Canning Basics

9:15:00 AM

It recently occurred to me that I have not yet written up a post on the basics of canning.  So, since I'm preparing to teach a class tonight, as well as a few other things, I figure now is the perfect time.   Some of this is repeat information from other posts, some is new - so, forgive me if you've seen it before.

Why Canning?

There used to be a time, way back when, when canning was done for basic survival.  Families would bring in the harvest from their fields, and then using glass jars, food dehydration, freezing, and salt curing, they'd prepare the bounty so that it would last them through the long winter months.  With the more widely available commercially produced foods, and with the slow demise of the family substance farm, canning has become more of a memory of distant past.  In recent years with the shift in the diets of many Americans, canning has come back as an essential part of food preparation simply because of the health benefits associated with the removal of commercially processed foods from your diet. With home canning, you control the ingredients, therefore you control what you are eating to a much higher degree. In addition, canning can be a much more economical way to feed your family as you are able to purchase foods at the height of the season, typically on sale, and preserve them for use much later in the year.  For our family, we started canning for a combination of both reasons.

What can I can?

Almost every food available can be canned or preserved in some way, as long as you follow the proper methods. There are some exceptions to this rule, for example, butter, dairy and cheese based sauces should never be home-canned.  While these may be commercially available, the home canner simply cannot reach the temperatures needed for long enough periods of time to ensure that the bacteria growth is stopped inside the jar.  You simply do not want to take chances with these foods, especially when considering that you are canning to feed your family.

So, What Methods are Available?

There are three basic types of home food preservation and storage.  1) Canning in glass jars. 2) Dehydrating and storing in an air-tight container. and 3) Freezing.

Most Americans are very familiar with the third type, freezing.  In fact, I'm sure you have several pounds of meat, cheese, fruits,vegetables, and sometimes even milk stored in your freezer right now for safe keeping.  Freezing is a very common method of food preservation and storage, but it isn't fool proof.  Should you have a power outage, or should your freezer go bad, most of that food will not be salvageable.

That brings me to the second type of food preservation and storage - dehydration.  Commercially available food dehydrators can be purchased for home food dehydration.  Many people use this method to make banana chips, apple chips, fruit leather, and even beef jerky.  I personally had a very bad experience with a home food dehydrator and do not dehydrate any food at home anymore, but rather purchase it in #10 cans from a local distributor.  This is just my own preference, however, as I know many do have their own food dehydrators at home and love them.

So, finally, we are left with canning food in glass jars, which as you may suspect is my favorite method of canning. To can (or preserve) food in glass jars, you will need some equipment namely, the jars, two piece lid and ring assembly, jar lifters, a lid lifter (or fork), small sauce pan, and then either a boiling water bath canner fitted with a jar rack or a pressure canner fitted with a jar rack or a steam canner, kitchen timer, and a cooling rack.

Doesn't it Cost A lot to Do This?

I have to be honest, when you first start cannning there is an upfront investment of the supplies such as the canners themselves and the jars.  However, each subsequent time you use them, you start saving money because you are canning meats and produce you find on sale, and you never have to invest in purchasing the canner again.  Jars can be found relatively inexpensively at many grocery stores and big box discount stores such as Wal-mart and Target.  I do not recommend using jars you find at thrift stores or garage sales, however, because you want a jar that is free of chips and nicks, especially in the rim.  A jar that has chips or nicks in the glass should not ever be used again in canning for a few reasons: 1) the lid may not be able to get a firm seal and 2) with the integrity of the glass compromised if used in a pressure or steam situation it could burst (much like a cracked windshield in the summer).

So What is the Equipment Again?

  • Jars
  • Two Piece rings and lids
  • Jar lifter
  • Canner of choice
  • Vacuum sealer (if you want to do dry pack canning)
  • Oxygen Absorbers (if you want to do dry pack canning)
  • Lid lifter
  • small saucepan
  • kitchen timer
  • cooling rack

So What Method is Best for Me?

That all depends on what you want to preserve, and what you feel most comfortable with.

  • Dry Vacuum Canning
    • Good for dehydrated, freeze dried, or powdered foods such as flour and sugar.  
    • Has a shelf life of typically 5 to 7 years, depending on what you have stored in your jar.
    • Can be used to create just-add-water dinner mixes for food storage or emergency preparedness
    • does NOT need to be done in a jar, but can be done using a Mylar bag or food-saver bag and the appropriate setting for powdered items. (not available on all food savers)

  • Boiling Water Canning
    • Good for fruits, salsa, pickles, jams and jellies, and applesauce.
    • Has a shelf life of up to 2 years, if stored properly.
    • Does not require a pressure regulator.
    • Typically shorter processing times.

  • Pressure Canning
    • Good for meats, low acidic vegetables, soups, stews, and legumes.
    • Has a shelf life of up to 2 years, if stored properly.
    • Reaches very high temperatures for long periods of time to properly kill all bacteria.
    • Can also double as a boiling water bath.
    • You can stack smaller jars inside, doubling the capacity (in some canners, read the manufacturer's directions).

My Grandmother/Mother/Aunt Used To...

I often hear stories from people who are attending my classes that their "insert matriarch of importance to them here" used to "insert canning method" all the time without incident.  Unfortunately, canning methods that used to be considered safe are not considered so anymore.  While my mother and grandmother used to can their tomato based sauces in a boiling water bath when I was younger, the new recommendation is to use a pressure canner today.  


With advances in technology not only in the testing of preserved foods after time but also in the farming industry, science has taught us much about how to can and preserve foods to keep them safe for consumption.  One major difference in canning today and canning of the past is the introduction of genetically modified organic produce that has become the normal standard for fruits and vegetables produced in the United States.  Tomatoes, for example, have been genetically modified to contain less acid in them.  As a result, when canning tomatoes you need to either heighten the acidic content by adding acidic foods or additives (such as jalapenos when making salsa), or you must can them using a method that will kill all the bacteria formerly taken care of by the acid in the fruit.  It is for this reason that old, family tested recipes are not ideal for canning anymore.  The recipe hasn't changed, the ingredients have.

In order to stay on top of current canning best practices, I follow the following websites:

USDA Guidelines for Canning and Preservation

I will follow up this post with detailed instructions on each type of canning, but these are the basics, and enough to get you thinking about your next canning project, I'm sure!

Happy Canning!

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