Canning is a great way to preserve your garden harvest or farmer’s market bounty. You can have homegrown fruits and veggies year round!
There are so many great reasons to start canning your own food! Canning is cheaper (after the initial investment), healthier, and more eco-friendly than store bought. Read more about that in Food Preservation Part 1 if you missed it!
But getting started can be a little scary and overwhelming. Let’s go over some canning basics so you can get over your fears and get started preserving!
Canning Basics: Water Bath v. Pressure Canning
Water bath canning, also called boiling water canning, is basically boiling jars of food in a large pot, covered with water to seal and preserve food. This is the easiest, and less expensive, way to get started canning.
Water bath canning is used for high acid foods. Things like fruit, jams & jellies, tomatoes, and pickles. The high acid levels in the food plus heat kills off any spores or bacteria that could make you sick.
Low acid foods like most vegetables, soups, or meat must be canned in a pressure canner. The temperature in a water bath canner does not get hot enough to safely kill the spores and bacteria that can make your family sick. You don’t want to give anyone botulism!
A common mistake people make is assuming you can use a regular pressure cooker to pressure can foods. This is so wrong! And super unsafe! A pressure cooker does not reach a high enough temperature to safely kill all bacteria and spores.
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Whether you are water bath canning or pressure canning, there is some common equipment you need. Most of it is fairly inexpensive. Try to find some canning basics second-hand! Check thrift stores, garage sales, or ask friends and family if they have any equipment they can give, loan, or sell to you.
Water Bath Canner (or large stock pot) with Rack
If buying used, make sure it is free from rust, dents, or any tiny holes. This can affect the temperature inside the canner during processing.
A rack is important to keep the jars upright and off the bottom so they they aren’t rattling around, bouncing off each other, and possibly cracking while they’re boiling. You can buy a replacement rack for less than $10 if you have a pot to use but no rack.
There is a difference between a pressure cooker and a pressure canner. I have seen people online using their pressure cookers to can food. This is so unsafe! A regular pressure cooker does not reach high enough temperatures to kill all the spores and bacteria that can make your food go bad.
Pressure canners do cost more than water bath canners. You can easily spend hundreds of dollars, but there are some more economical ones too.
Pressure canners have more parts and upkeep to be concerned about than a water bath canner. There are seals and gauges that need to be tested regularly and occasionally replaced. A poor seal or inaccurate pressure gauge will result in food that is not safely canned. If you find a used one, either as a hand-me-down or at a thrift store or garage sale, make sure you take it to the hardware store to have the gauges tested for accuracy.
Buying canning jars is one of the biggest expenses when you’re just getting started canning. But once you make the investment, you can reuse them basically forever. They come in tons of different sizes and styles to can anything you can imagine!
Ask around and you may find some friends or family members willing to give or sell you jars they no longer use. Garage sales and thrift stores are another good place to look. Just make sure they are high quality jars made for home canning.
Years ago, many people re-used jars that weren’t made for home canning – things like pickle jars or jelly jars. The problem with this is these jars are often not as sturdy. They aren’t made to stand up to the heat, and are often a different thickness than real canning jars. The thinner rims on some other jars aren’t wide enough to make a good seal with the canning lids. These jars aren’t always made in standard canning jar sizes either, so the lids may not even fit at all.
Make sure all of your jars are free from scratches, chips, and cracks. The lids may not seal correctly if the rim of the jar isn’t in excellent condition. Even worse, jars might break, leaving you with a huge mess and wasted food.
Lids and Rings
Two piece lids are the best, safest way to home-can. They come in two sizes, regular and wide mouth. One of the two will fit any real canning jar made for home canning.
The flat lids have a rubber seal running around the edge. This is what keeps the jar sealed and your food safe. They are one time use, so use a new one every time.
The rings, however, can be used over and over as long as they are rust-free.
There are a few more tools you will need :
- Funnel: A funnel is helpful for pouring hot foods into jars with less mess
- Jar Lifter: A big set of tongs specially designed to securely grip canning jars to safely remove them from hot water.
- Air Bubble Remover/Head Space Tool (not pictured): This two-in-one tool is so important to ensure a good seal. One end is flat to slide in and remove air bubbles. The other has little notches to measure the head space.
- Magnetic Lid Lifter: While not a necessity, it is helpful. The lids are simmered in hot water to soften the seals. This tool makes it super easy to pull the lids out of the hot water as you need them.
You can purchase these tools individually, or as a set like this.
Other Canning Basics
- Towels – lots of clean towels
- Timer – your cell phone or oven timer work just fine
- Labels or permanent marker – to date and label jars
Home Canning Books
A good home canning book is so important. You never know when you might need to look something up quick while you’re working. They are full of canning basics, helpful tips, safety information, and tons of recipes. Plus, all of the recipes are fully tested for safety, so no worries.
Here’s some of my favorites:
Water Bath Canning Basics: Step-by-Step Directions
- Always start with a fully tested, reliable recipe.
- Wash & inspect jars, rims, and lids. Place the lids in a pot of simmering (not boiling) water to soften the seals.
- Place jars on rack in the pot. Fill with enough water to cover the jars by 1-2 inches of water and bring to a boil.
- Using jar lifter, remove jars from boiling water one at a time, pour out the water (from the jar – not the whole pot) and place on a clean towel on the counter. Using a funnel, carefully fill each jar.
- Measure head space (the space left between the food and the top of the jar) with the head space tool. If you don’t leave enough room, the contents of your jar will bubble over and leak out, leaving you with a mess and a poor seal. If you leave too much room, there will be too much air to get a proper seal.
- Remove air bubbles by sliding the flat end of the tool down the side of the jar and run it through food towards the center. Do this 3 or 4 times to make sure all the air is removed. Air bubbles can mess with the seal just like leaving too much head space. Double check that you still have the correct head space after removing air bubbles.
- Wipe the rims with a clean towel. Any food left on the rim can interfere with the seal.
- Using the magnetic lid lifter, take a lid from the simmering water and place on jar. Twist on the ring. Do not over-tighten. The ring is only to hold the lid in place until the lids seal.
- Return jars to the pot. Make sure they are sitting flat and upright on the rack. Bring water back up to a boil.
- Once boiling, cover the pot and start the timer.
- When the timer goes off, remove the pot from the heat, remove lid, and let jars sit in hot water 5 minutes.
- Remove jars with the jar lifter and place on a towel on counter, leaving space between jars, to cool. Soon you will start to hear “Pop!” That is the sound of success! They’re sealed! Leave them to cool, undisturbed, for 12-24 hours.
- Remove rings and check the seal by pressing on the lid. If a lid does not seal properly, the food is still safe to eat, but must be stored in the fridge rather than in the pantry.
- Label and date jars. You might think you will remember what is in every jar, but better safe than sorry. A mystery jar of who-knows-what that is who-knows-how-old is never good. You can find tons of cute labels online, but I prefer to simply write on the lid (since you can’t reuse them anyway) with a permanent marker.
- Store the jars, and done! Canning success!
Once you learn a few canning basics, it doesn’t seem so intimidating anymore. Choose a reliable recipe, and start canning!
Feeling comfortable with these Canning Basics?
Now that you’ve learned some canning basics, let’s move on to Food Preservation for Beginners Part 3: 11 Beginner Canning Mistakes & How to Avoid Them.
Missed part 1? Check out an overview of the different types of food preservation in Food Preservation for Beginners Part 1: The Basics of Food Preservation.