Prepare Every Needful Thing

"If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear"

Home Production and Gardening–October 2013

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Water Bath Canning Basics

WWII canning poster

I learned to can as a young mom when we first moved to California. What a great thing to be able to take advantage of wonderful, fresh and  inexpensive fruit in season and set it aside for the months when everything in the store was mediocre, old and pricey!  Even at the end of marathon canning days when I was exhausted and my little-supervised kids had reduced my house to matchsticks (I have since learned to break it up—much better) there was always great satisfaction in surveying my stack of empty fruit boxes and my counters full of gleaming bottles of fruit.

Water bath canning requires very little equipment to get started:

  • Good quality canning jars and lids—essential!  Don’t re-use mayo or spaghetti sauce jars unless you are prepared to risk bad seals or broken jars.  You can get real canning jars at thrift stores, garage sales, from friends “retiring” from canning and, really, new ones aren’t very expensive.
  • A canning kettle.  If you are just trying it out, use your largest lidded soup pot.  It just needs to hold enough water to completely cover your jars plus 2”.  A lift-able rack is helpful, but you can make do with a kitchen towel in the bottom of your pot.
  • Jar lifter—I wouldn’t want to can without one.
  • Canning funnel—optional, but may help keep your jar rims and counters a little cleaner.
  • A book on canning.  I like Stocking Up and Putting Food By.  I know many rely on the Ball Blue Book Guide.  Just make sure it was published post-1988 when many of the guidelines were changed.  Of course, the web can also be a great source of info if you find a reliable site.

Basic instructions:

  • Water bath canning is only for high-acid foods—mainly fruits and pickles.  Modern tomatoes no longer make the cut.  Also, too many additional ingredients (thickeners, etc) can raise the pH of your food and make it unsafe for water bath canning.  Consult your book if you are not sure.
  • Start with good quality.  Fruit doesn’t improve with canning.  It should smell and taste good.  Skins must be well-washed or removed and bruises and other damage thoroughly trimmed.
  • Keep things clean.  Jars, lids and utensils should be sterilized.  The dishwasher is great for this, but lids should be boiled to pre-soften the sealing compound.
  • Prepare canning liquid and fill jars about 1/3 full before adding fruit—you will get fewer air pockets this way and reduce the risk of bruising your fruit when you drop it in.
  •  Observe headspace directions!  Headspace is what they call the air at the top of the jar and it can vary widely depending on what you are canning.  Pour your canning liquid in to approximately the right depth, remove air pockets with a non-metal utensil (a chopstick or plastic knife will work) and then adjust as needed.
  • Wipe jar rims clean of fruit and liquid.
  • Apply lids and rings.  Make sure the jar rim is centered in the lid sealing compound.  Use a finger to hold it in place while you screw on the rings.  Tighten rings “fingertip tight”—that is as tight as you get it using just your fingers. as opposed to using your whole hand, jar wrench or male relative.
  • Lower jars carefully into hot water.  The jars are strong, but still glass.  Reduce and eliminate temperature and impact shocks as much as possible.  Position jars with space between for even heating and so boiling doesn’t cause them to rattle against each other.
  • Time from a full rolling boil with the lid on, a simmer is not hot enough.
  • When your timer rings, turn off heat, remove canner lid and wait for the boiling to stop.  You’ll be less likely to get splashed and your jars will be less likely to boil over as you remove them.
  • Remove jars without tilting and place on a kitchen towel somewhere they can remain undisturbed for 12-24 hours.  Don’t allow jars to touch and keep away from drafts and vents for slow, even cooling.
  • After the jars are thoroughly cooled, carefully remove rings and check seals.  The lids should not move when gently pulled on or twisted and they will not flex up and down but remain slightly concave.
  • Wash and dry rings, label sealed jars, refrigerate unsealed jars and anticipate delicious, home-canned fruit in Winter and early Spring!
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