There is nothing quite as satisfying as looking in the pantry and seeing stacks of colorful jars that hold the fruits of your canning labor. They tell the story of summer afternoons and bring a taste of those summer memories into the grey depths of winter. I am a novice canner. I only started a couple of years ago and have not yet graduated to pressure canning. However, there is still so much that you can do using just a few pieces of equipment, simple techniques and a little time.
At its most basic, canning is packing hot food into clean hot jars with sealing lids and processing in boiling water. Not everything can be canned this way. Water bath canning is only appropriate for high acid foods like pickled vegetables, berries, peaches and tomatoes (which technically are medium acid foods and require the addition of lemon juice or citric acid).
What You Need
My must haves: a jar lifter, tongs, jars and new canning lids, a pot big enough to hold your jars plus two inches of water above them, a small saucepan to heat the lids, delicious organic ingredients and whatever you need to prepare the food that is going into the jars.
That’s it. There are other things you can use or that make it easier or go faster but this is really the basics.
Find a Recipe
There are a ton of great recipes out there. Two of my favorites come from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable, Miracle: the “Family Secret Tomato Sauce” and “Relish, Sauce and Chutney—All in 1 Day” (now I just turn it all into sweet and sour sauce). Eventually I will feel confident to wing it but for safety sake I always find a recipe.
Prepare Your Foods
Sometimes this can take a long time, and I mean a really long time. My enchilada recipe simmers for 8 hours! Many a day I have had every burner loaded with a pot of tomatoes bubbling away all day long. While this is going on you can sterilize your jars in the dishwasher or boil them in your canning pot for 10 minutes. Toss the lids into a small saucepan and heat them up, you don’t need to boil the heck out of them, just keep them at a nice simmer.
This is the critical part: pack your hot food into your hot jars leaving ¼ to ½ inch of headspace, a canning funnel makes this easier but you can do it with a good ladle. Wipe off the rims if anything has gotten on them with a clean cloth or damp paper towel, and pop the lids on. Once they are all full put them in your big pot of water. Canners come with a little rack that holds them off the bottom of the pot but you can use a dish towel or extra jar rings to do the same thing. (Don’t tell anyone but I have canned without anything under the jars.) Make sure that there are 1-2 inches of water over the top of your jars. Put the lid on and bring it back up to a boil. Once it is boiling start the countdown! When the time is up, lift the jars out of the water with the aptly named jar lifter and set them out to cool. Somewhere that they can sit for a while (like overnight) and where there is enough room they can have space between them.
Once the jars are cooled, make sure they are sealed by taking off the ring, and lifting the jar from the lid. If it is properly sealed you will be able to lift the jar. Another way to check for a good seal is to press the center of the lid and see if it makes a click or pop sound. When sealed, the lid will be sucked down tight and will make no noise. Now you can wash them if necessary, label them and stack them in the pantry!
Really it is not hard! It takes time (like most things that are really worthwhile) but when you see your pantry full of home canned jars and taste that fresh tomato sauce in February, you will wonder how you ever survived the long cold winter without them.