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The Beginner’s Guide to Canning Just About Anything

Canned peaches by Tastes Better from Scratch, canned pickles by Natasha's Kitchen, and corn relish by The Daring Gourmet.
Tastes Better from Scratch/Natasha’s Kitchen/The Daring Gourmet

Canning is a fantastic way to preserve foods for later consumption. Whether you have an overabundance of harvested produce, or you just want to learn the skill of canning, we’ve got you covered.

Learn all about the art and science of safely canning foods, using the method that’s right for you. These are our guides for canning, as well as five recipes you can take a crack at.

What Is Canning?

Canning is a food preservation method that involves storing various ingredients in jars, then heating the jars at a specific temperature that destroys microorganisms. If done properly, your food won’t spoil due to heating the jar, then letting it cool, which causes the lid to vacuum seal.

When a vacuum seal is formed, air doesn’t have any way to seep in and contaminate the food. Researched-based methods must be used for canning, even if grandma has been doing it a certain way for years.

Always use reputable sites for canning when you have questions or concerns about safety. The last thing you want is a bad case of botulism, a foodborne illness commonly caused by bacteria that grow in improperly canned foods.

This handy infographic by the Food and Drug Administration covers a few excellent reminders for safely canning foods. But for detailed information covering principles, and up-to-date instructions, always follow the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) instructions.

Hot Packing vs. Cold Packing

Some recipes call for raw-pack (or cold pack) canning, while others call for hot-pack canning. Cold packing is when you fill your hot jar with raw, unheated foods. However, juices, brines, and syrups should be boiled before adding them to the jar for this type of method. Cold packing is typically done with a pressure canner.

Hot packing is the process of boiling foods, along with syrups or water for the jar before adding them to your hot jar. This process is typical when using the water bath canning method.

If raw packing, your water should heat up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and if hot-packing, your water should be 180 degrees Fahrenheit.

Everything You’ll Need

A McSunley water bath canner with jarred peaches inside with various other jarred fruits next to the canner.

Whether you plan to use the water bath method or want to give pressure canning a try, we have a few recommendations for what you’ll want to buy:

Water bath canner: If you don’t have a large stockpot, then a proper water bath canning pot is a great option. The 21.5-quart canner will hold several jars, and it’s complete with an easy-lift rack for the safe insertion and removal of jars. Use this on gas, electric, or glass cooktops; it is the perfect heavy-duty pot for this type of canning.

Pressure canner: This T-Fal model is a great piece of cookware to get you started with pressure canning. The pressure dial is precise, and it won’t pressurize without being properly secured with the sure-locking lid system. It’s a safe and well-constructed canner that is suitable for most stovetops.

Canning rack: If you have a large stockpot that you’d like to use for canning but need a rack to hold the jars, this one is a great option. It will fit a standard 20-quart stockpot and offers easy-lift handles.

Jar lifter: You use one of these to add and remove jars from hot water baths or pressure canners so you won’t burn your fingers. They’re designed with a curve that’ll get a firm hold on the round lids. We love the comfortable, ergonomic handle on the Ball jar lifter.

Canning funnel: Another handy tool that allows you to ladle in your food without spilling it everywhere. We love the collapsible design on this model. Canning isn’t an everyday activity, so storing something that compresses to a smaller size is always ideal.

Mason Jars, lids, and bands: The Ball brand is probably the most widely used and reputable brand for canning jars. This six-pack of pint-sized jars is a great place to start if you’re just getting started.

Quick Pickling vs. Canning Pickles

Canning and quick picking are two different techniques for storing foods. The main difference is that quick-pickled foods only keep for a month or two and must be stored in the fridge.

Canned foods, on the other hand, are shelf-stable and only need refrigeration after being opened or if a jar doesn’t seal properly.

Quick pickling is much less complex and doesn’t require any boiling or sealing. It’s a great way to get into the hobby of jarring foods.

The Water Bath Canning Method

Pickling jars in a pot full of water.
Amelia Martin/Shutterstock.com

There are a few methods for canning foods, but two are the most popular: water bath and pressure canning.

We’ll explain what each method is, along with a tutorial on how to can using that method. Keep in mind that the instructions below are general. Some recipes might differ depending on the ingredients, product brands, and other factors.

Water bath canning is the process of canning foods using a boiling water bath to seal the jars. This method is great for canning high-acid foods, like fruits, tomatoes, pickles, and relishes.

Note that meats, fish, most soups, and vegetables require the pressure canning process to preserve them safely, so never use the water bath method for those kinds of low-acid foods.

Some foods need acidic ingredients to ensure they remain acidic enough for this type of method. Tomatoes, for example, need something like lemon juice to further the acidification process.

The water bath canning method is perfect for beginners, as it’s the easiest way to make shelf-stable foods without having to mess with something like a pressure canner.

Below are the basic steps of canning using the water bath method:

  • Prepare your pot: Place a canning rack inside a large stockpot, then add several inches of water, enough to cover the tops of your jars by at least an inch. The rack is designed to keep the glass off the pot’s bottom to avoid cracking the jars with direct heat.
  • Turn on the heat: Turn your stove on to allow the water to start heating up. Following your recipe, make sure you bring your water to the correct temperature for raw packing or hot packing.
  • Wash the jars: While the water is heating up, wash each jar by hand with hot soapy water, and check for any chips or imperfections, especially along the rim. These jars should not get used for canning. Also, wash your lids and bands.
  • Heat the jars: Some jar manufacturers require you to heat the jar in a hot water bath before using them for canning. Be sure to read up on the brand and its recommendations before using them.
  • Fill the jars: Using the recipe you have on hand, work quickly to fill your jars using a ladle and canning funnel. Leave about one inch of space between the top of your food and the rim.
  • Wipe the rims: Use a clean moist towel or paper towels to remove any food from the rim to ensure it seals properly during the canning process.
  • Add the lids and bands: Place the washed and dried lid on the jar, then screw the bands over shut tight but not too tight.
  • Process the jars: Load your rack with jars and carefully lower it into the water bath. Alternatively, you can lower the jars in the water bath using can lifters if you don’t have a rack with handles. Make sure there is about one inch of water over the jar lids. Bring the water to a boil and place the lid of the pot. Use the processing time found in your recipe. Processing time starts when the water is boiling and you’ve placed the lid on the pot. Reduce heat if boiling too heavily.
  • Cool the jars: Once the processing time is up, remove the rack of jars or individually using a jar lifter. Transfer to a cooling rack and let cool for several hours.
  • Wait for the pop: You’ll know your jars are ready when they start to make a popping or pinging sound. That’s the beautiful sound of hard work paying off. Once cooled, store for up to a year in a dark, cool location.

The Pressure Canning Method

A stainless-steel pressure cooker.

Pressure canning is the process of canning low-acid or nonacidic foods using a special piece of equipment called a pressure canner. We’ll walk you through the basic steps of this method, but do keep in mind that all brands of pressure canners will vary. Make sure you read the manufacturer’s directions first, so you know exactly how to use your particular model.

Also, keep in mind that it’s not safe to use electric pressure cookers (like an Instant Pot) for this type of canning. Now, let’s go through the basic steps of pressure canning:

  • Prepare your pot: Pressure canners should always come with a removable rack. Add the rack to your pot, then add enough water to meet the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Turn on the heat: If your recipe specifies that you hot pack your jars, then turn your stove on to allow the water to start heating up. Otherwise, do not heat your water if cold packing. Also, check your brand of jars before using them to ensure you are heating or not heating them before use.
  • Wash your jars: While the water is heating up (or not), wash the jars by hand with hot soapy water, and make sure there are no chips, especially along the rim. Discard chipped jars.
  • Fill your jars and wipe: Work swiftly to fill your jars using the canning funnel. Leave about one inch of space between the rim and the top of your food. Use a clean towel to remove any foods off of the rim. This helps to seal the lids properly during the canning process.
  • Add the lids and bands: Place the washed and dried lid on the jar, then screw the bands over shut tight, but not too tight.
  • Vent steam: Use the jar lifter tongs to lower the jars into the canner. Place the lid of the canner over the top and secure, following the manufacturer’s instructions. Leave the petcock open and turn the heat on if you haven’t done so.
  • Process the cans: Close the petcock and watch as the pressure starts to rise. When the pressure has reached the correct amount specified by the recipe you are using, the processing time has begun. Watch the pressure closely. If it goes below the indicated pressure, you’ll have to start processing time over for safety.
  • Depressurize your canner: Once the processing time is up, turn your heat off and let your canner depressurize until the gauge reads zero. Slowly open the petcock; if it makes a hissing sound, it’s not fully depressurized, so let it sit a little longer before attempting to open the petcock again.
  • Carefully open the canner: Open the canner away from your face to allow the hot steam to release away from your face.
  • Remove the jars: Using the jar lifter, carefully remove the jars without tilting. Place them on a cooling rack to cool. Listen for the pop and check that they’re sealed by checking the shape of the lid. If the lid dips inward, it’s sealed, but if it budges up or is flat, it’s not. Jars that haven’t been sealed properly will have to go in the fridge once cooled to avoid spoilage.

Signs of Spoiled Canned Food

There’s a saying in the food safety world: when in doubt, throw it out! This applies especially to canning. If you aren’t sure about it, you’re better off tossing it than getting sick.

Here are a few signs of spoiled canned foods:

  • Leakage: If the jar is leaking or seeping contents, it needs to go.
  • Bulging or spewing lids: Lids that hiss when you open them should go, too. This could mean it’s developed gas or pressure.
  • Odd color: Another classic indicator of spoilage.
  • Strange odor: If it smells funky, it is funky.
  • Moving lids: If you can easily push it down, it’s not sealed. Lids should be concave.

Now that you’re armed with the all the detes, it’s time to try a few of the most popular recipes from the canning world.

Canning Tomatoes

Multiple mason jars filled with canned tomatoes.
Beyond the Chicken Coop

Canning tomatoes has its own set of rules, but following a specific tutorial will help get you through the precise details and steps. Beyond the Chicken Coop blog features excellent tutorial images with precise steps so you can follow along and learn all there is to know.

From blanching and peeling to dicing and canning, you’ll learn every step of the way. Once you’re ready to start using those canned tomatoes, be sure to make a homemade tomato sauce.

Get the Recipe: Beyond the Chicken Coop

Canning Dill Pickles

A top view of a jar of pickles with a fork in one of the pickles.
Natasha’s Kitchen

Dill pickles are a hit, especially when you make them from scratch. This tutorial will swing you through all the steps with some fantastic imagery. You’ll even get some tips for keeping that delicious crunch factor strong.

Get the Recipe: Natasha’s Kitchen

Canning Strawberry Jam

A fancy spoon with fresh strawberry jam on it, along side of a small jar of jam.
Boulder Locavore

Strawberry jam is one of those lovely condiments that makes an excellent gift. Homemade tastes so much better than the stuff off the shelf. Like most from-scratch foods, you’ll appreciate the love and labor you put into something like this.

There’s no better way to celebrate the warmth of summer than with scratch strawberry jam. Pick from the two methods provided in this recipe tutorial.

Get the Recipe: Boulder Locavore

Canning Peaches

Someone adding sliced peaches to a mason jar.
Tastes Better from Scratch

Peaches are in season right now, and we have so many recipes that boast these juicy, plump fruits. One way to celebrate that peachy keen flavor all year is by canning them.

You’ll learn everything from selecting peaches to making a simple syrup and finishing them off with a hot water bath and safe seal. Make sure you check out all the recipe variations, so you can enjoy them just the way you like.

Get the Recipe: Tastes Better from Scratch

Canning Sweet Corn Relish

Three jars of canned sweet corn relish with an ear of corn next to th ejars.
The Daring Gourmet

Corn Relish is a delicious condiment that can accompany most summer dinners. It’s also delicious on hot dogs, with chicken, tossed in a pasta salad, or served up on Taco Tuesday.

To make it, you just combine some freshly sliced corn kernels with peppers, celery, onion, and a few other tasty ingredients.

Tip: Use an electric knife to work through the ears of corn—it’s quicker and far less messy.

Get the Recipe: The Daring Gourmet

Canning fruits and veggies is a great way to ensure you’re eating healthy all year. It doesn’t take much to get started, and you’ll be glad you did every time you reach for a yummy jar of preserves.

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »
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