Food preservation through canning is a skill still practiced extensively in the rural areas of the United States, but people who live in the cities rarely consider canning because it is no longer a part of the urban culture. Most city dwellers wouldn’t have the first idea about how to start canning, much less how to develop a viable food storage program through processing their own food. Canning is a skill that is not only important to our lives right now, but it will become even more important in the event of TEOTWAWKI, because there will likely be no more companies operating to preserve food for us.
I am a native Californian. I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles and lived most of my life in the “Golden State”. About 20 years ago, my husband and I started to become concerned about the radical changes happening in our beloved home state, and we were worried about raising our children in such a volatile culture. After about three years of researching possible alternative locations, we pulled up stakes and moved to tiny town in far northern Wyoming. When I say we pulled up stakes, I mean that we left family, friends, and jobs to move to a place where we knew no one and had no employment prospects. Our objective was to provide a better life for our children and ourselves. Over the past seventeen years we have carved out a niche in our little town and managed to almost integrate ourselves into a very insular culture. Being Californians, we had a hard time convincing our new neighbors that we weren’t going to infect their society with our twisted California values. After seventeen years and many hours of community service, I think that they are beginning to trust us!
All kidding aside, my neighbors have blessed my life since we moved to Wyoming by teaching me many things about survival preparedness. In fact, it was difficult to choose just one subject for this article. After consideration, I decided that canning was the single most important thing that I have learned, because it combines self-sufficient food storage, healthy eating, and saving money. Three of my all-time favorite topics!
Without exception, everyone should “can”. Men, women, city people, country people, and everyone in between can benefit from learning how to preserve their own food. It does carry some dangers, but they have been greatly exaggerated– probably by the folks who make canned foods for the supermarkets. As long as you use some common sense and follow some simple rules, you will be able to provide your family with delicious meals that are much healthier than the highly processed, chemical-laden food that you can find in the grocery store. Additionally, you will be able to lay in a supply of emergency rations that are far more palatable than many of the freeze-dried foods and MREs that are currently being sold for emergency preparedness. (We have freeze-dried foods and MREs in our long-term food storage too, so I do not mean to marginalize these very important food storage items; they definitely have their place in your plan.) Canning will also allow you to save a substantial amount of money! So what’s not to love?
This article is not intended to teach you everything you’re going to need to know, as that would require a book. Luckily, you have an excellent resource in the Internet to give you recipes and basic instructions. (HJL Adds: Ball’s Blue Book, usually available at Walmart in the fall is also an excellent resource.) I also recommend talking to all of the older women you know and polling your friends who live in the suburbs. You’ll find a wealth of information. This article is intended to familiarize you with the benefits of canning, encourage those of you who dwell in urban areas to look into preserving your own food, and to give you the basic information that you will need in order to begin. I want you to get excited about food preservation because the benefits are almost limitless!
No matter how you slice it, you’re going to have a little bit of an initial investment. But if you bide your time, and shop smart, you can find a lot of ways to save money on your supplies. Here is a list of the basic things you will need to start your canning adventure, and some suggestions on how to save money when you buy them:
- Water Bath Canning Kettle
- Pressure Canning Kettle
- Jar Puller
- Canning Funnel
Jars & Lids
Jars come in several sizes– from the little jelly jars to pints, quarts, and even half-gallons. I would recommend laying in a good supply of at least the pints and quarts, because these are the sizes that you’ll use the most.
Jars of all sizes come in two mouth types– regular and wide. The regular size opening works well for liquids, sauces, and meats, while the wide-mouth jars are better for canning fruits and vegetables. The jars require lids, so if you buy jars with both size openings, you’ll need both regular and wide-mouth lids. The lids themselves are a two-piece contraption– a flat lid with a sticky inner surface to facilitate sealing and a ring that screws down over the flat lid to hold it in place.
Jars and lids are sold in the grocery stores in country towns, but they may be a little more difficult to find in urban areas. If you live in a city, try taking a trip out to country for the day with the family. Take a picnic and be sure to stop at a couple of farmer’s markets to pick up some fruit and vegetables to put into your new jars. Find the local farm and ranch store, and you’ll undoubtedly be able to find a wide selection of canning supplies.
Another great resource for jars is thrift stores. They usually wind up with quite a few of them, which they offer at a good price because they take up a lot of space. I once bought over 300 jars at a thrift store for $10.00. When you consider that they usually cost from $9.00 to $12.00 per dozen, this was quite a savings. I have also had excellent luck with finding canning jars at garage and estate sales. Seldom do I ever buy my jars new from the grocery store. If you are buying used canning jars, it is very important to inspect them carefully. Run your finger gently around the mouth of the jar to be sure that there are no nicks, which would interfere with sealing. Do this inspection carefully; you don’t want to cut yourself! Also, hold them up to the light to be sure that there are no hairline cracks in the glass. If you take care of them, canning jars can last for years. One more word to the wise is that if you give any of your canned food to your friends, be sure to tell them that you want the jar back. You don’t want them tossing your hard-won canning jars into the trash!
Lids are another story. “Official” canning websites, which are sponsored by canning jar manufacturers, will tell you that you cannot reuse the flat lids or the rings that screw them down to the jars. This is a lie. While you should NEVER reuse the flat lid, the rings can be used over and over again, as long as they remain in good shape and are free of rust. The canning jar manufacturers must know that this is the case because they sell the flat lids and rings as sets, but they also sell boxes that contain just the flat lids. I run my jars and rings through the dishwasher after I empty them. Once they are thoroughly dry, I place the ring back on the jar before putting it into storage to await my next canning venture. This allows me to be sure that I have plenty of rings for my jars, and it saves on storage space. There are several companies on the internet that offer reusable lids for your jars. I have used a few of these and have found them to be very effective. They’re expensive, but they will save you money in the long-run, and they would certainly be good to have on hand in the event of TEOTWAWKI or any other national shortage of supplies. (HJL Adds: You can also reuse the lids when just using the canning jar for dry storage, or short term storage in the refrigerator. We will often use a Mason jar lid attachment with our vacuum sealer for dry goods. As a result, we hardly ever throw the lids away. New flats are always used for canning, but we save the old for general use.)
Water Bath Canning Kettle
A water bath canner is a large, enamelware pot with a lid and an inside rack. The rack sits inside the pot to hold jars in place during the canning process and is useful for raising or lowering jars into or out of the water. You will process your filled jars in a water bath canner when you are canning high-acid items, such as pickles and fruits (including tomatoes). While vegetables are usually pressure canned, they can be canned in the water bath kettle, if you’re making pickles out of them, because the salt raises the acid content.
Your water bath canner will cost about $40.00 – $50.00, if you purchase it new. I have two of them, and I bought them both (you guessed it) at garage sales for $5.00 a piece. Be sure to check and make sure that the rack is on the inside, if you decide to purchase a used water bath canner.
Pressure Canning Kettle
A pressure canner is simply a gigantic pressure cooker with a flat rack in the bottom to keep your jars from coming into direct contact with the heat. When I first learned to can, I was scared to death to try pressure canning. I spent years canning only the high-acid items that I could process in my water bath kettle. Finally, I sucked it up and set out to learn about the pressure canner that had been sitting on a shelf in my garage for over five years. The first time I processed a batch of soup in my pressure canner I was sure that I needed the fire department and ambulance standing by, but (much to my surprise) I got through the experience with the house still intact and with no loss of limbs. I have been happily pressure canning ever since. Many people pressure can everything that they preserve, but I feel that pressure canning fruits and pickles makes them too mushy, so I stick to using both kinds of kettles.
Vegetables and meats are considered low-acid and should always be processed in your pressure canner. This is also true of your soups, chilis, and most sauces. I find that it’s a good idea, when in doubt, to pressure can just to be safe.
A good pressure canner is going to cost you from $120.00 to $200.00. I bought mine at a garage sale for $10.00, and it was almost brand new when I bought it. The retail price would have been $140.00. It is important to buy a fresh gasket for the inside of any used canner that you might purchase, and it is also a good idea to take the pressure gauge (which will unscrew from the top) to your local extension office to have it tested. You can find an extension office by contacting your local community college. The nice extension people will test your gauge for free. If your used canner doesn’t come with instructions, just check the model number and look up the instruction manual on the Internet. I recommend reading it thoroughly and printing a copy to keep in your files.
This is a utensil that is specially shaped to allow you to keep a firm grip on your jars as you move them in and out of the canning kettles. These are also sold anywhere that canning supplies can be found, and they run about $12.00 each. Mine is 1970s avocado green and was purchased at a garage sale for 25 cents.
This is a funnel with wide openings, which will fit snugly into the mouth of your regular or wide-mouth jars and will allow you to transfer your food into the jars without making a mess. (Well, at least without making a huge mess.) It will also help you keep the tops of the jars as clean as possible so that you’ll have to do less cleaning before sealing them. The new ones are plastic and cost about $15.00. I prefer the older models, which are made of metal and can be picked up at garage sales or thrift stores for next to nothing.
Aside from the things that you probably already have in your kitchen, such as pots and pans, measuring cups, and measuring spoons, you won’t need any other equipment to start canning. When you’ve assembled the above-mentioned items, all you need to do is decide what you want to put into your jars, and get started.
What Can You Can?
You’re going to be a little bit confused when you start reading canning websites and blogs. There is a lot of conflicting information out there about what can be canned, how it should be canned, whether you should hot pack or cold pack, and how long it can be kept on the shelf. I personally prefer the blogs and websites of elderly ladies who have been canning for years and have plenty of practical experience under their belts.
Let’s start with what can be canned. I can almost everything, and so do all of the other women whom I know. This includes meats, vegetables, fruits, stews, soups, sauces, relishes, jellies, chutneys, jams, and pickles.
Here’s a little story to illustrate how confusing the canning websites can be. I had been canning my spaghetti sauce, which contains an appreciable amount of olive oil, for many years when I read a hair-raising article about the dangers of canning food that contains any kind of oil or fat. The article claimed that fats trap the bacteria and makes them resistant to heat. After forcibly restraining myself from tossing out the 30 quarts of spaghetti sauce that were sitting on my shelf, I thought the whole thing through and decided that I wasn’t going to let the article strike a nerve with me. After all, I had been canning sauces, soups, chilis, and meats, which all contain fats, for many years, and I hadn’t killed anyone or even made anybody sick. Additionally, I know a woman who even cans her own butter, and she hasn’t killed anyone either. So, I have continued to happily can foods that contain fats. This is your call, though, and you should thoroughly research the available information before you make a decision about what you feel comfortable canning. By the way, I water bath can my spaghetti sauce, even though it contains onions, peppers, and oil, because tomatoes are so very high in acid. I would not do this if I put meat in my canned spaghetti sauce. Meat must always be pressure canned. Once again, do your research, and decide what you feel is safe.
Speaking of safety, before eating any low-acid canned foods you should thoroughly heat them to a hard boil to kill any residual bacteria. Check the canning instruction websites to find out how long they should be heated, and to what temperature, before serving.
Hot Packing and Cold Packing
There are two ways to can fruits and vegetables: hot packing and cold packing. Meats are always hot packed after they are thoroughly cooked. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, I personally prefer cold packing. This means that the fruits and vegetables are washed and put into the jars raw. Then brine, syrup, or water are added, and they are placed into either the water bath canner or the pressure canner. Many people prefer to cook foods before canning them, but I feel that the canning process makes them too mushy if they are cooked ahead of time. This is a personal preference, and you should experiment with both methods to see which one you prefer. There is one problem with cold packing that you should know about. The raw fruits and vegetables will shrink a little bit during the processing, and your jars won’t look as full and pretty. The contents will float up a little, too. This doesn’t hurt anything, but your jars won’t look as attractive as they do when you hot pack them. This is really only a consideration if you’re entering your canning for competition in the local fair.
Additional Important Tips
- Always sterilize your jars, lids, and rings before putting your product inside. This is easy to do by simply putting your clean jars upside down in a metal baking pan with about 2 inches of water in the bottom. Toss the lids and rings in around them, and boil for about ten minutes. If the jars suck up the water while they’re boiling, just tilt them slightly to one side to release it back into the pan. Be sure to use a hot pad when handling the jars and lids, because they will be VERY hot.
- When using salt in your canned products, always use the canning salt or kosher salt that is available in most grocery stores. Regular salt is iodized and it will discolor your vegetables. Also, add about a half a teaspoon of Fruit Fresh to your jars of fruit to keep the colors vibrant and pretty. Fresh Fruit is just ascorbic acid, and will not affect the flavor or nutrition of your product.
- Cleaning the tops of your jars and the threads around the edges is vitally important before you put the lids on the jars. This will facilitate sealing and prevent contamination of the contents. After you process your jars in your canner and allow them to cool and seal, you should remove the outer ring and clean again around the threads. Don’t worry about removing the outer ring, it won’t affect the seal. Dry thoroughly and put the ring back on before storing the jars. Many people store their jars without the rings on, and they claim that this does not affect the length of time that the seal is viable. Since I stack my jars on shelves, or in plastic bins, I want them to be as protected as possible and have never done this, but I know several people who do.
- Mark the flat lids of your jars with a permanent laundry marker as to the contents and the year that they were filled. You can buy those pretty little labels to put on the outside of the jars, but I have found that they use some kind of indelible miracle glue on them, and they’re almost impossible to take off once you put them on. Even putting them through the dishwasher doesn’t remove those little suckers. I’m going to throw the flat lid away anyway, so I always just do my writing on the tops of the jars.
- When you remove your jars from the canning kettle, try to do it in a place where there is no direct draft from an air conditioner or a fan. They will be very hot, and the cold air can crack them. Always allow them to cool on a wooden cutting board or a thick dish towel to avoid contact with the cold countertop. Additionally, if you are processing several batches in your canning kettle, one after the other, don’t lower the next batch of jars immediately into the boiling water from the previous batch. This can also break your jars. Allow the water to cool for a little while before putting in the next batch of jars. Leave the jars undisturbed on the counter for at least five or six hours before marking and storing them. After the cooling period, check each jar for proper seal by pressing your index finger gently in the center of the flat lid. If the jar is sealed, there will be no movement. If the jar is not sealed, the flat lid will pop up and down. Put any unsealed jars in the fridge and eat the contents in the next couple of days.
- Jars should be filled to between ½ inch and 1 inch of the top before sealing. Different recipes call for different headspaces, so be sure that you check your recipes carefully before filling your jars.
- After putting the product and the liquid into your jars, run a kitchen knife gently around the inside of the jar. This will release any trapped air bubbles. Add additional liquid as needed.
The Benefits of Canning
Food Storage – To me, this is the number one, most important benefit of canning your own food. “Official” websites say that you should not keep home canned food on the shelf for more than two years. We feel very comfortable with keeping them for up to five years. You simply have to exercise some common sense. Store them in a cool, dry place and away from direct light sources. If the jar is no longer sealed, if the food is discolored, or if the food smells bad, throw out the contents of that jar! We rotate our home-canned food storage in the same way that we rotate our store-bought food storage. The oldest jars are stored in the front and used first. We also date every jar so that we know in what year it was canned. We store our jars in plastic milk crates that are carefully marked as to content and dates. This protects the jars, makes them easy to stack, and would be handy to load into the back of the Suburban if we ever have to bug out during a crises. You could also use small plastic storage tubs.
There are several financial benefits to canning your own food. First, you will be able to buy fruit and vegetables during the seasons when they are readily available, and very cheap. You might not appreciate this as much if you live in California where vegetables are grown year-round, but those of us who live in wintry states, like Wyoming, know the value of being able to buy our asparagus when it’s $1.49 per pound, as opposed to the winter time when it goes up to $4.89 per pound! Also, you usually save an additional amount of money by buying produce in larger quantities, which you will be able to do since you will know how to preserve what you don’t eat right away! You can also use your new canning skills to take advantage of sales and promotions on everything from produce to meat. Finally, you can cut down on waste by cooking in large quantities, and canning the leftovers for future use.
Meat is a great example of the value of learning to can. Sure, you can buy meat on sale and put it into the freezer, but how long will it be before it starts to dry out and becomes freezer burned? Six months, tops? And what will happen if the grid goes down and you don’t have the electricity to run your freezer? You’ll wind up with a lot of spoiled meat. “Official” canning websites say that canned meat can be kept on the shelf for two years, but we have eaten meat that has been in the jar for five years with no ill effects at all. By the way, I have to warn you that meat in a glass jar is one of the most unattractive things that you will ever see. It looks like a failed science experiment. But don’t let that put you off. If you like to preserve wild game meats, try putting them into a stew or soup before canning them. Between the seasonings and the canning process, they will lose that strong, gamey taste.
Whenever I cook chili, stew, or soup, I always cook in large quantities. It doesn’t take much longer to cook a lot than it does to cook a little, and that way I can build up my food storage with very little additional effort. I simply can what is left over. This is also handy for my husband, who works out of town most of the time. Whenever he comes home, he goes down and raids the food storage for these pre-made meals to take with him when he goes back to the job site. That way he has fast and easy home-cooked meals that are tastier, more nutritious, and much less expensive than eating out.
After reading this article, you may have gotten the false impression that I spend all of my time in the kitchen, cutting up produce, and sweating over bubbling pots. This isn’t true. I am a Funeral Director and a Deputy Coroner, so I work long, strange hours. Canning actually saves me time and effort because I can cook large amounts of product all at once and then enjoy it for a long time. Our family enjoys good food,,and we particularly love ethnic foods. Anyone who has ever cooked Mexican food or Indian food knows that the sauces are time consuming and labor intensive. I cook a couple of gallons at a time, whether enchilada or mole sauces, or Indian masalas. Then I can them in pint jars for quick use later on. What a blessing on days when I’m pressed for time!
To me, this is another one of the most important aspects of canning. Our country is racing toward using more and more GMO raised produce, more insecticides, and more questionably raised food from foreign countries. Commercially canned foods are placed in cans and jars with BPA in the liners and the lids. So it is becoming essential that we protect our families from these serious health hazards. If you can your own food, you are able to grow your own produce and meat, or you can choose organic growers and small farmers to supply your products. You’ll have the ability to know where your food came from,and what is being added during the canning process.
Most kids hate vegetables because commercially canned vegetables are cooked to death and have absolutely no seasoning or flavor. While my preference is for fresh vegetables that have been cooked completely waterless (yep, not even any steam), the next best thing is my home-canned produce that is seasoned with herbs and spices before canning. Be creative with your preserved foods. When I can peaches I put cinnamon and cloves in the syrup, and I always put a tablespoon of brandy and a piece of star anise in the jar before sealing. Compare that with the commercially canned peaches that have no flavor at all, and you’ll never want to buy grocery store canned fruit again!
Even the LA County Fair has a canning division. Once you’ve mastered the art of canning, you can enter your products in county and state fairs and have the pleasure of winning ribbons and prizes for your efforts!
So… do some research, start out simply, and discover all of the amazing food storage, money saving, health, and flavor benefits of learning to can. You won’t regret a minute of it. I promise!
A Few Helpful Websites and Blogs