Food Canning: What You Need to Get Started

Looking for a way to naturally preserve food while also saving money? Look no further.

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Whether it’s growing vegetables or raising chickens, there’s something extra-satisfying about producing your own food. But the process of preserving those goods often eludes home gardeners and DIY foodies. Canning is one of the most rewarding ways to save food for later, and it isn't too hard or expensive to do.

Simply put, canning refers to the process of sealing fruits, vegetables, jams, stews, and other foods in an airtight container—usually a mason jar. By heating food containers and then boiling the canned products, you can minimize the proliferation of bacteria and other harmful microbes. This technique prolongs the life of canned foods by 1 to 5 years.

In some cases, canned foods can even last for decades. In the late 1930s, English chemists opened and examined several canned meats and vegetables that had spent more than a century in an Arctic outpost. They were in good condition, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Pressure canning is good for low acid foods, while steaming and boiling is better for high acid goods.

There are lots of ways to can food—from steaming to pressure cooking to good old-fashioned boiling. Usually, pressure canning is good for low acid foods, while steaming and boiling is better for high acid goods.

But whatever your method, the most important points are to sanitize the container, remove all air bubbles, and create a tight vacuum seal. Here, we’ve put together a list of resources to help you get started.


Containers

Water Bath Canner — This is a just a standard pot made of stainless steel or some other heat-resistant material. Meant for submerging cans for boiling, it is the most common type of canner, and it's cheap (here's a Granite Ware pot for just $20). But whichever kind of canner you buy, make sure you have a rack.

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A Victorio water bath canner.

Steam Canner — A lot of canning experts discourage steaming as a canning method. This is because steam is not as effective as boiling water when it comes to heating the center of the cans. However, steam canners are usually pretty cheap (Walmart has a 7-quart steam canner for $30) and easy-to-use; just don’t expect foods canned in this method to last as long.

Pressure Canner — While often more expensive than a traditional pot, pressure cookers are faster and can be used for a variety of other culinary purposes. You probably want a capacity of 20 to 23 quarts. Once again, make sure you have a rack for placing the cans. All American has a sturdy-looking cooker that'll cost you a shiny penny. If you're looking to go cheaper, check out this Presto model.

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An All American pressure cooker/canner.

Jars

It depends on what kind of food you want to can, but the standard pint-sized Ball or Kerr mason jars should do the trick, and they last pretty much forever (unless you drop them). Make sure the lids are free of dents and that the bands fit properly. Amazon has a whole bunch of containers to choose from.

The bands and lids start to wear out after only a few uses. But you don't need to buy a new jar when this happens—just some new Ball Mouth lids.

Jar/Lid Lifter

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Maneuvering boiling-hot jars of food is not to be taken lightly. Don’t use just any tongs you have lying around the kitchen; use a jar-lifter, shaped specifically to handle the awkward shape of mason jars. They’re only about $5.

Magnetic lid wands are helpful for lifting lids out of hot water. Some can also be used to remove air bubbles from cans prior to sealing.

Funnel

This is critical if you plan on canning jams, chutneys, or other semi-liquid foods. If you do choose to buy a funnel, try to find one that will fit to the mouth of the jar you're using, such as a wide-mouth Ball jar. This will help fill the jar evenly and limit the number of air bubbles.

Stovetop

There's a lot of debate over which type of stovetop works best for canning. Most seem to agree that a high-temperature gas range is the most reliable, as it heats quickly and provides a more or less uniform temperature. Because you need an even temperature differential, the real debate seems to be about electric ranges: Modern electric burners can get really hot, but they fluctuate at high temperatures. This proves problematic for creating seals and may even allow some unwanted bacteria to survive.

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A Sportsman DBCIS gas burner.

Coil burners, however, do not fluctuate and can reach temperatures that are both high and even. For this reason, many canners sweat by electric coil burners. Magnetic induction cookers are another option, as they combine the power of a gas top with the control and efficiency of electric—you just need magnetic, flat-bottomed cookware.


Getting Started

Amazon has a good section devoted to canning, but if you want to start from scratch we recommend buying a kit. You can find a complete one for less than $100.

As for recipes, Food.com and AllRecipes.com are good places to start, but if you’re looking for something more craft-specific, try Ball’s main site, FreshPreserving.com.

For an intriguing history of the craft, check out Harold McGee's essay on canning from Lucky Peach.

Finally, here’s a good video rundown of the canning process from Lowe’s.

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