canning basics

Canning Basics 101 for Successful Food Preservation

canning basics

The Rich Tradition of Home Canning

Throughout human history, we have been focused upon the acquisition of food and its preservation. Daily life across countless generations has revolved around the procuring of sustenance for ourselves and for that of our communities.

Due to a variety of factors like exposure to environmental elements, the growth of microorganisms and the natural breakdown of nutritive provisions over time, we have had to find creative ways to preserve our food. It has been a constant battle to keep our loved ones fed and safe.

As we will soon find out, one of the best ways to preserve food long-term involves a process called home canning. Today, we will discover just how easy it is to learn this exciting skill set. Let’s learn some canning basics!

The History of Canning

The modern process of canning began with the Napoleonic Wars. Around the year 1800, Napoleon needed a way to preserve food for his troops; he declared a national contest to this end.

Nicolas Francois Appert, known today as the father of canning, rose to the challenge. As a French confectioner and chef, he developed a way to preserve food. He did so, much in the same way wine is preserved. Appert reasoned that if wine could be kept fresh in bottles, so could food. After much experimentation and the influence of homemakers in his community, he mastered this craft on a grand scale.

In 1804, Appert opened a factory called the La Maison Appert (the house of Apppert). It was the first factory of its kind. This facility was able to mass-produce food products on an industrial scale. As it turned out, food preserves produced from canning were ideal for sustaining troops during conflicts and wars. Napoleon personally awarded Appert 12,000 francs for his efforts.

Canning was a game-changer for anyone needing to survive harsh winters, endure food scarcity, and persevere between food harvests. This new technology quickly spread throughout the world.

Here in America, our great grandparents mastered the art of canning too. They would harvest their crops and promptly store away food in preparation for harsh winters. Planning ahead meant the difference between starvation and a secure, thriving winter.

canning basics

The Benefits of Canning

Today, savvy home cooks can take advantage of this skill as well. We can make the best use of grocery store sales and seasonal harvests. Most often our garden produces far more food than we can readily eat at the time of peak yield. Preserving food as it ripens, is the best way to ensure long-term food provisions.

There are economical considerations too. Regular canning can ensure long-term household cost savings. In other words, you will save a lot of money in the long run.

Additionally, the practice of home canning is fun, creative, and produces the most nutritive consumables. Canning is a skill set that can easily be shared and taught to loved ones and friends. There is nothing quite like cooking and preparing food as a family. It is surely a tradition that we should return to and sustain for future generations.

Having a pantry full of colorful vegetables, fruits, dairy, and organic meats is a delight to our culinary senses. The possibilities are endless. There are soups, sauces, chutneys, jams, and jellies to be savored and enjoyed throughout the year.

In fact, nothing makes winter more bearable or a spring picnic more enjoyable than fresh preserves from your pantry. On top of that, knowing that you made them yourself makes the experience even more worthwhile. You know that you have put in the finest ingredients and tested your very own custom flavor combinations. Such food is a delicacy enjoyed only by the industrious few.

Once you learn the process, you will realize just how easy it is. You may find that you want to regularly preserve leftovers or any surplus produce.

Why We Need to Preserve Our Food

The reason food is preserved is because harmful microorganisms can spoil food and cause gastrointestinal issues in humans. These pathogens access our food when it is exposed to open air, water, and soil.

Additionally, enzymes naturally present within our food work to break down food tissues over time. These enzymes are beneficial when consumed in fresh food. They help us digest our food more effectively and make nutrients more bioavailable. However, when preserving food for long-term storage, we want to prevent the breakdown of our food. The canning process neutralizes these enzymes and enables our food reserves to last.

Canning preserves our food by creating a hermetic seal in which air and water are blocked from entering the container. The heating process sterilizes the food as well. This provides a stable environment for our food to exist in and enables it to last.

canning basics

The Basics of Canning

To begin the canning process, you will want to make sure that you have all the equipment you need to get started. You will need preserving containers, a canning vessel, a preserving medium like salt, vinegar, or sugar. Lastly, you will need freshly prepared produce and/or animal products.

Tools of the Trade

Whether you are gathering fresh produce from your garden or preserving choice meats from your local butcher, you will need a few items in your kitchen.

Cutting Implements: A well-sharpened quality chef’s knife and accompanying paring knife will help you prepare your ingredients.

Food Prep: A heavy and sturdy wooden chopping board will make processing your food a breeze. Using a chopping board will also make your knives last longer.

Deciding Texture: A hand grater, pulse blender, or food mill will assist in achieving the right consistency.

Convenience: Scissors are great for small, quick, and easy tasks. A colander will be needed to strain liquids. A candy thermometer to make sure you have achieved the right temperature. You will also want to invest in a jar lifter, to remove freshly processed jars.

Preparing Herbs and Spices: A traditional mortar and pestle can help you prepare your herbs and spices.

Weights and Measures: Measuring spoons and cups are needed for recipes. Investing in a kitchen scale will provide increased accuracy.

Utensils: A slotted spoon can help to moderate the amount of liquid in your recipe. A ladle is needed for spooning your food mix into jars. Wooden spoons are needed for mixing.

From the Mixing Bowl and Into Jars: Acquire funnels of varying sizes, especially a jam funnel for wide mouth jars.

Mix It Up!: An array of differently sized bowls for various combining tasks

Keep It Clean and Tidy: Gather a few clean dish towels to wipe the rim of your jars in the event of spills. You can also dip a corner of your towel into some vinegar to get the rim squeaky clean.

Types of Containers

Mason jars are the best type of preserving container to use at home. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. These types of jars can be found in new condition online, at grocery stores, and in local markets. Used jars can be found in antique malls or thrift stores. Below is a list of brands that sell the perfect type of jar to meet your specific needs.

Jar Preparation and Cleaning

Both new and reused jars should be sterilized and kept hot until they are ready to be filled with food. The easiest way to sterilize your jars is to first wash them with hot soapy water, then place them in the oven on a cookie sheet, and bake them at 325°F for 10 minutes. Alternatively, you can boil the empty jars in water for 10 minutes on your stovetop. Make sure the jars do not touch each other or the edge of the pot.

It’s worth noting, while glass jars and metal rings may be reused, canning lids can only be used once. This is to ensure a proper hermetic seal each time the jars undergo heat processing. If using a bail-type jar, be sure to use a new rubber seal. It’s worth noting, many people feel that bail lid jars are not suitable for canning and are only useful for dry storage.

Hot Packing Versus Raw Packing

When we are filling our jars with food, we have the option to minimally process our fresh produce or cook it slightly. The benefit of bringing food to a boil is that it will remove excess air and prevent spoilage over time. If you prefer to store fresh veggies raw, it is recommended that you use a pressure cooker to reduce the amount of trapped air. Trapped air can also cause food discoloration and spoilage after a few months.

Leaving Headspace

When you go to fill your jars, you will want to leave a little bit of space at the top of the jar. There should be a space between the food level and the lid. Overfilling your jars can cause problems like seepage or seal failure. Underfilling can prevent an adequate seal from forming.

Additionally, different foods can require different headspaces.

Finely processed foods like jams, sauces, and juices should have a ¼” gap.

Chunky, high acid fruits like pickles and tomatoes should have a ½” gap.

Low acid foods like veggies and meat should have a 1” – 1 ½ ” gap at the top.

canning basics

Preserving Mediums

When you go to prepare your food for long-term storage, you will want to choose the correct medium in which to have it preserved. It should also be noted that fat and oil may be used for herbal infusions and short-term preserving, but are not recommended for home canning. The ingredients listed below are not an exhaustive list but instead are a variety sampler of what is frequently available.

Vinegar – Used mostly for pickling, vinegar is a great medium for preserving cucumbers, onions, beets, and various vegetables. Some of the most popular vinegars include the following:

  • Apple Cider Vinegar
  • White Wine Vinegar
  • Red Wine Vinegar
  • Distilled White Vinegar (made from sugar)

Salt – Salt or salt brine is the go-to medium for a variety of preserves, especially meat. It adds flavor and draws moisture out of foods. When choosing your salt, make sure it is pure salt and devoid of added fillers. These two are a safe bet:

  • Kosher Salt
  • Preserving Salt

Acids – An acid-based medium helps preserve color and slows down oxidation. Microorganisms are unable to grow in acids. Examples include the following:

  • Citric Acid
  • Lemon
  • Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C)
  • Tamarind

Sugar – Sugar is often used to enhance color, preserve color, and draw moisture out of food; thereby making it an inhospitable environment for pathogens.

  • Raw Sugar
  • Brown Sugar
  • Refined Raw Sugar
  • Honey
  • Molasses

 Fun Fact: Did you know that honey was discovered in the ruins of ancient Egypt? Clay jars containing this sweet treasure were discovered in 1905. This same honey remained unchanged and is still good to eat today. 

Alcohol – Alcohol, with a proof above 80, is suitable for preserving since nothing harmful can grow in it. Fruit is a great food to preserve with alcohol.

  • Rum
  • Brandy
  • Eau De Vie (a fruit brandy)
canning basics

Water Bath Versus Pressure Cooking

Once you have filled your jars with food preserves, it’s time to process them for long-term storage. The type of food you are preserving will determine which method is best.

The canning process involves two methods for food preservation. The oldest method involves utilizing a boiling water bath to cook and seal food within containers. The second method also involves a boiling water bath PLUS applied pressure. This second method is called pressure canning. Each method has its own advantages and drawbacks.

Testing Your Foods PH

Before we choose our preservation method we need to know our food’s PH level. A food’s PH level determines if it is alkaline or acidic. The reason this matters is that there are different food safety parameters for both acidic or alkaline foods respectively. You can test your food’s PH level by simply investing in litmus paper.

Acid foods with a PH of 4.6 or lower, are typically good candidates for being processed via the boiling method. For this reason, high acid foods are easier to preserve.

More alkaline foods with a PH above 4.6 should be processed using a pressure cooker. This is because alkaline foods in a low oxygen environment are more prone to developing Botulism.

Factoring Altitude

For both the boil method and the pressure method, your filled jars will need to boil at adequate temperatures for a specified period to prevent spoilage over time. Each canning recipe will tell you the amount of time needed and the appropriate temperature. Additionally, altitude will also need to be taken into account. This is because water boils at different temperatures depending upon your elevation. As such, your elevation may affect the duration of your boil time too. It is recommended that for each 1,000 foot increase above sea level, that an extra minute be added to the overall boil time.

The Water Bath Method

Utilizing a water bath to preserve fresh food involves the use of a large steel or aluminum lidded pot, known as a boiling-water canner. It needs to be deep enough that water covers the glass jars by at least one inch and has room to boil.

With a boiling-water canner, jars are loaded into the pot and separated by either a pre-fitted rack or by tea towels. The pot is filled with water to a depth of 1 inch above the lidded jar tops. Boil times can frequently range between five minutes to twenty minutes, depending upon the type of food.

The Pressure Cooker Method

Pressure cookers are a great preserving tool because they can process food at high temperatures, under added pressure, and for a prolonged period of time. This in turn kills harmful pathogens that can spoil food and cause illness in humans.

Low acid foods need to be processed at temperatures between 240 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Boil times can range between twenty and one hundred minutes, depending upon the food being prepared. These temperatures ensure that harmful pathogens like botulism are destroyed.

After processing your preserves, you will want to allow the jars to cool down gradually for 12 – 24 hours.

Further Reading and Resources

A fabulous source of information on the subject is a book by Oded Schwartz called Preserving. It literally covers everything and has full-page color pictures that can walk you step by step through the entire canning process.

Another great resource is a book by Abigail R. Gehring called The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Living. It has an extensive section on canning and preserving, as well as other skills related to self-reliance.

In Summary

Now that you have learned the basics of canning, you can gather your supplies, the finest ingredients, and a few simple recipes, like this one, to get started.

Nothing is quite as special as spreading late spring figs and strawberry jam on buttery sourdough toast, accompanied by freshly brewed tea, and a gathering of dear friends.

I would love to hear about your experiences. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below!

From my pantry to yours, merry wishes in your new home canning endeavors.

Research Sources and Links

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