How To Can Food: 5 Steps To Get Started With Canning

Canning, it’s easy to preserve your food for a rainy day

We all work so hard to bring in bumper crops of fruits and vegetables to feed ourselves and our families. During this time of year, I am overjoyed when the spring crops begin to bear food and am even more delighted when the first tomatoes begin to ripen.  For me, I always have more bounty from my garden than I know what to do with, and as a homesteader, I prefer not to waste a single thing. So aside from cooking and eating fresh foods, I preserve all of my leftovers by canning them, so that they can be eaten in the less productive months, or when I need that stockpile of homemade delicious emergency food

Canning is one of the most important skills for homesteaders and preppers. In fact, it is an important skill for anyone that grows their own food. Why? because fresh foods such as fruits, vegetables, meats and others, will expire if they are not preserved, and they are items that we are able to grow, harvest and farm ourselves.

If we were to throw our fresh foods out because we can’t eat them before they expire, what would be the point of all of that back-breaking work setting up the garden, farm, or greenhouse? With canning, anything that is left over can be stored for when you need it the most.

For those thinking canning is the only way to preserve food, it’s definitely not. There are a lot of other methods out there for food preservation, such as:

  • Cooling
  • Chilling
  • Drying
  • Freezing
  • Fermenting
  • Cellaring

But canning is one of the most effective methods for long-term storage and its essential purpose is to store food and kill bacteria that causes food to spoil or causes illness when consumed.  In this article, we will discuss two methods of canning and what foods work best with each method. By the end of this post, you should be able to start canning productively like this family below.

What are two easy methods of canning?

The two methods of canning are: “water bath” and “pressure” canning.  Water bath canning involves packing clean jars with food product, sealing, and immersing the jars in boiling water for a period of time that creates pressure within the jars that creates a vacuum seal when the jar cools.  Pressure canning is the same process, but with less water, higher temperatures, and increased pressure.

Pressure canning is more effective for food products that are less acidic (foods that are low acid have a pH of more than 4.6 ) such as meats, seafood, poultry, and dairy products.   The critical difference between the two methods is that the water in pressure canning is heated to a temperature of at least 240° F. This temperature can only be reached using the pressure method.

The foods with higher acidic levels (foods that have a pH of 4.6 or less) and contain enough acid so that botulinum spores cannot grow can be safely canned using the boiling water bath method. The high acidic foods include: fruits, and properly pickled vegetables.  Water bath canning requires water temperatures of 212° F. By reaching the boiling point of water, it is effective enough to pressurize and seal these lower acid foods.

People often associate tomatoes with water bath canning, and they can be processed that way, but not before the acid level in the food product is increased.  Increasing the acid level is relatively easy, simply add lemon juice, vinegar and, or garlic to the food product to alter the ph level to the appropriate level for safe water bath canning.

What you need to start canning

First, to get started canning, you need to assemble a kit of tools and the essential canning equipment.

Not all are absolutely necessary, and you can improvise for some of these items with things you may find in the kitchen. However,  having these on hand will make canning, especially when you are dealing with a lot of stock, much easier. To start canning, you will need:

1. Water bath canner

Ideally, with your water bath canner, you should have one that has a fitted rack that can be used to lower and raise the jars in the pot. Choosing the size of your water bath canner largely depends on you and where you live. If you are living in the country and have a lot of excess stock, using a large canning pot might be useful. However, if you were only canning a small amount of produce that you have from your urban backyard, choosing something not so big might obviously be a better option.

I chose to use a large canner, and even though there are times when I don’t have much to can, I still have that space if I need it. Should you have a large canner and don’t have much to can, use empty pots alongside your full ones as this will make sure that your pots stay upright and not fall over in the process.

Canning pots are quite affordable too. Which helps for those doing their canning to be a little more frugal around the home. Two popular canners which are very affordable are Granite Ware’s enamel-on-steel canning kit (this one also the rack, funnel, tongs and jar lifter), or Columbian Home’s graniteware steel porcelain water-bath canner (which comes with a jar rack).

Canning pot

2. Pressure canner

Ideally, you want to get a pressure canner that is of an appropriate size for the amount of food you wish to can, mine is a 15.5-quart pot. You need to be a little bit more careful with pressure canners as they have a little more temperament to directions and you just need to make sure you don’t open the canner when it is still under pressure.

Pressure canners are a little more expensive as they are a more technical canner that specifically require the pressure in order to reach the desired temperature. That said, if you are on a budget there are some great affordable pressure canners out there such as the Presto 23-quart presser canner and cooker and the T-fal P31052 polished pressure canner. The Rolls Royce of pressure cookers is the All American 21-1/2-quart pressure cooker.

Canning with pressure cooker

3. Jar Funnel

The jar funnel is used to pour your food products into the mouth of the jar without having any spillage or getting any food in the seam of the jar.

4. Jar Lifter

This is quite possibly one of the handiest pieces of equipment. It is a pair of tongs that are designed to be used to latch onto the tops of jars and lift them out of the hot water. There is nothing else you can use in place of these.

5. Lid Lifter

This magnetic wand safely lifts lids out of the hot water.

6. Bubble Remover & Headspace Tool

This two sided tool slides into side of filled jars to release air bubbles and measure headspace.

7. Canning Jars

There is no end to the variety of canning jars on the market, but the most utilitarian and for good reason, inexpensive are standard, wide mouthed jars from brands such as Ball canning jars. These should be run through the dishwasher to sanitize them before using.

Canning jars

8. Canning Lids

These can be one piece lids with gum adhesive that are really effective for pressure canning or they can be two piece lids with a disposable lid with gum adhesive and a reusable ring that secures the lid to the jar. It is important to note that canning lids are single use. Once activated, the gum adhesive seals the jar, but cannot be re-used. Rings, as long as they are in good condition, can be reused, along with the jars as long as they are clean and devoid of cracks or nicks.

7. Kitchen Timer with Alarm

This is to set the time for the canning method and to alert you when you need to remove the jars from the canner.

8. Dishtowels

While not absolutely necessary, I find them very effective to line my countertops to protect them from hot jars as well as covering processed jars while they cool.  This slows the cooling process and also protects the kitchen from any jars that may burst.

9. Clean, damp washcloth

I keep several on hand to wipe the rims of jars to ensure proper sealing.

How to start the canning process

What foods for canning

Now that you have assembled your tools, you may wash, process, and prepare your foods.  Some foods are packed whole, while others are chopped or processed (tomato sauce) prior to packing into jars.

Once your food is ready to be loaded in the jars, you must select the appropriate pack process.

There are two methods of packing jars, they are:

  • Cold-Pack Method: In this method, the raw food is packed cold in the jars, then processed or cooked in its container. This method is mostly used for fruits and berries.
  • Hot-Pack Method: This method requires a short preliminary cooking period preceding the packing into jars. This method is well adapted to vegetables and meats because the precooking shrinks the product and helps with packing.  Cooking also drives out any air which may be present in the food.  The hot food is immediately packed into the jars and sealed at once.  It is important that there is no delay in processing after packing, meaning do not allow the food and jars to cool before going in the canner.

Before or during the packing process, you should be warming up the canning pots so that the temperature is nearly to the point of canning, it makes no sense to start this after your jars are packed because of the time it will take for the water in the pot to reach boiling or higher.  Waiting will allow your hot packed jars to cool, this must be avoided.

In addition, activate the gum adhesive on the lids by placing them in a pan of simmering (not boiling) water.  These can be fished out of the water by the lid lifter immediately before placing on the jar.

How to process canned foods

How much time for canning

Once your food is packed, make sure there is appropriate headspace between the product and the lid, usually a ¼ to ½ inch to allow the product to expand during processing and to create an air vacuum. Always wipe the rim of the jar with a warm, damp washcloth to remove any food or residue that can interfere with the proper sealing of the lid. Then load the canner(s) and begin the process of sealing.

How much time does canning take?

Different foods require different timing in the canner, this difference is the time it takes at the canning temperature to kill any bacteria remaining in the food and to create the proper pressure inside the jar to then create the vacuum when the jar cools.  Differing altitudes also affect the timing in the canner, where for roughly every 3,000 feet in altitude (from sea level), the processing time increases by 5 minutes.

For pressure canning, the psi (pounds of pressure per square inch) is also increased by 1 pound each 2,000 feet in elevation.  You can use our chart below for the type of food you are canning and how long you need to process your cans before taking them out.

Food ProductAcidJar SizeWater Bath Canner
(Minutes)
Pressure Canner
(Minutes)
ApplesHighQuart208
ApricotsHighQuart2510
Cucumber (Pickle)HighQuart15NA
Strawberry JamHighPint15NA
Tomato (Juice)HighQuart4015
Tomato (Crushed)HighQuart8520
Tomato (Sauce)HighQuart4515
AsparagusLowQuartNA40
BeetsLowQuartNA35
CornLowQuartNA85
PeasLowQuartNA40
PotatoesLowQuartNA40

Meats should be fully cooked and processed only in pressure canners.  For ground meat such as beef and veal, Using a weighted gauge canner—Process at 10 pounds pressure – Quarts should be processed for 90 minutes.  For poultry, using a weighted gauge canner—Process at 10 pounds pressure.  For poultry on the bone a quart should be processed for 75 minutes, without bone the quarts should be processed for 90 minutes.

Make sure that you set a kitchen timer for the process and do not estimate the time, it can affect the seal and the expiration of your product.

How to remove jars from the canner

Getting cans out of hot water

Once your product has finished processing, each method of canning has a different process for removing the jars from the canner.

For the water bath method, once the jars finish, they can be removed, almost immediately from the hot water by lifting the jar rack and then removing the jars using the jar lifter (do not handle hot jars with your bare hands), then placing them on top of the dishtowels you placed on your counter.  Jars should then be covered with the towels and allowed to cool.  You will very shortly begin hearing pings, as the jars cool, this is the sound they make when the lid finishes sealing.

In pressure canning, the method of removal is a bit different.  Since there is so much pressure in the canner itself, you must allow that pressure to evacuate before you can remove the lid and retrieve the jars.  This is accomplished by allowing the canner to cool slightly to deflate the pressure.  If your canner has a release valve that you can safely handle, you can relieve the pressure via the valve and then remove the lid and follow the same method of retrieval as in the water bath method.

Once jars have cooled completely, you should check that all jars have sealed properly.  Single piece lids should be visibly indented, indicating a full seal.  On two-piece lids, the lids should also be indented, but can be further tested by removing the rings to ensure a proper seal has been achieved by the flat lids.

How to store canned foods

How to store your canned foods

It is important to store your canned foods properly for maximum storage time and ultimate freshness.  I label and date all of my canned foods on the single-use (recyclable) lid with the product and date.

If these products are gifts, I make an adhesive tag with the same information (usually done in a nice font on my computer), otherwise I use a sharpie marker for simplicity.

Store canned food in a cool, clean, darker, dry space such as a pantry or even basement if it is kept dry.  Moisture, light, and heat are the enemy of canned foods.

Cans or metal lids on glass jars can rust. If it is severe enough, holes develop in the lids, allowing air and bacteria agents in.

Temperatures over 100° F are harmful to canned foods. The risk of spoilage increases exponentially as storage temperatures rise. In addition, the nutritional value of canned food drops significantly if the food is stored for a prolonged time at temperatures above 75° F.  Finally light can cause food color changes and nutrient losses in foods canned in glass jars.

Storage for canned foods guideline:

  • Store in a cool, clean, dry place where temperatures are below 75° F (between 50 and 70° F is good) but not freezing temperatures.
  • Rotate foods so the oldest is used first. This is called FIFO (First in, First out)
  • Try not to keep most canned foods more than one year. Foods stored longer will be safe to eat if the cans do not show signs of spoilage or damage, but the foods may deteriorate in color, flavor and nutritional value.
  • Watch for signs of spoilage and dispose of the products immediately and sanitize the jars. Never use foods from containers with these spoilage warning signs:
    • Loose or bulging lids on jars
    • Foul odor
    • Visible mold
    • Unusual coloring

Now it’s your turn to start canning

Canning is a terrific heritage skill to learn.  It is possible to can and bottle enough produce to last an entire year until the fresh foods are available again, increasing you and your family’s food security.  However, it is important to follow the steps I outlined in this article to maximize your storage time and to provide safe, nourishing food for yourself and your family.

2 Comments

  1. Terry

    April 19, 2018 at 2:04 pm

    You left out the most important source for information on food safety when canning: http://nchfp.uga.edu/

    A good place to start is with some basic canning classes offered through the Cooperative Extension Service in your home county. They will offer low cost courses that include up-to-date food safety information.

  2. Vladimir

    May 1, 2018 at 11:23 pm

    Excellent subject. I don’t have a garden (yet) to produce my own vegetables but still it’s great to have this introduction here. It’s not the kind of information I’m used to read across my readings about prepping.
    Thanks a lot !

Tell us what you think