Happy harvest season, friends! As this pandemic drags on, more people are thinking about the availability and preservation of food. In most grocery stores, the vinegar and canning supplies are sold out daily. Seeing these shortages makes me worry about all these novice canners. A second pandemic of botulism and food poisoning could be on the horizon, but with a little information and the right tools, this is easy to avoid. So let’s get canning!
First off, we’re going to need Mason jars and fresh lids. If they’re sold out at the supermarket, keep in mind that many local hardware and feed stores also carry them, and you can always order online. Mason jars can be reused, but the lids should be purchased new for each batch to ensure a good seal. You can buy the lids separately and they’re inexpensive.
Next you’re going to need a canner. For acidic fruits and vegetables and preserves with a pH below 4.6, like pickles and spaghetti sauce, a hot-water-bath canning process is simple and adequate. For alkaline veggies and meats over 4.6, you definitely want a pressure canner. A decent electronic pH meter or litmus paper can be purchased inexpensively.
If you’re just doing a hot-water-bath canning process, you don’t really need to buy a canner — just tie extra lids together and place them on the bottom of a large pot to replace the rack that comes with these canners.
A few optional tools come to mind, the first being a jar lifter, which helps you extract the jars from the boiling water. Another tool I highly recommend is a Mason jar funnel. This will keep the sides and rim of your jars clean (again, to ensure a good seal) and make the filling process much easier and faster. The third tool is a magnetic lid grabber. This is not as necessary, but it’s cheap and can be a big help. A couple towels will also come in handy.
The first steps are to prepare what you wish to can, as well as your canning area and tools. I always sterilize my jars, whether reused or new. After washing them, I fill them with boiling water or boil them in the canner for 10 minutes.
It’s said that you don’t need to sterilize when canning in hot water for longer than 10 minutes with acidic food. I do anyways, and if you’re pressure canning, you absolutely must sterilize the jars and lids. I usually heat the lids with water in a small sauce pot and leave them there until it’s time to put them over the jar. This is where the magnetic-lid tool comes in handy. Alternately, a fork works fine.
My best tip for running the canning pot is to keep the water warm to hot, but not boiling, between batches, and hot-pack the ingredients whenever possible. If you put cold jars in the hot water, they can crack or blow the bottom out. If you heat the canning water from cold with the jars in the water, it can overcook the contents. Also, keep the water level in the canner at least two inches above the top of the jar, and start the canning timer when the water is at a vigorous, rolling boil.
When applicable, stir the contents of the jar to reduce air bubbles, and always keep an eye on headspace — typically, you should leave half an inch. The federal Department of Agriculture’s website (usda.gov) has a lot of detailed information about canning different foods, including times and pressure levels.
I definitely recommend doing research before pressure canning. Important safety guidelines must be followed. For example, the jars must be inspected for cracks, chips or wear, and never use a pressure canner on a glass-topped stove!
When the timer goes off, remove the jars from the hot water. I place them on a towel and put a towel over the top so they cool slowly. Resist the urge to push the seal button down on the lid. Over the next hour you’ll hear the satisfying pop of the lids sealing — it’s almost as addictive as popping bubble wrap. Don’t forget to date and label the lids.
Check the jars 24 hours later. Put any that didn’t seal in your fridge and eat those first. The food is still good, but it won’t have the shelf life. If anything smells funny, fizzes when you open the jar, or has turned pink or gray, throw it out!
Good luck, friends, and happy canning!