Home canning: waterbath canner
Up until this month our food preservation of things like spring berries or spices meant dehydrating or freezing them. This week, with the figs ripening, and pears about to harvest. our home-canning season has started. In case you’ve never tried canning, this week I am going to cover water bath canning.
First, you need a water bath canner. The best place i have found for that in the USA is your local Walmart, and since that store is all over the world it might be a good place to look wherever you live. If you order one online, in the USA they have a “ship to store” free shipping option you might use. For beginners I recommend the $35 set that comes with all the tools. If you can afford it, I suggest you buy a second one without the tools for $20 since these are spatterware, and if the enamel chips, they will eventually rust. (Two is one and one is none – get a spare.)
The best places I have found for jars and lids during harvest season is the chain Dollar General. The Golden Harvest brand is made by Kerr, so why pay for the expensive Ball brand? You can re-use the rings that come with the jars, but always get extra lids! In the off-season, Ace Hardware always has canning jars in stock, and they run specials on jars a couple of times a year so if you get an Ace flyer, watch for those. Save the plastic wrapped cardboard flats they come in to store your finished canned goods. The boxes stack well, and come with dividers to keep the glass jars from hitting other jars. Optional: the pricey Tattler lids are reusable.
I also recommend you get the Ball Blue Book of Canning (add it to your Walmart order for the best price). Great for beginners. Note: If you want to do sugar-free canning you CANNOT modify regular recipes on your own, and the sugar-free recipes on the internet are not trustworthy. You’ll need something like Canning and Preserving Without Sugar by Norma Macrae, available via Amazon.
I’m just going to give you some basic guidelines on the most common items canned: jams & jellies, fruit, and pickles.
Before you can anything, wash off/out the new canner and utensils. I use the heated water bath to sanitize my jars and lids and like to have a towel on the counter to lift the wet jars onto once they are sanitized of processed. Have a clean washcloth nearby to wipe off the jar lip before sealing. That little wand with the magnet on the end is great for fishing lids out of boiling water, but I find the tongs better for lifting out jars than the tool provided for the purpose. By far, the most useful thing in the kit is the canning funnel. It really keeps the jar lips clean!
Jams & Jellies are usually the gateway drug to the addictive practice of making your own canned foods. To reiterate, the amounts of sugar in jams and jellies can be mind-boggling but keep in mind that this is something you eat maybe a tablespoon’s worth at a time. Follow the recipes exactly or you’ll end up with home canned syrup, or a a jar of nearly hardened candy mess. General tips: Follow the directions on the pectin to the letter. Make small batches and change things for the next small batch until you the jam the way you like it. Wax seals are inefficient and will often lead to spoiled foods, I’d not even try them. I label my lids with magic marker (date & contents), and only reuse those lids for storing dehydrated things once the jar is empty. Pro tip: if you have pinking shears you can cut fabric to put between the ring and the lid, especially for gifts which can also have fancy labels. Of course, fabric to keep dust off of the lids is optional but DO remember to dust off the lid before you open something.
Canning fruit is very, very straightforward. Most fruits are tart, but when the recipe says to add lemon juice, remember that acidity is part of what makes water bath canning safe – so don’t leave it out. Pro tip: make your applesauce in a crock pot and put that directly into the hot jars to process. I also suggest you try to make a pear with ginger sauce.
Pickles, ah pickles. When it says “this much vinegar” follow the recipe. Don’t say, “that’s too tart!” and use less or your pickles will be soft (yuck.) Another cause for soft pickles is the wrong kind of salt. You want canning salt, which has no additives like iodine. And use Kirby cucumbers, not the kind you use in salads. I also like West Indian Burr Gherkins for pickling, since I grow them. They are insect, deer and heat resistant.
The simplest pickles are dill spears, but you can experiment. And I highly recommend a mandoline slicer. You can then make pickle chips, and long-sliced sandwich thins. Add a food processor, or even a cutting board and a knife, and you can make relish. There are other vegetables you can pickle: green beans, okra, three-bean salad, cauliflower, and more.
What we do is make enough refrigerator pickles for their three-month shelf life (no processing required) and then enough canned pickles to get us through to the next season.
Please share tips and recipes in the comments.
Next week we will cover pressure canning.
In reviewing this I realize I forgot to mention that it is totally unsafe to can anything like meat or non-acidic vegetables in a water bath canner! The recipes will tell you that, but still – I want to emphasize it here.
Low acid foods require a pressure canner, which I will talk about next.
12 half-pints of fig jam, grocery store cost $4 each = $48 worth of food . Since we grew the figs ourselves and only bought the walnuts (which we can get locally), sugar, and miniscule amounts of spice our total cost was $2 for all 12 (not counting the reusable jars). Take that, Burrito Index!
Thanks for the useful tips for beginners. It is always a hurdle to try something new. The lower the bar to entry, the more likely it will be attempted.
For canning supplies, there is no place like garage (garbage) sales. People get ideas that they want to do something like canning and do it for a few years. Then, they abandon it for one reason or another. (It is a bit of work.) Eventually, it is seen as clutter to be disposed. Go on Sunday afternoon and ask if they have any canning supplies. They may just decide then and there that it is time to clean house. It will be the best bargain around.
I have many different kinds of fruit trees/plants and I'm always looking for ways to preserve the goodness. The recipes in the pectin boxes will produce a beautiful lemony preserve. If you plan to win a ribbon at a local fair, this is the way to do it. I'm more interested in capturing the fruit's flavor than the appearance. I also prefer a thick, flowable product to something so hard that it takes a knife to cut it. Forget spreading it on delicate breads.
I heed the pectin's recipe warning that a soft, runny product will result if one doesn't follow the recipe exactly. As such, my standard approach is to double the fruit, add half again as much sugar, omit the lemon juice, and process as they suggest. I also puree the fruit in the blender because chunky syrup doesn't work as well as chunky jam. If the recipe calls for 5 cups of fruit, 1/4 cup of lemon juice, 6 cups of sugar, and 1 packet of pectin, I'll use 10 cups of fruit, no lemon juice, 9 cups of sugar, and 1 packet of pectin. What results is somewhere between a jam and a syrup. I call it "chyrup" pronounced "cheer up."
Because it doesn't necessarily have the proper acid balance and isn't as sugary, the chyrup will go bad eventually – even with pressure cooking. I've had jars of goodies go bad in as little as 3 years. Once opened, the jars need to be consumed within a month or so even with refrigeration. I consider it more like fresh fruit in a jar. Would you expect peaches to remain fresh in your refrigerator for months?
I didn't see you recommend buying a jar lifter. It looks like salad tongs, with curved ends that you can use to grip the top of a jar in boiling water. If you haven't been using one, you'll wonder how you got by without after getting one!
Also worth mentioning is the difference between hot water bath and hot pack. Very acidic things don't need to be water-bath canned if you can them immediately after boiling them. Jams and jellies come to mind.
Also worth mentioning for jam/jelly for diabetics or others who prefer less sugar is Pomona (low methoxyl) pectin. You can use that with as little as 25% sugar. Certo also sells a "no sugar" pectin, but I have not had great results with it.
I second that, Bytesmith: I've found Certo no-sugar pectin to be useless.