Canning 101: Tips & Tricks for Preserving Summer’s Bounty

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Summer’s incredible bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables is part of what makes this time of year so great. Every time you bite into a juicy, vine-ripened heirloom tomato, you don’t think about the other eight months of the year, when their pale, mealy, and flavorless imposters are the only thing on the shelves at the grocery store. It may take a little effort and planning, but it is possible to bring these flavors with you throughout the rest of the year.

Even though most of our grandmothers had pantries full of home-canned goods, outside of industrious back to the landers and canning-fanatic home cooks, the trend hasn’t taken off into the broader eating culture, and that’s unfortunate. It may have a reputation as time-consuming and messy, but canning really isn’t that difficult, especially if you’re prepared for the process. These seven tips will help you get started, and save you from eating flavorless strawberries, tomatoes, and peaches when the weather is cold.

Figure out your acidity level

The acidity of the food that you plan to can has a huge impact on the process. Jars of high-acid foods, like pickled cucumbers and carrots, only need to be boiled in an open water bath in order to be shelf-stable. Many non-pickled vegetables must be cooked under pressure, which requires a pressure canner.

Understand the difference between pressure canning and water-bath canning

When foods don’t have the necessary acidity level to prevent bacterial growth after a spell in the 212-degree temperatures of a water-bath canner, they need to be pressure canned. A pressure canner achieves temperatures of up to 250 degrees F, and that’s what you want to use to can things like meat, low-acid vegetables such as potatoes, and prepared foods like soup. A trustworthy canning reference will tell you which method to use. If you’re exploring canning for the first time, it’s much less of a time and equipment investment to do water-bath canning.

But pressure canning can open up entire worlds of food preservation. If you’ve got a garden and need a way to preserve any leftover bounty if you hunt or fish (home-canned salmon and venison are pantry assets bar-none)—a pressure canner can be picked up on Amazon for $80 and is a solid investment. In the long run, it’s much cheaper than buying canned goods.

Assemble your tools

Technically, you can use a few kitchen staples if you’re just planning to do some very simple small-batch canning, but the process is much easier if you’ve got the right tools. In addition to the right type of pot — pressure canner or a simple water-bath canner — you’re also going to need to assemble a few supplies. Glass jars, lids, and bands are of course a must, but you’ll also want to have a set of jar lifters on hand, along with permanent markers for labeling your goodies, clean kitchen towels for wiping up spills, and plenty of potholders. Don’t forget the pickling salt, either — the iodine in table salt will turn your canned goods cloudy.

Clean your kitchen

This might seem like a no-brainer, but you should plan a quick but thorough cleaning before your canning session. Clean countertops and your oven range with an antibacterial cleaner before starting, and remove any equipment or clutter that could get in the way when you’re schlepping around hot jars fresh out of the boiling water. You’ll also probably want to clear a little space in the pantry for all your canned goods — they do best in cool, dark environments.

Buy a box of “seconds”

Canned fruit doesn’t necessarily have to be the prettiest fruit. Just cut out and discard any bruised spots. Scour your farmer’s market for boxes of “seconds” or “ugly” fruit, which is just as fresh as its counterparts, but may have been knocked a little en route to the market. Often, these boxes of fruit and veg are sold at rock-bottom prices (sometimes $1 or $2 for several pounds) and can yield a lot of canned salsa or spaghetti sauce.

Practice packing

If you’re pouring salsa or fruit purees into jars for canning, you can skip this step. But if you’re trying to figure out how to arrange carrot sticks or half-moons of cucumber into a jar Tetris-style, you might want to get a little practice first. Spend some time figuring out the best way to pack your canned goods into the jar with minimal bruising or crushing. It might take a few tries, but that’s better than opening your jars a few months later and finding out that your pickles are mushy because they were all crammed together.

Live and die by the Ball’s Blue Book

Ball and canning have been synonymous for decades, and you’ve likely seen the loopy cursive of their logo on more things than you can count. Your grandmother undoubtedly had a copy of Ball’s Blue Book of Canning on her shelf, which a sort of Bible for preserved foods. In this book, which is currently in its 37th edition, you’ll find all the temperatures, recipes, and ratios that you could ever need to can a variety of fruits and vegetables. There’s a good chance that one of the more than 500 recipes in Ball’s Blue Book is the basis for your family’s special pickle or canned green bean recipe.

If you’re just starting out, make sure that any canning guide you use is a recent edition. Several key parts of the process have been subject to small but very important tweaks over the years, such as the current protocol for washing but not heating the lids.

Amy McCarthy is Paste’s Assistant Food Editor. She learned every one of these lessons the hard way. Tell her your canning stories on Twitter @aemccarthy.