A couple of years ago, we started using Zaycon Foods to buy fresh, natural chicken. We LOVE their chicken but as a small family of three, 40lbs of chicken is much more than we can reasonably use before it would go bad. Needless to say, I didn’t want to avoid it so I knew what I needed to do. I had to learn to can! Canning is a fantastic way to cut your budget and eat fresh fruits, vegetables and meat all year long, but honestly? That first time? I was terrified! You hear so many horror stories about things that can go wrong with your canner, food that doesn’t seal right causing people to get sick and other yucky rumors and they can make actually learning and getting things right so scary! No worries though. Canning is actually pretty simple once you learn the basics!
If you’re new to saving every dime that you can, you might be wondering just why you’d want to learn to can your own foods. Aside from family tradition, canning is a fantastic way to save money and to eat fresh fruits and produce on a budget all year long. Having the option to can your own foods gives you the chance to buy when prices are low and items are on sale, can them up and then eat them later on when prices are higher. Yes, you’ll spend some cash out of pocket to get started, but the equipment that you have to buy will last you for many years making it well worth it.
To start, you’ll want to make sure that you have the equipment that you will need to can your own foods. You’ll want to start with things like:
- Pressure Canner
- Water Bath Canner
- Canning Funnel, Jar Lifter, and other canning tools
- Food Strainer and Sauce Maker
- Canning jars with lids in various sizes – Pint, Quart and Jelly Jars
- Canning Labels (optional)
Those are the basics, but other items you might need would be fruit pectin, canning and pickling salt, jelly straining bags, and you’ll probably want to pick up a copy of Ball’s Blue Book and/or the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. The salt and pectin will vary by recipes (pectin is usually only used for certain jelly or jam recipes and some fruits actually make their own – apples for instance).
Now that you’ve got your supplies, pull them out of their boxes and get familiar with them. You have to be familiar with the tools you’ll be using in order to use them correctly. Some of them, your pressure canner for instance, can actually be dangerous if they’re used incorrectly. For some of the items, your jars, your lid lifter and so on, they’re pretty self explanatory and yes, you are totally correct that your water bath canner is simply just a HUGE pot with a canning rack in it. You could use a large pot and buy the canning rack separately, but the issue is that unless you have one large enough to fit your jars comfortably and allow enough room, you could easily cause your jars to break.
The main piece of equipment you’ll want to get to know is your pressure canner. You’ll notice that it has a lid that locks down (or clamps down), a pressure gauge, a vent area and a pressure regulator. YES, it is perfectly normal for the pressure regulator to not sit steady on the canner. It isn’t supposed to. The regulator does exactly what it sounds like. It keeps the pressure in your canner from building up more than it should and helps release it slowly as the canner cools. Yes, it will rock at different points of your canning session. It’s normal. The pressure gauge is there to let you know how many pounds of pressure you have inside of your canner. For most recipes, you’ll want 12-15lbs of pressure, BUT you will also need to check your altitude above sea level as that can change not only the amount of pressure you use, but also the length of time that you can foods for.
Your water bath canner will only need 3 parts. The actual canner, the lid and a canning rack to sit the jars on. NEVER sit jars on the bare bottom of the pot. The heat will cause them to shatter and you’ll lose everything that you’ve tried to preserve. Otherwise as long as you have enough water, your water bath canner is pretty easy to use. Just follow the canning recipe you have and make sure that your jars are covered with enough water.
Lids and rings are a must have as well and both can be purchased together or separately. Rings can be reused as long as they aren’t rusty, but lids can not. The seals can not hold up to more than one use so if you’ve used a lid, even on a jar that didn’t seal, make sure you toss it. You can purchase reusable canning lids if you want to try and cut down on the costs a bit more, however, while I’ve never used them personally, I’ve heard they can have quite the learning curve so be sure to take that into account.
When it comes to canning foods, some foods are highly acidic (tomatoes) and this makes them safe to can in a water bath canner. Other foods, like green beans, are low in acid which means they can only be canned in a pressure canner. Most meats and vegetables must be processed in a pressure canner, however most fruits can be water bathed. The recipe that you are using should tell you which canner to use.
Speaking of recipes, another good piece of basic canning info to have is that all of the recipes you use to can your goodies with will tell you how long to process the jars and at how many pounds of pressure. Make certain that you actually follow this advice. If you don’t can at the right pressure, your jars may be tainted. If you don’t can long enough they may not seal correctly which can also lead to a tainted jar.
Before you begin filling your jars, you’ll want to make sure you sterilize your jars, lids and rings. For your jars, you can run them through the dishwasher, but for rings and lids, you’ll want to put a pot of water on to get hot and then leave them in the hot water as you fill your jars. Fill all of your jars first, then add the lids, then rings and tighten to what they call “fingertip tight.” This means to tighten it with your hands but not so tight that you can’t undo the ring. For lids, heating them actually has a dual purpose. Obviously it sterilizes them, but it also helps soften the seal on the lid so that they can seal correctly when you are processing them.
Once your jars are processed, leave them sit in an area where they won’t be disturbed. As they cool, you’ll want to listen for the lids to ping. Once the lids ping, your jars SHOULD be sealed, however you still need to double check that each seal is down. You can do this by pressing the button in the middle of the lid. If it pops up and down, the jar isn’t sealed and you should put the food in the fridge and use it before it expires. For lids that are sealed, remove the ring and store the sealed jar in a dry place. It is VERY normal to have a jar or two that don’t seal.
I think the biggest thing to remember is not to be afraid and even though you may not think so, you will be at least a little bit. You’ll be afraid of processing the foods wrong, you’ll be afraid of hurting your family, you’ll be afraid of random things. Canning isn’t hard to do and as long as you do your research, follow the recipe and instructions and pay attention, you’ll be just fine.
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