Right for You?

A granite ware water bath canner is an inexpensive way to get started with canning.

Water bath canning is often considered the easiest type of canning - or at least, most people find it less intimidating. It's also the type of canning that is appropriate only for high-acid foods, such as fruit or pickles. (This is because low-acid foods - like meat and non-pickled vegetables - are much more hospitable to rare but deadly botulism. To kill the botulism spores that cause botulism toxin to grow in sealed jars, you must heat the food to 240 degrees F. for a specific period of time. Water bath canners can only reach 212 degrees F., no matter how long you boil the food.) 

When it comes to water bath canning (sometimes called "boiling water canning"), it may surprise you to learn that you don't necessarily need to buy any special type of canner. A large, lidded pot, big enough to hold canning jars plus at least 2 inches of water above those jars, is all that's really required. The toughest part is finding a rack to fit on the bottom of the pot, since the canning jars cannot touch the bottom, lest they break during processing. One simple way to accomplish this is to tie canning jar rings together so they fit neatly on the bottom of your pot. Voila! You have a water bath canner! 

That said, pots made specifically for water bath canning often hold more canning jars and can be had inexpensively at garage sales and thrift shops. Even new water bath canners of the granite ware type aren't very expensive. (I found one with mostly 5 star reviews that is currently $13.71 on Amazon! But a more typical price is about $60.) Most people enjoy having a rack that easily lifts all the jars out of the pot and can be suspended on the pot's rim - something actual water bath canners come with. 

The downside to relatively inexpensive granite ware pots is that they eventually rust - so if you're sure you're going to can for years to come, you might want to invest in a stainless steel water bath canner (generally in the $60-$80 range). These should easily last your lifetime. Do avoid cheaper, thinner stainless steel canners, as they may easily crack, especially if you lift them up when they are filled with water. (Yes, I've had it happen!) 

VKP's stainless water bath canner.

Finally, you could consider an electric water bath canner. These are simply large pots with a built-in heating element at the base that is temperature-controlled. People often choose electric water bath canners if they have a glass top stove the manufacturer states shouldn't be canned on. The downside to electric water bath canners is that they require electricity, whereas a traditional water bath canner can be used not just on an electric stove, but also on a wood stove, or a gas or propane stove (including certain camp stoves, which is how many canners work around the flattop stove problem). In addition, electric water bath canners have a smaller jar capacity - a disadvantage to many homesteaders, but perhaps a bonus if you're single or just don't do large batch canning. Also bear in mind that while a stainless water bath canner will easily last a lifetime or longer, an electric water bath canner will only last as long as the electronics inside it can hold up. 

Ball's electric water bath canner.


Which Steam Canner is Right for You? 

A steam canner can be used instead of a water bath canner.

If you want to can high-acid foods like pickles and fruit, another safe option is to use a steam canner. Many people prefer steam canners to water bath canners because they are lightweight, require very little water to operate, and require less energy to run. In addition, steam canners make processing jars a bit quicker (because they take so little time to bring water to a boil; you should still use the same processing times as required with a water bath canner). Some steam canners also work on induction burners and glass top stoves. 

There are at least two styles of steam canners available: the type that looks like a stock pot and the type that is shaped like a cake pan, with a domed lid. Only the dome-style steam canners have been third-party tested safe; there are some concerns from the Extension offices that the stock pot style steam canners allow steam to move around the pot in such a way that the contents of the jars may not get thoroughly heated, killing harmful microorganisms. (At this time, they have not conducted testing to see if that theory is true.) 

Unfortunately, one downside to the dome style canners is that they have a gauge on top of the lid that faces the ceiling. If you're short, you will need to stand on a stepping stool to accurately read the gauge. But even if you're tall, you must carefully ensure you look straight down on the gauge in order to read it accurately. If you don't, you'll be subject to parallax - that is, depending upon your position, the position of the pointer on the gauge may appear to be in a different location than where it actually is. Not having the pointer in the correct position on the gauge means the canner isn't yet hot enough to kill harmful microorganisms that are potentially inside the jars. 

Steam canner gauge.


Another downside to steam canners is that they aren't appropriate for foods that require longer processing times. Because so little water is used in a steam canner, long processing times can result in all the water boiling away; this not only can warp and ruin the canner, but it can make the jars of food under-processed and therefore unsafe to store in the pantry. The processing limit on steam canners is 45 minutes, but if you too-rapidly boil the water, steam canners can go dry before that. 

What Pressure Canner is Right For You? 

Pressure canning carrots.

If you want to can meat (including fish and seafood), meat products (like bone broth), or non-pickled vegetables, you must use a pressure canner. Despite what some people on the Internet say, it's not safe to water bath these low-acid foods. (The reason is simple: Botulism spores are very common; once sealed inside a canning jar, they have the perfect environment to grow into botulism toxin, which is highly dangerous. Botulism spores are killed at 240 degrees F. and with home canning equipment, only a pressure canner can reach that temperature.) 

When shopping for a pressure canner, first be sure you are looking at pressure canners, not pressure cookers. Pressure cookers are smaller and therefore go up and down in temperature much faster than pressure canners. This means that if you can food in them, your jars don't sit at the temperature required to kill harmful microorganisms for a long enough period of time, making your jars of food unsafe. 

There are two basic types of pressure canners: Those with a dial gauge and those with a rocker gauge. (Some models have both.) Dial gauges must be watched periodically throughout the canning process, to ensure the pressure inside the canner is neither too high (resulting in siphoned jars that may not seal or are only partially full) or too low (resulting in food that's unsafe because required temperatures were not met). Such gauges should be checked every year for accuracy, something some hardware stores and many University Extension offices do for free each spring. 

On the left is a dial gauge. On the right is a vent that, in some models, can be replaced with a rocker gauge.

Rocker gauges require less monitoring. Once you know what the rocker gauge sounds like when the pressure inside the canner is at its the sweet spot, you don't need to have eyes on the canner. Instead, you can listen to the rocker and go about other business (like prepping more jars for canning!). No checkups are needed to safely use a rocker gauge. 

If a canner you like doesn't automatically come with a rocker gauge, sometimes one can be purchased and put on the canner of your choice. Just be sure to buy the rocker designed specifically for your canner and made by your canner's manufacturer. (I don't recommend purchasing off-brand rockers because they may not actually work with your chosen canner, despite what the manufacturer says.) 

In addition, most pressure canners have rubber gaskets that fit on the lid. Over time, these wear out and need replacing, though they are not expensive. Proper care of the gasket (per the manufacturer's instructions) can make these gaskets last a decade or more. Some pressure canners, however, do not have any gasket at all; instead, they have a metal-to-metal clamping system that should never need replacing. 

Most pressure canners are made from aluminum because it is lightweight. This not only makes the canner easier to lift when it is full of water and jars, but it makes the water inside the canner heat up quicker. However, some brands (like All American) are made of considerably heavier aluminum. This makes for better longevity, but some people find them too heavy to comfortably lift or move. 

The two most popular pressure canners: a gasket-less All-American (left) and a gasket-fitted Presto (right).

Another consideration is size. Clearly, the bigger the canner, the more jars it can process at a time. However, before buying a behemoth pressure canner, measure the amount of space between your stove's burners and your vent hood or kitchen cabinets. Not only does the lid of the canner need to easily clear these obstacles, but you'll want plenty of space between the steam your canner produces and your cabinetry, so you don't ruin the latter. If you like to fill your canner with water at the sink, you may also want to measure between the bottom of your sink and the top of your faucet - although most people find it easy enough to simply bring pitchers of water over to the stove to fill their canner. 

Also related to size is weight. Consumer-grade stoves are not designed to withstand heavy pressure canners filled with water and jars of food. (Older stoves may hold up to this weight better than newer ones.) I've had my heavy All American canner warp and ruin coils on my electric stove, for example. While you may be able to find a special, heavy-duty "cannering coil" that fits your electric stove, even these may not hold up well to the heaviest models. 

Another consideration is that many canners like to "double stack" their jars. This means they put a rack on the bottom of the pressure canner, then a layer of pint jars filled with food, then another rack on top of those jars, and then another layer of pint jars on top. Not all pressure canners are big enough to accommodate that second layer of jars. A 23-quart Presto will (though you'll have to buy a second rack), as will the 25-quart All American (which comes with two racks). 

To read my comparison of the top two pressure canners (Presto and All-American), click here.

It's also certainly possible to buy a used pressure canner, but I recommend you do so with a bit of caution. Make sure you are truly buying a canner (not a cooker) and make sure you can still get a copy of the user's manual. (Often, manuals are available online for free.) You may also wish to ensure that you can still buy parts for the canner, especially gaskets and gauges. Then I strongly recommend that you take the used pressure canner to your local Extension office and have them examine it. They will tell you if any parts need replacing, and will also advise you about the general safety of the pressure canner; modern pressure canners have multiple safety checks that prevent the canner from blowing up. Older models may not. 

Finally, you may be tempted to buy an electric pressure canner. Unfortunately, though, none of these have been third-party tested, and there are understandable concerns about them. The biggest one is that a pressure canner must keep the jars at a certain temperature for a specific length of time in order to kill harmful microorganisms. Current electric pressure canners have no safety features to ensure this happens every time. There's no way to calibrate the thermostats on these machines or test the electronics for failure. All it takes is for one wire to start getting worn for the temperature to no longer reach safe levels. Therefore, at this time, electric pressure canners are not recommended. 

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Water Bath Canning 101

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