Home Canning 101

It used to be that the home canning was the only way to preserve meats, fruits and vegetables, and jams, but canning remains a great way to reap the bounty from your garden even though modern conveniences have made preserving food a choice rather than a necessity. Home canning isn't difficult to learn, but you do need to adhere to some strict safety guidelines to ensure that what you preserve can be safely eaten.

Hidden Dangers
One of the dangers of not canning food properly is bacteria. These tiny, hidden microbes can wreak havoc in improperly prepared food, leading to sickness and botulism. That is why low-acid foods such as meat and vegetables must be canned at high heat in a pressure canner. Bacteria thrive in low-acid environments. But even fruit and jellies can be spoiled if you do not take proper caution and cleanliness steps.

What You Need to Start
The dangers of canning improperly are real. Make sure that you have the proper tools and equipment necessary for the canning recipe that you are following.

  • Pressure Canners. This is a must if you are going to be canning meats or low-acid vegetables. These types of foods are not safe in a water-bath canner. There are several good models available. Some have a toggle gauge and others have a dial gauge. I personally recommend a dial gauge. I find it easier to know when my pressure is just right.
  • Water-Bath Canner. This is used for fruits, high-acid vegetables like tomatoes and pickles and jams and jelly. These types of foods do not require the long, high temperatures that meats and other vegetables do. You can often find these canners at thrift shops or yard sales.
  • Steam Canner. Some people recommend these for fruits and jellies. They take very little water to operate and heat the food by steam rather than submersing in water. Make sure you research your product thoroughly before purchasing so you will know exactly what it can and cannot do.
  • Small Necessities. You will also need to have canning jars, new lids and rings, a jar lifter and a good funnel (stainless steel is the best).
  • Other Nice Items to Have. If you are going to do a lot of canning there are several other items that are nice to have on hand. These include a tomato mill, a food processor or chopper, a really large pressure canner that will double the amount you can do at one time and a corn cobber-slide your ears of corn over this and they come off the corn in seconds.

Start with Fresh Food
Choose only fruits and vegetables that are fresh and unblemished. Do not use food that has sat for several days to avoid spoilage. Make sure fruits and vegetables are canned using the proper method. All meats and vegetables should be processed using a pressure cooker. Fruits, tomatoes, jellies and jams are canned using a water-bath canner.

Sterilize the Canning Jars
Sterilizing the canning jars is important for anything that will be processed for under 10 minutes. To sterilize jars, wash them in hot soapy water and rinse well. Put the jars into your water bath canner and fill with hot water. You want the water to cover the jars plus 1 inch. Bring water to a boil and boil jars for 10 to15 minutes. Remove with a jar lifter and set to dry on a clean towel.

Packing Food
There are two different methods for packing food into the jars: hot pack and cold pack. Hot pack is used when you bring the food to a boil for a few minutes before putting it into the jars. It shrinks food before canning so there is less empty space in the jars.

Cold packing can be used for foods that don't have a lot of shrinkage. Check the food list for which method is best for what you are canning to see which method is best.

Choosing the Headspace
The proper amount of space must be left in the canning jar to ensure freshness. Individual recipes give the headspace recommended in the directions. There are some basic rules to follow for headspace.

  • 1/4 inch for jams and jellies
  • 1/2 inch for fruits and tomatoes
  • 1-1 1/4 inches for foods processed in a pressure canner

Releasing Air Bubbles
To remove air bubbles from canning jars after placing the food and liquid inside, use a flat plastic spatula or butter knife. Insert the spatula along the inside of the jar between the food and the jar. Do this all around the inside of the canning jar, moving the spatula up and down. Wipe the rims clean after adjusting the headspace and put lids in place.

Preparing Lids
Pour boiling water over the flats and rings before placing on the jars. Put the flat on top of the jar after wiping the rim clean. Place the screwband or ring on the jar and screw in place firmly. Don't screw down too tightly. After the jars are sealed, you can remove the ring. Rings may be reused. Flats may not.

Method of Processing
What method you use will be determined by the food you are canning. Low-acid foods always get canned in a pressure canner. These include meat, poultry, fish ,and vegetables. The pressure-canning method of preserving should never be changed for the water-bath method when canning low-acid foods. Boiling-water canners cannot reach temperatures high enough to destroy bacteria.

Boiling water bath is good for most tomatoes (add lemon juice to the new low-acid varieties), pickled vegetables, relishes, fruits and preserves.

Resting and Testing the Seal
Allow the processed food in the canning jars to sit at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours. Make sure all the jars have sealed by testing the seal. Remove the ring and press the middle of the lid. It should not pop up or spring back when you remove your finger. If it hasn't sealed, refrigerate and eat right away.

Storing Canned Food
Store the processed canning jars in a clean, cool, dark, dry place. The temperature should never exceed 95° F. The recommended temperature to store canned food is between 40° and 70° F.

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