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When I was a kid growing up on my family’s little farm, we always spent a good part of the year raising a garden and preserving food. Canning time started in late spring, when we would can the first crop of the year--greens from the garden. Once June came around, the canning season was in full swing--it was then time to pick and shell peas, and harvest the strawberries. Oftentimes, we kids would eat more strawberries than we would pick. Throughout the rest of the summer and fall, we would can tomatoes and beans, make sauerkraut, put up ears of sweet corn in the freezer, spending hours sitting on the back porch and in the kitchen helping our parents prepare the food for canning. In the fall, the apple trees in our yard would give us an abundance of apples, and I would help my mom can quart after quart of applesauce and pie filling.

Many a story was passed down to us kids as the whole family would sit outside under the shade of a big sycamore tree in our yard, breaking up beans. We heard our dad’s stories of how he managed to survive the Great Depression, and our mom’s tales about the mine strikes in Harlan County, KY, where she grew up. We would all sit around and talk about the things we did while we were away at another relative’s house, what happened at school, or anything else that came up as a topic of discussion. To us, that was our family time.

But here I am, talking about the good old days…and I’m supposed to be teaching you how to can!

Canning has a lot of advantages over freezing as a method of food preservation--especially if you live in a rural area where a storm could knock the power out for weeks. Home canned foods need no electricity in order to remain safe to eat. In an emergency situation in which clean water is difficult to come by or outright unavailable, canned foods require no water for cooking, since most foods are already packed in a liquid.

If you are new to canning, learning how to use a water bath canner is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to get started. You can buy a water bath canner for less than $20, or if need be, you can use any large pot or kettle with a tight fitting lid, as long as you can rig up some sort of rack in it to keep the jars from touching the bottom of the pot. The pot needs to be deep enough to cover the jars with about 2 inches of boiling water.

You can find jars for about $8 to $10 a dozen at most big box stores, or you can dig around and find them used at flea markets and yard sales for very little money--I bought a large box full of canning jars last summer for about $1 at a yard sale. Don’t try to use the commercial glass jars that stuff like spaghetti sauce comes packaged in at the grocery store--the vast majority of them aren’t made to withstand home canning, and oftentimes, mason jar lids won’t fit them correctly anyway. If you’re using used jars, you’ll need to buy lids and rings. A box of lids with rings costs about $4 or $5, but you can re-use the rings many times. Rings rust very easily. I dry them by hand after I wash them, and store them in a spot where they will be exposed  to as little moisture as possible--that way, they will last for years. Lids can only be used once--you can buy them very cheaply, though, often for less than  $2 a box. If you can still find them in the stores in the winter, they will often be on clearance for even less. A relatively new thing I’ve seen on the market are the Tattler lids--they consist of a lid with a reusable rubber ring. I haven’t tried them, so I can’t speak for how well they work.

You will also need a few other tools--a jar lifter is a must-have for getting the jars in and out of the boiling water. A wide mouth kitchen funnel is handy for packing the jars. You will also need some sort of non-metal tool to stir the bubbles out of the jars once you pack them. A decent little kit containing all of the above can be had for about $5 or $6. Otherwise, you will mostly just need common tools and utensils most people already have in their kitchens.

Now that we’ve talked about the kind of equipment you’ll need to get started, we can discuss what you can actually do with a water bath canner. With this type of canner, you’re limited to canning high acid foods such as fruits, jams and jellies, or pickled goods--that is, foods with a pH of 4.6 or lower. The lower the pH of a given food, the more acidic it is, and vice versa. Lower acid foods, such as green beans, must be canned in a pressure canner--a water bath canner doesn’t get hot enough to kill the botulism spores that like to grow in most vegetables and meats.

To get started, I’ll walk you through the process of canning plain fruit or tomatoes. The ones I chose are among the easiest to process. Most fruits turn out best if they are hot packed--meaning they are cooked a bit before being packed in the jars. With that said, I’ve had better luck with most berries, such as blueberries or raspberries, if I raw pack them. Raw packing refers to packing the product in the jar without cooking it first. Those are some terms you’ll hear frequently when you’re reading canning recipes. Tomatoes need to have lemon juice or vinegar added to them in order to safely can them in a water bath canner.

I’ll also show you how to make different types of syrup to pack fruit in. Fruit can be packed in plain water, fruit juice, or sugar syrup. You can even use honey or molasses as a substitute for part of the sugar. In addition, I'll show you how to make a syrup using Splenda, for those who want some sweetness added to their fruit, but need to forgo the extra calories.

You will need:

Water bath canner, or a large kettle with a rack in the bottom with a lid
Large kettle for boiling water or making syrup
Small saucepan for heating up the lids and rings
A knife for peeling, coring, and cutting up the fruit
Colander
A large bowl
Measuring cup
Jar lifter
Kitchen funnel
Nonmetal spoon or stirrer
A fork, or one of those little magnetic tools used to lift lids and rings out of hot water
A couple of large stirring spoons--these can be metal
Paper towels or clean kitchen towels
A couple of old towels to cover the jars once they are done
Jars, lids, and rings
Fruit for canning (see chart below)
Sugar or other sweetener for making syrup, or fruit juice, if desired
Lemon juice, for canning tomatoes or blueberries

The first thing you will need to do is to thoroughly clean and sanitize your work area. I like to keep a spray bottle with a little bleach and water handy to clean up spills as I work. Next, gather all your supplies. Wash and rinse the jars, lids, and rings in dish soap and hot water. Carefully inspect each jar to make sure it doesn’t have any cracks, and run your finger along the rim of each jar to make sure it doesn’t have any little chips or nicks--if you find one that does, set it aside. Such a jar can no longer be used for canning, since it might not seal properly. As long as the jar doesn’t have a big crack, you can still use it to store small objects, or even small amounts of things like powdered sugar or coffee.

Now you need to sterilize the jars. Some experts claim that running the jars through the dishwasher will do an adequate job of sterilizing them. Being kind of old-fashioned, I don’t know if I quite trust that, so I boil my jars. Place your canner (with the rack in the bottom) on the stove, using your largest burner on an electric stove. (A note about electric stoves--your canner should have a flat bottom, or it might not heat up properly.) Place the jars in the rack, and start filling the canner with water. I like to pour the water in the jars first, then add water around them. This will keep the jars from floating around and possibly getting chipped or nicked. Pour enough water in the canner to cover the jars by at least 2 inches. Then put on the lid, and turn on the burner as high as it will go. Bring the jars to a hard boil, and let them boil for at least 10 minutes to thoroughly sterilize them. You can use the same water you sterilized the jars in to can your fruits once you have them ready. Just leave the water boiling while you pack the jars.

It will take that big pot of water a little while to boil. You can spend the time you are waiting prepping your fruit, and getting it ready to pack. If you want to keep the fruit from turning brown, slice it into a large bowl filled with a solution of fruit fresh and cold water. I use about a tablespoon per gallon of water. Just drain it before you cook the fruit in the syrup, or raw pack it into the jars. Once the jars start boiling, put your lids and rings in a small saucepan with enough water to cover them, and bring them to a boil. Turn them off and let them sit in the hot water until it is time to use them. You can use a fork--or better yet, one of those little magnetic lid lifters to fish them out of the water. When it’s time to pack your jars, remove the jars from the boiling water using the jar lifter, and place them in the area where you are going to fill them. A kitchen funnel makes packing the jars much cleaner and easier.

Once you have filled the jars, you’ll need to stir them a bit to remove any air bubbles, leaving the appropriate amount of headspace. Headspace is just a little space left at the top of the jar, which allows the food to expand as it cooks. If you see that you have too much headspace once you have stirred the jars, just add a little more hot liquid to make up the difference. Once you have packed the jars, you will want to clean off their rims using a wet paper towel or a damp kitchen towel to remove any food or syrup, which could prevent the jar from sealing properly. When putting on the lids and rings, you don’t need to tighten the rings all the way--they need to be just tight, so air can still escape from the jar.

When you have the jars packed and ready to go, it will be time to process them. Use the jar lifter to put the jars back in the canner. Put the lid back on, but don’t start timing it until the water has returned to a hard boil. Notice that the greater your altitude, the longer the processing times.

Amount of Fruit Needed For A Canner Load
Fruit                    Amount for 7 Quarts             Amount For 9 Pints
Apples                           18-20 lbs.                           12-13 lbs.
Apricots                         16 lbs.                               10 lbs.
Blueberries                      12 lbs.                               8 lbs.
Cherries                         18 lbs.                               11 lbs.
Peaches                         18 lbs.                               11 lbs.
Tomatoes                       21-22 lbs.                          13-15 lbs.

Making Syrups

The type of syrup you choose to pack your fruit in makes no difference in the processing times, and it’s purely a matter of personal taste. However, tarter fruits taste a lot better (at least, to me) if they are packed in a sweetened syrup instead of juice or plain water. When using juice, I prefer to use frozen juice from concentrate diluted with water if freshly squeezed juice is not available. Something about re-canning a product that has already been canned once seems like a recipe for food poisoning to me. To make the syrup, just put all the ingredients in a large pot or kettle and bring it to a boil. Then turn it down and allow it to simmer until you are ready to use it. It is best to make your syrup right before you are going to use it.

Type of Syrup           9 Pint Canner Load        7 Quart Canner Load
Water                      7 cups                        10 cups

Fruit juice                 7 cups                        10 cups

Splenda syrup            7 cups water or           10 cups water or
                               fruit juice                    fruit juice            
                              1/4 cup Splenda            1/2 cup Splenda
                              1/4 cup sugar               1/2 cup sugar

Light sugar syrup       7 cups water                9 cups water
                              1 cup sugar                 2-1/4 cups sugar

Medium sugar syrup    6 cups water               8 cups water
                              3-1/4 cups sugar          5-1/2 cups sugar

Heavy sugar syrup     5 cups water                8 cups water
                              3-1/4 cups sugar          5-1/2 cups sugar

Honey or                  6 cups water               8 cups water
Molasses syrup          2 cups sugar               2-1/2 cups sugar
                              7/8 cup honey or         1 cup honey or
                              molasses                    molasses

Apples  For sliced canned apples, you’ll want to use one of the sweeter varieties, such as Macintosh or Rome, especially if you want to pack them in juice or plain water. For tarter varieties of apples, like Granny Smith, use a heavier sugar syrup. Wash, peel, core, and slice the apples. In a large pot, bring the liquid you want to use to pack the fruit in to a boil, stirring occasionally. (See instructions for making syrups.) Add the apples, and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Then drain the fruit, reserving the liquid in a large pot. Bring the liquid to a boil, and pack the jars with the fruit, leaving one-half inch headspace. Pour boiling liquid into the jars, and stir to remove any bubbles. Wipe the rims of the jars clean, using a wet paper towel or kitchen towel. Put the lids and rings on, and process according to the chart below. I personally like apples packed in molasses syrup--yum!

Apricots  Wash the apricots. Apricots can be peeled just like tomatoes.  Bring a kettle of water to a boil, and dip the fruit in the water for a minute or so to loosen the skins. Then remove them from the boiling water, and dip them in a sink filled with ice water. The skins should slip off easily. Cut them in half, and remove the pits. Slice up the apricots.  Prepare the cooking liquid of your choice, and add the fruit. Bring to a boil. Drain the apricots, reserving the cooking liquid. Bring the liquid back to a boil while packing the jars, leaving ½ inch of headspace. Stir to remove any air bubbles,  wipe the rims of the jars, and put on the lids. Process according to the table below.

Blueberries  These are super-easy to can. Just pick through the berries to get id of any little stems, leaves, or mushy looking berries. Then rinse them thoroughly in cold water. Drain a bit in a colander. Then pack the jars with the berries, shaking them a little to help pack them down. Add one tablespoon of lemon juice per pint jar, or two tablespoons per jar for quarts. This makes them more acidic, and less likely to spoil. Leave about  ½ inch of headspace. Then pour in the packing liquid of your choice, and stir to remove any air bubbles. Wipe the rims, put on the lids, and process.

Cherries Wash the cherries, then remove the stems and pits. A cherry pitter can come in handy here, but if you have to, just cut them in half and remove the pits that way. Prepare the packing liquid of your choice in a large kettle. Add the cherries and cook for about 5 minutes. Drain the cherries, reserving the cooking liquid. Pack the cherries into the jars, leaving ½ inch of headspace.  Bring the reserved liquid back to a boil, and pour into jars over cherries. Stir to remove any air bubbles. Then wipe the rims clean, and put on the lids and rings. Process according to the times listed below.

Peaches  Wash the peaches, and peel by dipping them in a kettle of boiling water for about a minute. Them dip them in a sink filled with ice water. Remove the skins, then slice them in half. Remove the pits and slice the fruits. Peaches are one thing I always soak in a little fruit fresh solution--brown looking peaches are just not that appetizing. Prepare the packing liquid of your choice in a large pot. Add the sliced peaches, and bring to a boil. Drain the water, reserving the cooking liquid. Pack the jars, leaving ½ inch of headspace. Bring the liquid back to a boil and pour it into the jars. Stir to remove the air bubbles. Then wipe the rims of the jars and put the lids and rings on. Process.

Tomatoes I personally prefer to can tomatoes in a pressure canner. Depending upon the cultivar and growing conditions, tomatoes can sometimes have a pH higher than 4.6--making them too low-acid to safely preserve in a water bath canner. This problem can be solved, however, by adding 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to each pint jar of tomatoes, or 2 tablespoons to each quart.  The best canning tomatoes are of the paste types, such as Roma or Amish paste.  To can tomatoes, first wash them in cold water. Then dip them in boiling water for about a minute, or till you see the skin starting to split. Then dip them in a sink filled with ice water. Remove the skins, and cut out the green stem area. Quarter the tomatoes, and  pack them in the jars, leaving ½ inch of headspace.  Add lemon juice, as discussed above. Then add boiling water to the jars, and stir, removing any air bubbles. Wipe the rims of the jars clean, and put on the lids and rings. Process.

Processing Times
Product      Pack   Jar    0-1,000 ft.    1,001-3,000 ft.    3,0001-6,000    Above 6,000
Apples        Hot    Qt/Pt   20 min.           25 min.              30 min.             35 min.

Apricots      Hot    Qt.      25 min.           30 min.              35 min.             40 min.
                         Pt.       20 min.           25 min.              30 min.             35 min.

Blueberries   Raw   Qt.      20 min.           25 min               30 min.              35 min.
                          Pt.      15 min.           20 min.              25 min.              30 min.

Cherries       Hot   Qt.      20 min.           25 min.              30 min.              35 min.
                         Pt.       15 min.          20 min.               25 min.              30 min.

Peaches      Hot    Qt.      25 min.          30 min.               35 min.              40 min.
                          Pt.      20 min.          25 min.               30 min.              35 min.

Tomatoes    Raw   Qt.      45 min.          50 min.               55 min.              60 min.
                          Pt.      40 min.          45 min.               50 min.              55 min.                

Once the processing time is over, it will be time to remove the jars from the canner. Be very careful--the jars are extremely hot! I can’t count the number of times I’ve accidentally burned myself removing jars from the canner. To protect your table or counter top, spread a double layer of old towels over the area near your stove where you will cool the jars. Then, using the jar lifter, pull them out of the canner and set them in your cooling area, leaving an inch or so of space between the jars. Cover them with some more towels to protect them from drafts. Pretty soon, you should hear the lids start to pop. After the jars have cooled, check each of them to make sure they sealed. The lid should not move up and down when you press on it. If it does, put that jar in the fridge and use it right away. If you can’t use it soon, you can take it out of the jar and freeze it.

Store your canned foods in a cool, dry place. That can be in a pantry, a basement, a root cellar, or even a closet. I have jars of strawberry jam stashed under my bed--I’ve got so much canned food around here I’m running out of room for it all.

This diary is just a basic introduction to canning. (And please excuse my slightly crooked columns--but I couldn't figure out how to insert a chart into one of these diaries.) There are many good books and online resources that will teach you how to can a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

In Part 2, I’ll show you a few more things you can do with a water bath canner--how to make pie fillings, and apple butter, and how to can fruit juice and applesauce.

Originally posted to Practical Survivalism and Sustainable Living on Wed Nov 23, 2011 at 06:21 AM PST.

Also republished by Urban Homesteading, Toolbox, and Community Spotlight.

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