Learning the basics of this easy food preservation technique

Canning Basics

by Pat Veretto

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Tomatoes, green beans, corn, stew, sauce, jelly, pie filling... you name it, you can can it. Can meat; it's cheaper to store than operating a freezer. Can spaghetti sauce or chili or pie filling when the ingredients are cheap. Can vegetables, of course.

If you've never canned before, or need more confidence, now's the time! It's one of the easiest ways to preserve food once you know some basic rules. Here are some canning basics to get you started.

Canning involves putting food into jars, heating them and holding them at a temperature high enough and long enough to kill microorganisms. Air is driven out of the jar and a vacuum seal is formed, keeping the food safe.

You will need:

  • Jars
  • Lids and Rings
  • Miscellaneous kitchen tools*
  • Canner, either a boiling water bath or a pressure cooker type

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*Miscellaneous kitchen tools include:

  • butter knife
  • damp cloth
  • jar lifter or sturdy tongs
  • large kettle
  • small pot for heating lids and rings
  • larger pot for heating jars


They don't have to be new; look at garage sales and thrift stores. Check rims for nicks or bumps by running a finger around them lightly. If there is any unevenness, the jars won't seal.

It's an unending discussion as to whether you should use jars that contained mayonnaise or other prepared products, so I'll give you the facts and you can decide for yourself.

These jars are generally thin walled in comparison to jars made for home canning and will break more easily. Standard rings and lids won't fit all of them. However, most of them that look as if they will fit, do. If you decide to try them, check carefully for unevenness on the rim, as they're not held to the same standards as jars created especially for home canners.

Since these jars are basically free, the loss of a jar is no big deal, but the food in them might be. If you have a flood of tomatoes and don't know what to do with them, it might be worth taking a chance, but if you have precious few and really want or need to keep all you can, go the extra mile and get jars that will stand up to heat and temperature changes. They're an investment that will last a long time.

Jars must be as sterile as possible. Wash thoroughly with soap and hot water, rinse and put them in very hot water. It used to be recommended that you boil them for 10 minutes before beginning, but that's no longer considered necessary, since the boiling water bath or the pressure canner will do the same job. Be sure to keep them very hot throughout the process, though.

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Lids and Rings

Always buy new lids. It isn't safe to reuse them, as the gasket material isn't flexible enough to seal twice. Lids can be bought inexpensively in packages of a dozen each. Rings can be used again as long as they're not rusty, but if they're showing signs of rust, or if they're out of round, buy new ones.

Both lids and rings must be hot before using them on the jars. Put them in very hot (not boiling) water before you begin to fill the jars. Give them time to heat through.

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Miscellaneous Tools

Tongs are indispensable as tools to lift lids and rings from hot water. You can use any kind, but the ones with soft covering on the ends work best. A magnet on a long handle works for lids, but can be awkward for rings. You can also tie a small magnet to the end of a large mixing spoon handle for this.

Lint free cloths must be used to wipe the top of the jar from spills before seating the lid. Dampen the cloth and rinse in warm water occasionally while you're working.

Racks usually come with regular canners of either kind, but if for some reason you don't have one, put a towel in the bottom of the canner. It won't keep jars from hitting each other, but it will keep them from bouncing against the bottom of the canner and perhaps save you a jar or two. Space the jars evenly in the pot, not touching.

If you don't have a rack that you can lift from the water for your boiling water canner, look for a jar lifter, which is a tool that is simply a wide curving tong which will fit around a jar and lift it.

You'll also need a towel placed on a table in an out of the way, draft free area on which to set the jars until they seal. Don't move them for 24 hours, unless you can see that they didn't seal, then you need to refrigerate them.

When a lid seals, it will often make a popping sound. It will always indent. If a lid doesn't sink inwards, it hasn't sealed. Give all of your jars at least an hour to seal, but be sure to check them closely after that. If they don't seal, refrigerate the food and use as soon as possible.

Be sure to follow the exact recipes and instructions for each food you can. Ball Blue Book of Canning is the recognized authority. You can find it in most libraries, but if you're going to can much at all, it's worth having your own copy.

Reviewed August 2017

Pat Veretto is a work-at-home grandmother who has homesteaded, homeschooled and happily lived frugally most of her life. She currently freelances.

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