Canning is coming back! Canning is a really easy way to preserve the food fresh from the farm and lots of people are rediscovering it. I will tell you that home-canned food absolutely tastes better than anything from the store and if you try it, you will be hooked and never buy it’s store-bought equivalent again. I’m going to start a series here on some canning basics to get you started.
A lot of people find pressure canning to be kind of intimidating. It’s really not, but it does require a pressure canner, which can be kind of spendy, so I’m going to start with some general canning basics, and how to can with a waterbath. Waterbath canning is especially great because you don’t need a special pot to can in. You can use any pot in your kitchen, as long as it is 3-4 inches taller than the jars you will be canning.
I know that some people find canning in general to be somewhat intimidating because of the fear of Botulism and all the “rules” that you will find on all the “official” canning sites. I feel that understanding the process of what is happening when you can foods, is integral to feeling safe with which rules you must follow and which can be relaxed on.
First, let’s dispel some myths about Botulism. I never ever want anyone to experience it, but the vast majority of Botulism cases are actually not associated with canned foods at all! Many cases are just improperly handled foods purchased at food stalls. Another big group of Botulism cases is babies who were given honey or corn syrup.
To be safe, just keep your work area clean and make sure that the foods you’re canning are processed for the correct amount of time and in the correct method.
How Canning Works
There are two types of foods when it comes to canning, low acid and high acid foods. On the pH scale, low acid foods have a pH of 4.6 or higher. High acid foods, which can be canned in a waterbath are any with less than 4.6. Some low acid foods might be canned in a waterbath if they have some sort of high acid agent added to them, like vinegar with pickled foods and sugar with jams, jellies and syrups.
Notice how some foods may not be as high in acid as you think! Onion and peppers are low acid foods- even tomatoes, which everyone thinks of as high in acid are lower on the pH scale!
When the produce is packed into the jars, the lids and rings are put on and the jars are put into the canner. The canner heats up the produce to a temperature high enough to kill all the germs (ie Botulism spores). The waterbath canner heats up to about 212degrees, while the pressure canner heats up to 250degrees. The amount of time and pressure (in a pressure canner only) that are needed is dependent on how dense the produce is. The denser the produce, the longer time is needed and the higher the pressure needed.
Once the jars are removed from the canner, the sealing process begins. The air is sucked out of the jars as they cool, which causes the little popped up circle on the lid to go down and the jars are sealed, not allowing any air or germs inside.
Germs cannot live in a high acid environment, so high acid foods do not need anything special done to them to make them able to be canned. They can be canned in just water if you wish. I don’t recommend that though. I highly recommend canning fruit in a low sugar syrup. When fruit is canned in water, the flavor dissipates into the water, and then seems to disappear altogether. A sugar syrup makes the flavor stay in the fruit, and in many cases, the fruit will taste just like fresh when you eat it later in the year!
The Case With Tomatoes
You may have heard that modern tomatoes often do not have enough acid in them to be safely canned in a waterbath. I would consider this definitely true when it comes to tomatoes bought in the grocery store. You know the ones, they’re all the same size and shape and have a rather pink color instead of red no matter what time of year it is.
The jury is still out in regards to tomatoes bought straight off the farm.
Regardless, tomatoes are lower on the pH scale. They are between 4 and 4.6. I like to be on the safe side. Add a couple teaspoons of lemon juice to each jar before you put in the tomatoes or tomato sauce. Theoretically, you won’t be using the tomato product for a month or so, and by that point, the lemon juice will mild out and I promise you won’t be able to taste it at all (unless you’re a super taster. Sorry, there’s no help for that).
Waterbath Canning Supplies
Alrighty, we’ve covered all the safety information. Now let’s get to the meat of this post. Like I said above, waterbath canning is awesome because you don’t need a specialized pot. I do actually have a waterbath canning pot, but I prefer to use some of the other large pots that I have. I’ve collected many of them from thrift stores and a couple of the really large ones were gifts. Whichever size jar you’re planning on using, your pot should be 2-3 inches taller than them. Below is a photo of an actual canning pot. If you buy it new, it will come with a rack that fits in the bottom.
The rack keeps the jars from touching the bottom, allowing the water to flow all around the jars and keeping the jars from the direct heat, which might break them. If you don’t have one, you can use some canning rings or a rubber trivet in the bottom . In a pinch, I’ve even used a few butter knives laid out on the bottom of the pot!
Another indispensable tool is a jar lifter. As far as I can tell, there’s no alternative. If you have the rack in the bottom of your canner, you might be able to use it to get the jars out, but often that’s not possible because of the heat or the handles falling down. This one is a must for me.
A canning funnel is also a must-have for your canning endeavors. Generally they fit in wide mouth or narrow mouth jars and makes it a lot easier to get the product into the jars without spilling all over.
Of course jars, lids and rings are necessary. They come in many sizes. Jams, jellies, preserves and sauces are often done in 4oz, half pint or 12oz jars. Fruits and veggies are generally done in pint or quart jars depending on which size your family needs. You can choose between wide mouth and narrow mouth jars and lids. I like narrow mouth for sauces and fruits. Wide mouth are perfect for dilly beans and pickles.
There is one more little tool that is worth mentioning. It’s called a lid lifter. It’s basically a plastic stick with a magnet in the end to lift the lids out of the hot water. I really like mine, but it’s not an absolute must. You can easily use a butter knife to lift the lids up.
Lastly, you will need something to can.
I’ll get to the specific process in my next Canning Basics post!