Category: Blog

Canning 101

I’m relatively new to canning—the process of putting food into jars and making them shelf-stable so they can sit in your pantry for up to a year or longer—and at first it seemed super intimidating. While my mom had a water bath canner, she doesn’t know much about canning, which meant that my whole process of learning how to do this was done by reading as much as I could on the internet and then just giving it a try.

After a couple years of figuring out water bath canning, I got a pressure canner for Christmas. This greatly expanded my repertoire of canning recipes and has allowed me to also do things like meals in a jar.

If you’re brand new to canning, here’s what I’d consider the 101 to get you started:

Some Basic Terminology

  • Canning: The process of putting food in jars and making them shelf-stable for long-term storage.
  • Water Bath Canner: Some foods are processed by using a water bath canner, which processes and seals the jars by submerging them in boiling water.
  • Pressure Canner: Other foods are processed by using a pressure canner, which operates similarly to a pressure cooker to raise the pressure (and thus the temperature) to achieve even hotter temperatures to process and seal jars. A pressure cooker cannot double as a pressure canner, even if the pressure cooker tells you it can be used for pressure canning.
  • Headspace: When filling the jars, recipes say to leave a headspace of a certain amount. This is how “full” you make the jars; if the recipe calls for a headspace of an inch, you fill the jar to within an inch from the top.

Water Bath Canning

A water bath canner is essentially a large pot. It includes a rack that sits in the bottom of the pot so that the jars don’t touch the bottom. Once the filled jars are put in the pot, water is added to completely submerge the jars and cover with at least an inch of water. The stove is turned on and the once the water comes to a full boil, the processing time begins. If the water ever stops boiling, the water must come to a boil again and the processing time restarted. (So don’t turn down the temperature too much.)

As the water boils around the jars, the contents of the jars heat up and oxygen escapes. The wax rings on the lids soften. When processing is done, turn off the stove and let the water stop boiling. Let it sit for a few minutes, and then carefully remove the jars using a jar lifter and put them on a thick towel somewhere to sit overnight. Do not tilt the jars or lay them sideways; keep them upright until they’ve fully cooled overnight.

Foods processed using water bath canning are typically high-sugar or high-acid foods. Processing the jars in boiling water kills most pathogens, but there’s still a risk of botulism, which thrives in low-oxygen environments. Canning creates a low-oxygen environment in the jars, but the high-sugar or high-acid content inhibits the growth of botulism, making the foods safe to sit on a shelf and be eaten at a later date.

Pressure Canning

Like a water bath canner, a pressure canner is essentially a large pot. These ones have lockable lids, though, and equipment and attachments to raise the pressure within the pot and monitor that pressure.

I have a Presto 23-quart induction compatible pressure canner. This one comes with a screw gauge to regulate the pressure, but after reading several recommendations on the internet, I upgraded the screw gauge to a weighted gauge. So, rather than me having to constantly fiddle with the gauge through the processing time to ensure proper pressure is maintained, I instead just have to keep an eye on the weighted gauge to ensure it’s “rocking” properly, allowing me to do other things while my jars process. (If the pressure ever drops too low, then the pressure must be raised again and the processing time starts over.)

Pressure canners come with their own specific instructions on how to process jars, so always follow the instructions that come with your pressure canner.

Unlike water bath canning, jars in a pressure canner are not completely submerged. The pressure canner allows the water and steam to reach higher temperatures than can be achieved in a water bath canner, and it uses the steam to process the jars. Similar to water bath canning, most oxygen escapes from the jars and they sit on a thick towel overnight so that the lids properly seal.

Pressure canned foods do not have to be high-sugar or high-acid, because the higher processing temperature kills off any botulism that could be in the jars, making it safe to store in your pantry and eat at a later day.

General Safety Tips

  • Always use lab-tested recipes. Because there are potentially serious health considerations when canning (botulism can kill you), always use recipes that have been fully tested. Some good places to find these recipes include Bernardin, Ball, and Healthy Canning (which generally compiles recipes from elsewhere, though they sometimes customize the seasoning a bit).
  • Follow the recipe exactly. Part of what makes a recipe safe is the density of the food in the jars. If something is too dense, then heat cannot fully penetrate the jar and heat the food to the required level. So if a recipe calls for certain foods, do not swap them out for others or add something the recipe doesn’t call for. This also includes using bottled lemon juice rather than freshly-squeezed lemon juice, if the recipe calls for it, as bottled lemon juice is guaranteed to have a certain level of acidity that you can’t rely on fresh lemons providing.
  • Some variations are allowed. Typically, the only variations that are safe to experiment with come down to any dried seasonings that are added. Always thoroughly research or access help from Master Food Preservers before proceeding.
  • Use the recommended jar size or smaller. Always use the jar size the recipe calls for. You can go smaller if you wish. (I have a family of two, so sometimes I don’t want large jars of food that I open and then have to use up.) You cannot go larger. Going larger means that the contents of the jar might not heat to the necessary level, putting you at risk of food contaminated with bacteria or other microbes that could prove harmful.
  • Be careful when doubling a recipe. In general, it’s okay to double or triple a recipe. It’s usually a good idea to write out the new ingredient quantities before you start canning so that you don’t get caught up trying to do doubling or tripling math on the fly. This does not apply to jams and jellies. Anything with pectin cannot be doubled or tripled unless it is a special type of pectin meant for doubling/tripling. If you try doubling a jam recipe, the jam will not set properly.
    • Before I knew this rule, I had tried doubling a recipe for ginger marmalade (which goes great on a baked brie). It didn’t set properly, so I threw it in the freezer just in case and used it as a cooking sauce for chicken.
  • Always use new lids. You can reuse jars and the metal rims, but you must use a new lid each time. If you reuse a lid, the wax ring has already been used once and may not properly seal when used a second time.
  • Sterilizing the jars is optional. A lot of recipes have you sterilizing the jars as step one. However, research has found that if the filled jars are processed for at least ten minutes, then any bacterial contaminants in the jar are killed off. If the recipe calls for the food to be processed for five minutes, you can generally double that to ten minutes with no effect on the food. If sterilizing the jars is something you want to do for that extra feeling of safety, definitely feel free to do so.
  • Test the lids the next morning. After everything has fully cooled, test the lids in the morning to ensure a proper seal has formed. First is a visual inspection; the lids should be slightly curved inward due to a lack of air in the jars. Second is a manual inspection. Remove the rings and gently try to lift the lid off. If it’s stuck in place, it’s properly sealed. If the lid comes off easily, then the jar did not seal. Any unsealed jars should be put in the fridge and consumed promptly.
  • Remove the rings when storing the jars. It’s generally recommended to store the jars without the rings. They could rust and adhere to the lid, or they could be holding the lid down in a way that makes it look like it’s sealed when it’s not. To be honest, I’m not the best with following this rule. I have, however, once gone to open a jar and after taking the ring off, discovered that the jar had never properly sealed and the ring was holding it in place. I had to throw out the contents of that jar, just in case.

Equipment You Need to Can

  • Water bath canner, if wanting to do water bath canning
  • Pressure canner, if wanting to do pressure canning
  • Mason jars
    • You can order these on Amazon in the sizes you want, but I’ve found they’re usually cheaper at grocery stores, Canadian Tire, and Walmart
    • Jars can be reused as long as they are not cracked or chipped, so you can even sometimes find them at yard sales
    • You should not re-use pasta sauce jars or other similar jars, even if they say the word “mason” on them, since they may not be true mason jars and might crack during processing
  • Metal rings
    • New jars come with metal rings, but when you start re-using jars you might need additional rings in case some get lost or become damaged
    • Again, you could order these on Amazon, but they’re usually cheaper in grocery stores, Canadian Tire, and Walmart
  • Lids
    • New jars come with new lids, so you need these when you’re re-using jars and have discarded old lids
    • Again, you could order these on Amazon, but they’re usually cheaper in grocery stores, Canadian Tire, and Walmart
  • Jar-lifter
  • Digital Scale
    • Most recipes give measurements in weight, as that’s the most accurate
  • Optional equipment
    • Funnel: I really like this. It makes it easy to get stuff in jars without making a mess all over the place, and some of them even have measurements on them so you can accurately assess headspace. This is the one I have; there are cheaper ones on Amazon but they don’t appear to have the measurements to help with headspace.
    • Magnetic lid lifter: If you sterilize your jars, you’re supposed to put the lids in lightly-simmering water to sterilize and warm them. A magnetic lid-lifter lets you pick them up from the hot water and put them on the jar without risking contaminating the underside with your fingers. (I don’t use one of these.) Here’s one that comes with a jar lifter, or here’s one that comes with scrapers.
    • Scraper: You’re supposed to scrape the insides of jars with a non-metal utensil to remove air bubbles that are trapped in the food. You can buy this sort of thing, or you can use a chopstick, or plastic cutlery. I just use a chopstick, but if you’re looking for a fancy one, here’s a couple scrapers that come with lid lifters.
    • Something to open jars: I used to pry them open with my fingernails and that usually ended with chipped fingernails. My mom found a paint can opener at Home Depot that works perfectly for prying off lids. I’ve found some bottle openers similarly do the trick if you can hook it under the lip of the lid. I can sometimes use the handle of a spoon or the ring from the jar to wedge between the lid lip and the glass thread on the jar, giving it a little twist and popping the lid off.

What Urban Homesteading Means to Me

In my self-education quest of learning how to preserve our massive garden harvest, I latched on to the homesteading subculture. If you take a cruise through homesteading sites, most of them are folks who are living rurally and/or on farms and are looking to be self-sufficient. For some this could be because they’re in a spot where a good snowstorm could knock out power and close roads, and for others they might have religious or political reasons. (I won’t get into it, but some of those sites make this gay, urban, science-trusting, millennial guy a little uncomfortable.)

Homesteading looks a lot different for me in an urban setting. Do I really need to be entirely self-sufficient?

I don’t, and I don’t think it’s possible. Our little slice of urban property isn’t big enough to provide all of the food that we consume in a year and we have no room for any sort of power generation like solar panels.

What it look like, though, is making the best use of the little piece of land that we have.

Our backyard garden, and our neighbour’s garden (which we also do)

It saves money

My husband loves to garden and he always wants to do better than the year before, so that means we have a surprisingly massive fall harvest for such a tiny garden. That’s where I come in—I have to preserve it all.

Rising grocery costs are our primary driver for growing, harvesting, and preserving our own food. This was our motivation before the recent spike in prices, and the recent surges in prices make me thankful that we’ve put in all this work over the years. Our weekly grocery bill hasn’t risen by much since a lot of the staples we buy seem to be the things that have had reasonably-steady prices.

It’s impressive (while saving money)

We’re known for the fancy barbecues we put on. It’s almost lavish with the sheer amount of seemingly-gourmet foods we bring out and the near-endless supply of fancy drinks.

The secret—and this isn’t really a secret since we’re quite open about it—is that a big proportion of that lavishness is home-grown and home-preserved food and all I have to do is open a jar. I might do a simple salad, but if I then lay out the options of toppings, like dandelion capers, sundried cherry tomatoes (dehydrated tomatoes stored in olive oil), and pickled beets, with an infused vinegar and oil dressing… it feels expensive and gourmet. But it’s dirt cheap and took no prep time on barbecue day.

We also get to experience some of the gourmet-ness with our daily dinners—such as chicken pesto with homemade pesto sauce just the way we like it (made months ago and frozen in a serving-size jar) with homegrown frozen veggies thrown in and served with a side of crusty bread home-baked the day before.

Sure, it takes prep work, but that work is done in advance on a day when I’ve set aside some time to do it. When I come home from work exhausted and need to cook up dinner before we head out to a movie, it takes next to no effort to put together something that’s delicious, healthy, and feels fancy.

Chicken and mushrooms in garlic cream sauce

It’s healthy (while still saving money)

I’m not one of those folks that gets too concerned about what’s in store-bought food. I trust that the food industry is regulated well-enough that if what’s in my food isn’t healthy, it’s at least not harmful.

However, it does allow me to make tweaks to make things healthier. My husband’s favourite food is pesto and the jars of pesto from the grocery store or either very salty or very oily (which makes sense since oil is a main ingredient). When I make pesto at home, I replace some of the oil with lemon juice—not only does it mean there’s a little less oil in there (and thus I don’t feel guilty about having it frequently), but the lemon juice adds a brightness to the flavour.

If you’re someone that gets concerned about additives and preservatives in store-bought food, home food preservation helps you avoid some of those things.

It changes the local ecosystem

This I did not expect.

When we first moved in, the only birds in the area were grackles (which are sort of like smaller crows) and a pair of mourning doves. But as we basically converted our property from boring grass to a little piece of farmland with a front yard full of fruit bushes, the ecosystem of our property evolved.

I don’t know my birds very well, but while there are a few grackles still around, they’ve mostly moved away. Now we have dozens of different bird varieties that visit our property regularly, like blue jays, sparrows, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, and many more that I don’t know the names of. We even once had a peregrine falcon sit on our fence for a bit (after it unfortunately crashed into our window).

The cats certainly enjoyed this change. It gives them something to watch from the windows.

Wizard warning off the birds

It’s adaptable

While I do a huge laundry list of homesteader-type things, homesteading activities are adaptable to wherever you might be located. I know folks who live in apartments and can’t have a garden, but they have a few potted vegetable plants on their balcony and break out the canner to do some pickling at the end of the season.

These activities also don’t require homegrown food at all. I do a lot of pressure canning so we have heat-and-eat meals when we’re tight on time but don’t want take-out. When I do my weekly grocery shopping I keep an eye out for discounted chicken thighs and discounted stewing beef—not only am I looking for cheaper cuts, but I’m looking for the “here’s 50% off but you have to use it today because it expires today” meat. I just throw it in the freezer when I get home and when I have enough stored I thaw and can them.

It can also be a way to preserve food you get a good deal. I once scooped up several bags of parsnips that were on sale for less than half price and used them for some of the food preservation recipes I have on hand.

Whether you have an acreage, a small urban garden, a few potted plants on the balcony, or none of these but you like taking on the challenge of these projects, urban homesteading is a practice that can be adapted to circumstances, time, and interest.

My Food Preservation Journey

Several years ago, my husband decided he wanted to try gardening as a way to get him away from the computer and out of work mode. Since he works from home, it’s very easy to be in that mode 24/7—but if he goes outside and leaves all technology inside, he’s forced to take a break from it.

What started as “just a little strip of dirt for some potatoes” quickly evolved to our whole back yard. Then the strip alongside our house. Then the front yard. Then the neighbour’s back yard (which he had been using as a garden until recent years). And now we’re helping the neighbours on the other side develop a garden too.

My husband and I are a two-person family and we end up with hundreds of pounds of vegetables, fruits, and herbs. In other words, it was far too much food for us to eat as we were harvesting it. We needed to figure out how to preserve as much of it as we could. We have a tiny house, so that means no basement cold storage and no deep freezer. We have the freezer in the kitchen, but it can’t hold anywhere near enough.

An IKEA bag of beets

I started with finding storage

My mom doesn’t live too far from us and, thankfully, she lets us store some food in her place. She has a cold storage room in the basement that’s perfect for our potatoes and squash. And she has a deep freezer, which I fill up every year with bags and bags and bags and bags of washed, chopped, and frozen rhubarb.

There are some easy-to-store-in-a-tiny-house things, like popping corn. That usually fills a few jars that we can easily store in our snack cupboard, and some of the other items that come up in the following sections—like freezing, canning, and fermenting—have found storage spots in our house.

I then started freezing

There are a few things that freeze well. Brussels sprouts are one of them.

My husband loves pesto for dinner and over the years I’ve developed a handful of pesto recipes. There’s the traditional basil pesto and sundried tomato pesto, but I also make garden pesto (with spinach, kale, and Swiss chard), kale pesto, and green onion pesto. I’ve learned these freeze really well in single-serving glass jars that I purchased from the dollar store. Plus, they store much longer than they should—every recipe I’ve read said they can stay in the freezer three to six months, but right now (2023) we’re eating pesto that I made in the fall of 2021 (about 18 months ago) and it’s still great.

I discovered canning

I knew very little about canning other than the fact that you could pickle things and store it in the cupboard until opened. We got into this because my husband loves beets, but they don’t seem to store very well for us, so I needed to figure out a way to preserve them. I knew my mom had an old water bath canner kicking around, so I stole it from her and taught myself pickled beets. It took some time but it was easy to do and my husband loves them.

From there, we’ve experimented with pickling a huge number of things. Some have worked out great and some not so much. I love my pickled hot peppers, but neither of us cared for pickled carrots.

In 2022, given that we were starting to grow more produce than we could reasonably eat in a year, I signed up for a few farmers markets. I canned a bunch of pickled things and got into jams and jellies. It was a moderate success, but I figured out a bit about what people are looking for at a market, so I’m hoping future years will be more successful.

Rhubarb simple syrup (for cocktails) and caramelized onion jam with Balsamic vinegar

I took the leap into pressure canning

There were some pressure canning recipes I wanted to try, but couldn’t. Pressure canning gets the jars hotter than a water bath canner is able to do, so the recipes are not swappable between types of canners. In particular there was a cherry tomato pasta sauce and a seasoned tomato juice cocktail. I made both of them, but since I lacked a pressure canner, I stored them in the freezer.

I got a pressure canner for Christmas in 2021 and quickly dove head-first into that. I got a great cookbook for pressure canners—Pressure Canning for Beginners and Beyond by Angi Schneider—and worked my way through a lot of it. In addition to the older recipes of cherry tomato sauce and seasoned tomato juice cocktail, I was suddenly canning soups and stews for lunches and heat-and-eat meals for dinners. These easy dinners became a real life saver during busy times of year like harvest season or Christmas holidays—I could have a nutritious and delicious meal on the table in under twenty minutes with next to no effort.

Then came the dehydrator

I needed to preserve some foods that weren’t canned, mostly because we could only consume so many jars of the same thing within a year and we needed some variety. I started with dehydrating cherry tomatoes, which became a delicious after-work snack (just shake a few out of the jar and pop them in my mouth) and an impressive appetizer for when guests come over (rehydrate them in some olive oil and serve with crackers and fancy cheese).

I struggled with figuring out how to best use my dehydrator, though the sheer number of dehydrated tomatoes alone made it worth the purchase price. Recently, we started getting into planting herbs, so I’ve been using it to dry the herbs as a way to store them.

And then there was fermenting

I’d heard that fermenting was a way of preserving food but I really struggled to find recipes that were appealing to us. My first experiment were fermented cherry tomatoes—they have an interesting champagne texture on the tongue (they’re fizzy), but they didn’t really taste all that great to us.

Eventually I took a fermenting workshop. We did a fermented sauerkraut and kombucha. The sauerkraut was a hit at our barbecues and the kombucha was a hit with my husband. I now make kombucha weekly. I’ve grown to become comfortable with fermenting—my biggest lesson was that fermenting is more of an art than a science. There’s room for experimentation once you understand the basics.

Which eventually led to baking

It seemed like everyone’s COVID pandemic hobby was learning how to make bread. I never got into it. Well, we did get a second-hand bread machine from my husband’s uncle, but I was never really happy with the results.

In late 2022 I finally got bitten by the “I want to learn how to make bread” bug. But I didn’t want to do something easy and straight forward. No, I wanted to learn how to make sourdough. And learn how to make my own sourdough starter (which is fermented flour). Following some online tutorials, I created my own starter and made my first loaf. With some tips from some online friends, I tweaked the recipe to better fit my climate here in the depths of Winnipeg winter. I’ve expanded from there with focaccia and English muffin bread. I’ve got a list of recipes I want to work through in the coming months.

Along the way, things got a little tipsy

During this whole process, I started learning wine and beer making using kits from homebrew stores. Once I got the general process under my belt, that allowed me to experiment with garden wines and infused alcohols.

For garden wines, I’ve made rhubarb wine, dandelion wine, parsnip wine, lemon wine, and rosemary wine. For the most part, they’ve been great—some better than others.

For infusing (putting alcohol and fruit/veg/herbs together), my big one is rhubarb ginger gin. It’s hard to keep that one stocked in my home bar because everyone wants a taste and then a second glass. Beyond that I’ve done rhubarb schnapps, a Bing cherry liqueur, and citrus-infused soju.

Citrus soju

And next…?

I don’t know if there’s a new food preservation technique I’m looking to take on, but I definitely want to expand and solidify my experience and knowledge in all of these things.

All of this is what’s led to this blog.

I’ve accumulated so many recipes over the years and adapted or created some of my own, and I need a place to store them and share them. I get a lot of compliments on my kitchen skills because the food I make usually seems difficult or expensive to make, but really my motto of food has always been “How can I make this super delicious but also super affordable and super easy?”

I love food. I’ve learned I love to preserve food. And I love sharing that food with other people.