Yes, You Can: Tips for Canning Your Garden Bounty

Kristy Athens

Kristy Athens › Kristy Athens is the author of Get Your Pitchfork On!: The Real Dirt on Country Living (...

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In my book Get Your Pitchfork On!: The Real Dirt on Country Living, I describe how few things are as satisfying as the pink-pink-pink of lids sealing after I’ve pulled hot jars from my canner. The best thing about canning is how easy it can be.

The purpose of a canner is to preserve food by first heating it to a temperature that kills mold, yeast, enzymes and bacteria hiding on or in it, and then by vacuum-sealing the jar so nothing else can get in. The key to safe canning is using clean jars and fresh, clean food, and making sure everything is hot. Jars, lids and screw bands can be sterilized in a bath of boiling water or in a dishwasher. The amount of processing time increases with elevation.

Do not re-use commercially canned jars, which are too thin and may shatter during processing or make an imperfect seal. You may reuse canning jars, but always buy new lids. The screw band part of the lid has two purposes: to hold the lid on during processing and after the seal has been broken. The screw band should not be left on the jars while they’re stored, at least not tightly, because doing so might actually break the seal.

In Get Your Pitchfork On!, I describe water bath and pressure canning. “High-acid” foods, like tomatoes and fruit, can be cooked in a water-bath canner. “Low-acid” foods, like vegetables and meat, need more intense cooking, which is done using a pressure canner. Here’s an abridged excerpt:

Water-Bath

The water-bath canner is a tall kettle; fill it with water so that it will be one inch deeper than the jar, and bring that to a boil. Meanwhile, start preparing your fruit. There are many recipe books for this. Fill your jars, cleaning the rims carefully, and put them in the water bath for a period of time that is recommended by the recipe and/or the manufacturer of the canner.

Hot-packed fruit is cooked; raw/cold-packed fruit is simply chopped up and put into the jars, and then hot water or syrup is added to fill up the airspace. You have to poke them around a bit with a rubber spatula to make sure the air is out (a few tiny bubbles are acceptable). I just used water for my peaches, and they turned the water into peach juice with no extra sugar. If you are cold-packing, really shove those peach slices in there because they will shrink during processing, and you don’t want a few slices floating around in a sea of water.

You’ll also need a set of canning tools: a jar-lifter, which grasps a jar and pulls it from the canner; and a lid-magnet, which pulls the lids from pot of boiling water. I use a canning funnel, which keeps the food off the rim of the jar (and off the counter), and a rubber spatula to work air bubbles from the food. I also have a couple of clean, wet and heated dishcloths, and a timer.

Pressure

A pressure canner’s steam is locked into the canner, which makes it much hotter, at least 240 degrees, to kill the bacterium that makes botulism. These devices are the ones that can explode. Simply because of the safety issue, this is something I would not buy second-hand, unless it were a recent model that came with its instruction booklet. You can have the gauge tested via your extension center.

This higher temperature makes it possible to preserve “low-acid” food like meats and vegetables. If you are canning something like salsa or soup, follow a recipe that has been published in a USDA-approved recipe book. Do not skimp on processing times, especially for dense foods like pumpkin. The contents of the entire jar, not just the outer edge, must reach 240 degrees Fahrenheit.

Most raw-packed vegetables shrink during processing, except starchy vegetables like corn, lima beans, peas and potatoes, which expand slightly.

Be sure to allow steam to escape the canner for ten minutes before closing the valve. Keeping the canner at the correct pressure can be tricky—you have to watch your burner and your gauge carefully. If it drops below pressure, you have to start over with the processing time. Once the food has been processed, let the canner cool naturally—don’t pour cold water on it or anything else. This could spoil the food and the canner both.

I recommend starting with fruit jam. Jam is the most forgiving of the canned foods: it’s easy to make and is completely salvageable. If it doesn’t set, use it as syrup, or add more pectin and cook it again. If the lid doesn’t seal, refrigerate that jar and eat it first, or process the jar again.

Sealed jars of food should be stored in a dry, dark, cool place that won’t freeze. They should be labeled with the contents and date. And then, they should be enjoyed! Their contents will remain edible for many years, but the flavor and nutritional value fades over time. Once you’ve got it down, you’ll use up everything from the previous year just as you’re canning your new batches.

There are numerous canning tutorials on the Internet. Many states have master food preservation programs, and Georgia houses the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

So: Can you can it? Yes, you can!

Do you can every year, or is this the first year you’ll be putting up your own preserves?

Pick up a copy of Get Your Pitchfork On! to get more great tips from Kristy.

Photo Credit: Kristy Athens