Canning fruits and vegetables—picked from your garden or bought from the market—is a skill anyone can master with just a little training from our pros, to ensure safe and tasty food.
One of the first things you notice when you step into Karen Lovell’s cozy country kitchen in Rosewood are the rows of green beans, tomatoes, and peach jam, all neatly displayed in jars on a sideboard. Maybe that’s not so different from other kitchens across the Bluegrass. Then again, maybe it is. You see, Lovell canned this produce herself.
Lovell first learned the art of canning as a child from her mother. Back then, canning garden produce was considered a necessity. “My parents were raised in the Depression. They were very self-sufficient, and they wanted us to be too,” says Lovell.
After Lovell married her husband, Dale, they planted a garden every year. Lovell preserved the fruits and vegetables her family grew. “We had a family of six, and I wasn’t doing public work. That was my contribution to the budget, and I felt good about it,” Lovell says.
Lovell also feels good knowing exactly what her family is consuming, of particular importance lately with food recalls and food-borne illnesses making headlines. “I know where it came from, and I know what’s in it,” she says.
Dr. Sandra Bastin, Extension professor of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Kentucky, says the most popular reason for canning is that people who raise gardens want to preserve their produce. “In the end, they feel their home-canned foods are better tasting, more nutritious, and that they look better if they’ve done it themselves.”
Choosing the safest canning method
Lovell, a member of Pennyrile Electric co-op and a Master Farm Homemaker Guild member, has been canning for 40 years and sees improvements in canning methods since she first began. “You used to open-kettle can and boil produce and put them in a hot water bath for two or three hours,” Lovell explains.
“Now you have pressure canners. And you can put your quarts of green beans in there, and they’re done in 25-30 minutes. And you’re ready to go again. It’s a lot simpler.”
And with canning guidelines readily available through Cooperative Extension offices, canning books, or respected online canning Web sites, people have the knowledge necessary to preserve produce correctly.
“Nobody wants to be partner to food poisoning anybody or making anybody sick because of what they can,” says Lovell.
To avoid this, Bastin explains the two home canning methods—the boiling water bath method and the pressure canner method—and when to use one versus the other.
“The differences have to do with temperature. For acid foods, or acidified foods that we add acid to (such as pickles, salsa, or barbecue sauce), those can be placed in a boiling water bath. Acid added can be vinegar, lemon juice, or lime juice. The water bath method only heats up to 212° Fahrenheit. We’re relying on that acidification to keep Clostridium botulinum (botulism) from growing, which is the bacteria we’re concerned about.”
However, Bastin explains that foods lacking acid need to be preserved differently. Low-acid foods include all fresh vegetables, red meats, seafood, poultry, and milk.
“Green beans, corn, beets, or any vegetable we’re going to can must be done in a pressure canner so that it heats up to 240° Fahrenheit at 10 pounds of pressure.” Heating low-acid foods in this manner is for the prevention of the Clostridium botulinum bacteria.
The acidity of food is measured by its pH value. So, the lower its pH value, the more acid in the food. Although you don’t necessarily have to understand the chemistry behind it or know the pH value for each food, you should consult reliable canning resources (below) for a list of foods to add acid to and thereby know which canning method to use to ensure your food is preserved safely. For more information from Bastin on pH and how to choose the correct home canning method, see this month’s Smart Health.
While improvements in safety features of today’s pressure canners have reduced the risk of burns or explosions, extreme care must still be taken when they are in use.
“Always know your pounds of pressure on your pressure canner,” Lovell says. “That is something you make sure you never, ever walk off and leave.” Also ensure the safety valve (or petcock in older pressure canners) are free of dirt or food particles before each canning process. And before each canning season, ensure gaskets and gauges are in good working order. If in doubt, check with your local Cooperative Extension office personnel, who may be able to test gauges for accuracy.
A third method of preserving food is by freezing it. See “Freezing food and more canning recipes” below.
Save time, save money
Preserving produce is time-consuming. And now that Lovell works outside the home, she says, “Lots of times I’m thinking I’ve got to go home and get those beans broken up because I’ve got to get them canned the next day. Food can’t wait. When it’s ready, it’s ready.”
To squeeze canning into an already overloaded schedule, Lovell recommends canning in small batches. “I can’t emphasize that enough. You’ll get frustrated, and you won’t want to do it anymore if it’s overwhelming.”
Also consider the size of your family and what will likely be consumed. “We recommend that you don’t can any more product than you need for two years,” says Bastin. “The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) recommends a two-year shelf life.”
Besides the work involved, Lovell says the initial monetary output for basic canning supplies, such as jars, lids, rings, and a pressure canner, can add up. “We’re talking several hundred dollars just to start out with. But it doesn’t take long, especially when groceries are skyrocketing, to recoup that money.”
“You don’t have to buy a boiling water bath canner,” Bastin adds. “As long as you get two inches of water above the jars, you can use any pan you have.” She also recommends looking for end-of-season canning supply sales.
To save money on jars, Lovell often buys them from flea markets. She also recycles used jars. “I tell the children to bring the jars back to me if they want a refill.”
Like Lovell, planting your own garden also helps to offset the costs, but not everyone may be able to raise produce. Know where farmers’ markets are located in your area. “You can get wonderful produce and can your own things. You don’t have to have a garden at all,” says Lovell.
“If you’re purchasing from your local farmers’ market, buy large amounts, like a bushel of tomatoes. Buying in quantity is usually cheaper,” suggests Bastin.
Lovell also recommends joining a food cooperative to share the season’s harvest, or checking with neighbors who have gardens to see if they have extra produce to spare.
Preserving the art
Lovell keeps the art of canning alive by sharing her knowledge with others. In 2011, she taught a canning class at the Muhlenberg County Extension office, where the students ranged from stay-at-home moms to a doctor and businesswomen. Lovell says, “I think there’s a big resurgence of interest because of our economy and because of people’s interest in getting back to nature and doing their own thing and knowing what they’re eating.”
Lovell also shares her love of canning with her daughter-in-law and co-owner of Lovell’s Orchard, Rosi Lovell, in northeastern Christian County. Rosi, who has been canning for three years, says she became interested in canning because, “I thought it would be really neat to be able to store my own food.”
As a beginning canner, Rosi had concerns. “You want to make sure everything cans properly, so you don’t have issues with bacteria getting in jars,” she says. But with some experience, she says, “I think the most important thing is to not be afraid to try it. I think that’s what kept me from trying it for a long time.” She laughs. “It turns out I can can.”
Lovell says the interest in canning that she and Rosi share strengthens the bond between them. “I feel really blessed to have somebody who’s that interested, and I know how to do it because I’ve been around a while, and I love being able to share that with her. It’s special.”
When asked what preserving food for her family means to her, Lovell says, “Mothers like to provide for their families, and I’m no different. I put a lot of myself into it, and I think they really appreciate that, too. Canning to me is a labor of love.”
Botulism Potentially fatal food-borne illness caused by Clostridium botulinum.
Headspace Space from the top of the food to the rim of the jar, which allows the food to expand during heating and to form a vacuum seal while cooling.
Hot pack Placing preheated food into jars before processing.
Pressure canner Used to preserve low-acid produce. Reaches 240° Fahrenheit at 10 pounds of pressure.
Raw pack Placing raw, unheated produce into jars before processing.
Venting Exhausting the air from the pressure canner before bringing it up to the correct temperature.
Water bath canner Used to preserve food that contains acid, whether occurring naturally or added. Reaches boiling temperature of 212° Fahrenheit.
MORE CANNING INFO FROM THE PROS
For more canning tips, recipes, video tutorials, and even a free online course, visit the following Web sites:
UK Cooperative Extension Service: http://ces.ca.uky.edu/ces. For canning info, click on Publications, then Family and Consumer Sciences, and Food and Nutrition, then scroll to Food Preservation for links to download various publications. Or to locate contact information on your local Extension office, click on Counties.
National Center for Home Food Preservation, University of Georgia:
You Can Do It!
PRESERVING YOUR OWN GREEN BEANS
Make sure you have read the steps and have all equipment and prepped items before you begin canning using the pressure canner method, so you can work quickly.
1 Gather equipment: recipe, jars, rings, lids, strainer, pressure canner, small saucepan for lids, large soup pot for keeping jars hot, plastic or rubber spatula, nonmetallic spoon, measuring spoons, noniodized salt, lid wand, jar lifter, canning funnel, clean dish cloth, and dishtowel.
2 Ensure jars are free of defects: cracks, chips, or sharp edges. Be certain lids are dent-free and that rings fit properly. Then wash jars, lids, and rings in warm soapy water; rinse and drain.
3 Place jars in large soup pot, half-filled with water. Cover lids with water in small saucepan. Heat both to 180° Fahrenheit. Do not allow lids to boil as this may cause a failure to seal. (You do not need to heat the rings.) Jars and lids should remain in hot water, only removing one at a time when needed.
4 Choose fresh, crisp green beans. Rinse beans several times, using fresh water each time, before draining.
5 Remove strings and ends. Break beans into bite-sized pieces, about 1” long.
6 Add beans to large pot of boiling water, covering beans. Return to boil for 5 minutes. Remove beans with slotted spoon. (Add remaining beans to same boiling water and repeat.)
7 Using a jar lifter, remove one jar from hot water. Place on a dish towel. Salt (noniodized) can be added: 1/2 teaspoon per pint jar, or 1 teaspoon per quart jar.
8 Position canning funnel into jar, pack hot beans into jar using spoon, and allow 1-inch headspace. Ladle boiling water from cooking beans. If necessary, add some boiling water from teakettle (keep extra water boiling while canning as you will need it).
9 Slip spatula between beans and inside of jar. Release air bubbles by pressing back toward opposite side of jar. Remove spatula and repeat 2 or 3 more times.
10 With a damp cloth, wipe rim and threads of jar. Use a lid wand to remove one lid from hot water. Center lid on jar. Apply even pressure to screw ring onto jar until fingertip tight.
11 After filling jar, place on rack in pressure canner. Two to three inches of hot water should simmer (180° Fahrenheit) in canner until filled with jars. If needed, boiling water can be added to maintain this level.
12 Place lid on pressure canner. Lock in place. Bring water to a boil. Vent should remain open, allowing a steady escape of steam for 10 minutes. Place the weighted gauge onto vent.
13 For altitude at or below 1,000 feet above sea level, bring pressure to 10 pounds. Maintain steady pressure while processing, 20 minutes for pints and 25 minutes for quart jars. Turn off heat when finished. (Adjust for higher altitudes or if using a dial gauge.)
14 Allow canner to return to 0 pounds of pressure. Remove gauge from vent pipe (or open petcock on older models) being cautious of any remaining steam. Tilt the weight slightly to make sure no steam escapes before fully removing it. Cool 10 minutes. Then open lid away from your face.
15 Before removing hot jars, cool additional 10 minutes. Use jar lifter to remove jars. Set jars on a dishtowel to cool for 12-24 hours. No need to retighten rings.
16 Once completely cool, check lids for a seal. Press center of each lid. If center does not indent, remove canning ring. Gently try to remove lid with fingertips. No indenting and inability to remove lid with slight pressure indicate a vacuum seal. Wipe off lid and jar with damp cloth.
17 Label and date jars. Keep cool, dry, and stored in a dark place until ready to use.
CANNING SUCCESS FOR BEGINNERS
Consult someone who’s canned before, or contact a local Extension agent for resources such as books, videos, or dates of canning classes offered.
Organize Label and date all your jars. Use the FIFO method (First In, First Out) in your cabinet. Karen Lovell, a Master Farm Homemaker Guild member, explains, “Make sure newer canned items go toward the back. Bring your older stuff toward the front, so that you’ll use it.”
Basic kitchen safety rules apply Follow recipes, preferably those from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a canning book such as Ball Blue Book, or a UK Cooperative Extension publication. Be careful with potholders and dishtowels around the stovetop.
Use nonmetallic pots and pans (stainless steel or enamel-lined cast iron) when canning high-acid foods, such as preserves. Do not use aluminum or unlined cast iron as this can react with the acid and leach a metallic flavor into high-acid foods.
Do you know your altitude, or distance above sea level? Before canning, find out. Dr. Sandra Bastin, Extension professor of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Kentucky, says, “To can at altitudes above 1,000 feet, you must increase the pounds per pressure in a pressure canner and increase processing time as well. Refer to USDA recommendations if you live in a high altitude area.”
Can foods at peak quality for best results.
When purchasing a pressure canner, read the entire instruction manual before using.
Can something you like. “That’s a huge thing,” says Lovell. “Don’t make dill pickles if you hate dill pickles.”
Products that fail to seal within 24 hours can be immediately refrigerated or reprocessed in a clean jar with a new lid. (Never reuse lids.)
Plan a canning party to get family or friends involved.
Keep jars warm throughout the canning process to reduce the risk of jars breaking, and place just-canned jars on dishtowels.
Begin with jams and jellies, Bastin recommends, because they’re easier to make. She adds, “You may be a bit nervous, but there’s no reason to be.”
Jam or jelly—what’s the difference? Besides the texture and taste, the main difference is that jam is made from whole, crushed fruit, whereas jelly is made from fruit juice.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: >FREEZING FOOD AND MORE CANNING RECIPES
To read more about canning, go to Canning Food.