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Summer’s riches are ripe and ready for the picking here on the 45th parallel, and I’ve been taking full advantage of the bounty. Not that I am capable of growing anything other than deer salad, but I sure do appreciate our fine farmers for selling me the fruits (and vegetables) of their labors.

Oh, man have I been on a serious canning bender! So far, I’ve put up cherry, strawberry, and triple berry jams, peaches, cherries, and dill pickle spears.

Apricot butter will soon follow.

Oh! I’ve always wanted to can tomatoes so there’s that possiblity, too.

I’m in serious danger of getting out of control with all this canning stuff–I’m canning anything that is in season and that I can buy in bulk, right now. In fact, I was finally able to can NanaBread’s family recipe for 14-day sweet pickles earlier today.  Suffice it to day that we’ve got a lot of pickles.

And if you think for a moment that Hubby hasn’t gotten some serious mileage out of his “Do you smell pickles? I smell pickles.” joke, then you’d be mistaken.

Our house has smelled like pickles for weeks. Its safe to say that I’ve been ridiculously a little canning obsessed lately. My family is starting to get nervous. I told them not to worry unless I bring home jars big enough for them to fit inside.  Only kidding! :)

Many of you expressed an interest in learning a bit about home canning, so I thought I’d share a few basic canning tips. I am in no way a food preservation expert, nor should anything I tell you serve as a substitute for your own research on proper canning methods. That said, I’m happy to tell you how I do things.

You know, in case you are feeling all self-sufficient and want to commune with generations of folk that have gone before you by putting up food for winter storage. Or if you are just kinda dorky like me and like to know how to do stuff.

1.  Get your hands on a good book on food preservation.  The Ball Blue Book of Preserving is perfect for the home canner because it contains all the information you’ll need on equipment, answers to common food preservation questions, a glossary of terms so that you can decode what they are actually talking about, and tons and tons of recipes for every category of food.

2.  The majority of home canning involves high acid foods, such as fruits, and soft spreads. High acid foods can be safely preserved with a Boiling Water Canner because most of the yucky stuff can be eliminated by surrounding (also called processing) the jars in boiling (212° F) water for a sustained period of time.

3.  Lower acid foods such as vegetables and meats require a higher temperature for safe processing (240° F) than can be achieved by boiling water, therefore need to be processed in a Steam Pressure Canner.  Processing times will vary depending on the method, altitude, and recipe.

4.  Proper canning gear is essential to successful canning. A Boiling Water Canning Pot will do for most home canning recipes. The pots are large-and-in-charge, come with a lid, and usually with a removable metal canning rack in which to place your jars in the interior of the pot during the water bath. A new canning pot with rack should only run around $20 or so. Look for a pot with a smooth coating, and no visible cracks or rust.

Canning accessories make the job easier.

5.  A few canning utensils make the entire canning process much easier.  A bundle of canning utensils can be purchased for around $15.

6.  Mason jars, lids, and bands designed specifically for home canning are required.  Home canning jars come in a myriad of styles and sizes. The lids are designed specifically to fit these jars, to ensure a proper seal when manufacturers instructions are followed. Commercial jars may look similar to canning jars, but they are only designed to be safely processed one time. Moral of the story: don’t reuse old jars from store-bought jam or spaghetti sauce for home canning.

7.  Proper canning jars and bands may be reused, but the lids (also called seals) cannot! Lids need to be new each time in order to properly seal the jars.  (Lids may be purchased separately.)  Rusty lids should not be used, and be replaced.  The lids and bands are designed to work together to form a vacuum seal on the jars after processing. In a nutshell, the “vacuum” pushes residual air out of the jar and keeps the food fresh inside the jar.   All components of the jar and utensils must be clean and sterilized before each use.

8.  Follow the recipes to the letter! As much as it pains me to say so, canning is not an area in which you should substitute ingredients or play with the recipes.  The ratios of ingredients in a recipe serve a scientific purpose to ensure quality foods.  Don’t mess with the science.

Proper processing will destroy the Yucky Stuff.

9.  And while we are talking about the science of canning, let’s talk about the Yucky Stuff. The Yucky Stuff is the molds, yeasts, and bacteria that occur in food. Fortunately, most high acid foods contain enough acid to protect against bacteria, however molds are a fungi that thrive on the acids that protect food against bacteria.  Yeasts are also a fungi that cause food to ferment and spoil. Both molds and yeasts are ever-present, so it is essential to only can foods that are fresh and in pristine condition. (Read: don’t attempt to can bruised, battered, or over-ripe foods. Bad stuff can happen.)

10.  Canning recipes should outline any additional equipment needed to process the recipe.  The only special piece of equipment that I find to be incredibly useful for canning is a food processor to chop mass quantities of fruit for recipes.  That said, I made jams and fruit butters for years without one, so if you don’t have a food processor, don’t let that stop you from canning.

11.  This might sound silly, but before you preserve anything, have a plan.  (It takes my canning pot 30-40 minutes to come to a rolling boil, at which point jars can be immersed for processing. Include this time in your overall plan.)  Review the recipe and plot out how many batches you plan to make, and make sure that you have all of the necessary ingredients and supplies to accomplish the plan.   Believe me when I tell you that nothing is more frustrating than filling jars with food you intend to preserve, only to realize that you don’t have enough seals for the jars to process them. Well, nothing except for maybe jars that didn’t seal properly during processing.

12.  Which brings me to the next tidbit about processing and sealing jars.  After processing in the water bath, remove jars with the jar lifter, and set them onto a clean towel on a level surface. Allow the jars to completely cool. While the jars are cooling, you should occasionally hear the ping! or pop! of the lids being vacuum sealed. The vacuum seal keeps air out and Yucky Stuff from growing in the jars. Once the jars have completely cooled, gently run a finger over the center of the seals. The seal should feel slightly indented, and not move much (or at all) under your touch. If you can push the center of the seal downward, or hear a pop when applying gentle pressure, the jar didn’t seal. If when you apply pressure the seal makes a pop and but stays down, the jar probably didn’t seal. I’ll be honest–this usually happens with a few jars each time I can something. No worries! I just check that the lids and bands are on well, and process the jars for the specified amount of time again. The second time usually does the trick.  If not, pop whatever didn’t seal in the fridge and eat it within a week or two.

13.  After the jars have all been vacuumed sealed, remove the bands for storage. Say what?! Yep, remove the bands. If the lids have vacuum sealed properly, you’ll be able to remove the bands and the lids will stay put. In fact, they’ll stay so put that you will likely need to wiggle a butter knife under the edge of the seal to loosen it when you want to eat your home canned goodness.

14.  Removing the bands also serves another purpose because if the lids didn’t vacuum seal properly, they will eventually come loose or pop off during storage.  That is a good thing, because if the lid pops off you will know that the jar didn’t seal. If the jar didn’t seal, the the food isn’t safe to eat. It the seal pops off during storage, don’t eat the contents of the jar!

15.  Wipe down cooled jars with a clean, damp rag to remove any stickies or residue from the outside before storing.  Store the sealed but bandless jars in a cool, dark area of the house. This is the stuff that your Grandma’s root cellar was made for! In the absence of a root cellar, store the jars in a cooler part of the house such as a basement, or in a closet under the stairs or something, or anywhere in the house that stays around 60-70° F.  When kept cool, home canned foodstuffs usually retain quality for about a year.

16.  If you ever open a jar and see a film, funk, or the food has changed color or texture in some way, don’t eat it. 

17.  If the food is over a year old, and you aren’t sure if you should eat it–don’t eat it!

18.  If the jar cracks or something Yucky is growing inside or outside the jar–don’t eat it!

19.  When in doubt, throw it out!

Not-so-fine-print Disclaimers: I repeat that I am in no way a food preservation expert, nor should anything I outline here serve as a substitute for your own research on proper canning methods.  Please do your own diligent research on food safety and canning methods before attempting to preserve food at home. Be sure to always follow the canning supplies manufacturers instructions when preserving food at home.  Amen.

Also noteworthy: All text images and book images were photographed by me from my personal copy of the Ball Blue Book of Preserving, and are under Copyright, 2006. The nice folks at Ball have no idea who I am nor have the compensated me in anyway for advertising their products. I just like their stuff.