Home canning is the process of destroying bacteria and microorganisms that cause food to spoil. There are many reasons that people choose to preserve their own food. Some people want to avoid the preservatives and chemicals found in commercially-prepared food. Others have such bountiful gardens that canning is a way of saving what they grow for a later time. Still others view canning as a way of continuing a tradition begun by their ancestors. Whatever your reasons for "putting up" your own food, you'll find that the taste is light-years beyond anything you can buy in a grocery store.
- You'll need some basic equipment to get started with home canning. The two most expensive items are a steam-pressure canner and a boiling-water canner. Each type of canner is suited for different foods. Steam-pressure canners process foods at higher temperatures, so they are well-suited for low-acid foods. A steam-pressure canner should have a weighted gauge or a dial gauge that has been tested for accuracy. Boiling water canners are better-suited for foods with high acidity. Bacteria doesn't grow as readily in an acidic environment, so these foods only need to be processed to 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
The next items that you'll need to purchase are canning jars and two-piece vacuum seal lids. The USDA revised their canning guidelines in 1989, so it's best to use jars manufactured after that date. The most common brand names for canning jars are Kerr and Ball. You can find these in several different sizes. Some are even decorative, if you plan on giving your preserved food as gifts.
The only other items that are necessary to canning are a rubber spatula, a cooking timer and a book that provides guidelines for safe canning and recipes. A good preserving book should include information on which foods are suitable for pressure-canning, steam-canning and freezing. A very comprehensive one to consider is the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.
- Now you're ready to start canning. Be sure to use food at its peak. The flavor will be much better and the chance of spoilage will be less. Prepare the food as directed in your recipe. For some foods, this requires complete cooking. For others, a quick blanching will do. Some may even be left raw--a process sometimes known as "cold pack."
- Check your jars and lids to be certain they are free from cracks. Prepare them by washing with soap in hot water, then boiling them in a large pot for several minutes. Keep the jars and lids hot until you are ready to fill them with food. Alternatively, you can use a dishwasher to prepare the jars. It's best not to put lids in a dishwasher. The water temperature may be high enough to damage them.
- Put your prepared food into the hot, sterile jars. You may find it helpful to use a funnel for this step. Sterilize the funnel when preparing the jars. Leave the recommended amount of headspace, according to your recipe. Headspace is the amount of space between the top of the food and the top of the jar. This helps ensure a safe, vacuum seal.
- Remove air bubbles from the food by sliding a rubber spatula around the inside perimeter of the jar.
- Wipe the rim of the jar with a clean, damp cloth. Lids will not seal properly if the threads of the jar aren't clean. Put a lid on the jar. Lids are the pieces with a rubber seal on the underside. Next, screw a band on the jar over the lid. Do not twist too tightly--just to the point of resistance.
- Process the filled jars in either a steam-pressure canner or boiling-water canner, according to your recipe. When finished, remove the lid from your canner and allow it to cool slightly. Place the filled jars on top of a towel on a firm, level surface. Do not disturb them for 24 hours. After 24 hours, push down on the lid. If it does not flex up or down, a seal has been formed and the food is safely preserved. If the lid can be easily flexed, it should be reprocessed or refrigerated and used immediately.
- If you like, when a vacuum seal has been formed, you can remove the bands for use with other jars. Wipe down the outside of the jars and store them in a cool place. Basements are ideal for home food storage, as long as you have sturdy shelves on which to place the jars.
- Most canned foods are safe for use within one year of preserving.
The variety of foods that you can preserve is limited only by your imagination. There are even cookbooks that cater to special diets. Experiment to find the recipes that you and your family enjoy, and have fun!