Water bath canning is easy to learn and requires only a few special tools. It is also a great way to use up produce when it is in season. An afternoon in the kitchen can leave you with months worth of food in the cabinet. If you have ever wanted to try your hand at canning, but worried about food safety or your own abilities, now is the time to dive in. Water bath canning is safe, easy, and enjoyable!
You can use a water bath to safely can foods that are high in acid. This includes tomatoes, fruit jams and jellies, pickles, and many condiments. The high acid content is important to ensure that the final product is shelf-stable and remains safe to eat. There are other canning methods for vegetables with a lower acid content, but water bath canning is a good introduction to the food-preservation process.
Before you get started, check your cabinets to see if you have everything you need to get started. A water bath canner is nice, but any large pot deep enough to cover your jars will work just fine. You will also want a rack to set on the bottom of the pan to protect your jars. You probably have all of the utensils you need on hand, such as a rubber spatula and a spoon or ladle to fill the jars. A wide-mouth funnel makes filling jars with liquids a breeze. One piece of specialty equipment you won't want to do without is a jar lifter. You'll also need jars, lids, and bands. You may be able to find used jars and bands at a thrift store, but you will need to purchase new lids.
Before you get started with your food prep, prepare your supplies. For water bath recipes that process for less than 10 minutes, you will need to sterilize your lids and jars. Because the bands do not actually touch the food, they do not need to be sterilized. To sterilize the jars, place them in your saucepan and add enough water so they are submerged. Bring the water to a boil. Leave the jars in the boiling water bath for 10 minutes. To sterilize the lids, place them in a saucepan that you bring to a simmer. Do not boil these, as it will affect their ability to create a seal. Simmer the lids for 10 minutes, and leave them in the hot water while you fill the jars.
If you are making pickles, jam, or salsa, find a recipe and follow it. It's always a good idea to get a tried-and-true recipe from a friend who has used it in the past. When canning tomatoes, first remove the skin. This isn't as tough as it sounds. Wash the tomatoes and make a small cut in the skin of each one. Gently drop them into a pot of boiling water. After one minute, scoop them out and dunk into cold water. Once they are cool enough to handle, you will find that the skin slips off easily. The tomatoes can be canned whole, diced, or crushed. You will need to add two tablespoons of concentrated lemon juice to each quart jar of tomatoes.
Preheat your jars before filling them to prevent them from breaking when they are placed in the water bath. If you have sterilized them, move the saucepan off the burner after the sterilization process and leave them in the hot water. If you do not need to sterilize them, fill each jar with hot tap water, or use your dishwasher to preheat them.
Leave between one-half and three-quarters of an inch of room at the top of each jar. This headspace gives room for the product to expand as it processes. Take a rubber spatula and run it along the inside wall of the jar. This removes air bubbles. Wipe the rim, set the lid in place, and add the band. Don't overtighten the band.
Your canning pot should be at least half full of water. You want your jars to be covered by at least an inch of water when placed in the pan. Get the water simmering as you prepare your jars. When your jars are ready, turn up the heat so the water comes to a rolling boil. Use your jar lifter to carefully lower each jar into the saucepan. Once you put the final jar in the pot and the water returns to a boil, start counting the processing time. Keep a lid on the pot while processing.
After your jars have processed, turn off the burner and remove the lid. Leave the jars undisturbed for five minutes to begin cooling. Place a towel on the counter and, using your jar lifter, remove each jar and place it on the towel. Make sure none of the jars touch each other. Leave the jars to settle for at least 24 hours. The bands may appear loose at this time, but you should not tighten them. Doing so can prevent the lids from forming a seal.
After 24 hours, check each jar for a seal. Remove the bands and use your fingers to attempt to remove the lid. You will not be able to remove the lid of a properly sealed jar with your fingers. If you have any jars that did not seal, refrigerate them and use them as you would fresh food. Place sealed jars in a cool, dark spot for storage.
The canning process can seem intimidating, but as long as you take your time, it's pretty straightforward.
Water bath canning is not the only home canning method. While water bath canning is safe for foods high in acid, if you want to can things like corn, carrots, beans, or potatoes, you will need to pressure can. Pressure canning requires the use of a pressure cooker — a special pot with an air-tight seal. You use a valve to control the pressure inside the cooker. Due to the need for the specialized pot and the more complicated process, pressure canning is not as popular a choice for beginners.
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Most foods that can be canned can also be frozen. It may seem like freezing has an obvious advantage, since it requires no special equipment or excessive time, but there are reasons why canning is superior. For one thing, it allows you to store your finished product out of the way. Few people have enough room in their freezer to hold both their regular food and a season's worth of produce. Food will retain its quality better once it is canned, too, as the frequent opening and shutting of the freezer can lead to freezer burn on items stored for months on end.