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Canning Food 101: Water Bath Canning Basics

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canning food

Canning Food

In our household, canning food saves a great deal of money. We grow most of our own produce in our little front-yard garden and then we “put up” as much of it as possible, which is pretty much everything we don’t eat fresh right out of the garden. To can enough produce to last us all fall and winter long, we supplement our own garden with bushels of fruits and vegetables we get at our local farmers market, or from local farmers we trust.

Even though it’s a lot of work, I enjoy canning and preserving food for several reasons. First and foremost, canning allows me to know what is in our food, and most of all, what’s NOT in it. I don’t have to worry about toxins, excess sugar, preservatives and other things our family would rather avoid in our diet. Canning also allows me to store food and feed my family for a fraction of the cost. I can feed our family better quality food for cents on the dollar, compared to what I would get at the grocery store … even with coupons.

Canning food allows me to build up an emergency stockpile of food for my family. Whether it is a minor emergency or something much worse, I don’t have to worry about my family missing a meal. We always have food on our shelves, even when the paycheck is slim. That is a very comforting feeling in an ever-changing world.

Overwhelmed? Start small.

Canning food is not complicated. If you can follow directions, you can preserve food. It’s really that easy. And contrary to popular belief, canning is not expensive. There is an initial investment, yes, but the cost is recovered very quickly. Once you gather the basic supplies, you’re all set for many years to come.

Beginning canners often feel overwhelmed. The best way to learn how to can and preserve your food is to take baby steps and start simply.

Step 1: Buy a canning book.

The Ball Blue Book is an excellent book. I have used the same Ball Blue Book for over 12 years, and my grandmother’s copy is probably 50 years old! The book is full of tutorials, recipes and information that will benefit both beginning and advanced canners alike. Best of all? The Ball Blue Book is extremely affordable, and unless you lose it or give it away, you’ll never need to buy another one.

Prepare now for surging food costs and empty grocery store shelves…

Step 2:  Beg, borrow, barter or buy your basic canning equipment.

stock pot with canning rack

Canning Food with Canning Rack

There are only a few “must have” items for water-bath canning. Most of them can be bought inexpensively, and often you can find everything in one nice set. Some of them you probably already own. You’ll need:

  • A water bath canner. This is a large stockpot with a rack that fits snugly inside. The rack is necessary to keep your jars from breaking or exploding. (Don’t try to can in a stockpot you have at home without a rack. Jars can explode without the rack.) If you already have the stockpot, the rack can be purchased separately, just make sure it fits your pot.
  • Canning jars, lids and bands. You can use used canning jars and bands, but always use new lids. Most canners want a selection of half-pints, pints or quart jars for most of their canning needs. Always use dedicated canning jars as they are strong glass jars made especially for canning. I advise against using recycled glass jars from store-bought spaghetti sauce, mayonnaise, and so on as they are not as thick and durable.
  • When canning you’ll need plenty of dishtowels, dishcloths and pot holders. A few saucepans, measuring cups, spoons, and a timer will be necessary as well. Odds are you already have these items if you cook at all.

The following equipment is nice to have when canning food, but not necessary:

  • Jar lifter – makes the chore of getting your jars in and out of hot water easier.
  • Magnetic lid wand – helps you remove lids out of hot water, one by one.
  • Plastic knife or tool for removing air bubbles from your jars.
  • Large mouth canning funnel – I almost listed this one as a “must-have” because it comes in so handy! Makes packing jars cleaner and easier.

Step 3: You are now ready to try water bath canning. Pick a recipe!

There are two basic groups of foods you can process at home: high-acid foods and low-acid foods.  High-acid foods include tomatoes, most fruits, jams and jellies, pickles, salsas, and most relishes. High-acid foods can be canned in a boiling hot water bath and are great for beginning canners. Low-acid foods, like green beans, require the use of a pressure canner. While pressure canning is not hard to learn, it is not recommended for the first-time canner. Get your feet wet with high-acid foods and master water bath canning before you move on to low-acid foods and pressure canning.

Pick a recipe from your canning book to try. Tomatoes, salsa, applesauce and homemade jam are a few recipes that are easiest for first-time canners to try and master.

Step 4:  Follow the instructions for canning food to the letter.

Even as a veteran, I still follow the instructions very closely when I’m canning food. Food safety is just too important to mess around with. It is especially important for new canners to pay attention to the steps in a canning recipe. You should not skip any step. You may be tempted to skip over the process of getting your jars or lids hot, but this is very important and should not be missed. Pay attention to processing times. Do not cut them short, but do not go over the recommended processing time as this can “cook” your food and may result in broken jars or spoiled food.

If you follow these instructions and follow your canning recipes exactly, you will be successful with canning. Sure, there may be a few bumps along the way, but you’ll learn from your mistakes. I’ve been canning for many years and recently had a jar to explode in the bath, for no apparent reason (it probably had a miniscule crack I couldn’t see). Things happen. You just have to try it!

Happy Canning…

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