Advice from a novice canner

by threegirlpileup

Several folks have asked me about getting started with canning.  The truth is, I am not an experienced canner, just an enthusiastic one.  Although my mother is a great cook, and we spent a lot of time in the kitchen growing up, canning was not something that we did together.  My mother-in-law was the one who got me started, when I watched her make jam one summer at our little cabin in upstate New York.  This must have been about five or six years ago.  I had no idea that jam was so simple!  I came back home inspired, and made many batches of jam.  Pear-ginger.  Peach.  Hot pepper.

My jam-making has waxed and waned in the intervening years, waning significantly once Anna was born.  And mostly, I stuck to fruit–brandied cherries for Steve, some fruit chutneys, and more jam.  I experimented with recipes and types of pectin, but didn’t branch out that much.

And then, I began gardening.  Last year’s cucumber harvest wasn’t that great, but I found myself dreaming of pickles and relish.  My pepper harvest was more or less a total bust, but I wondered if I could someday make hot pepper jam using my own peppers (I did–yesterday!).  And tomatoes–what if I could actually can my own tomatoes?

I also read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which has got me hot not only to can but also to make my own cheese.  But that’s another post entirely.

So this has been my first summer of crazy canning.  Of really trying to put local, seasonal produce up for the winter.  I swear there’s something in my primal brain that is being satisfied by the process of hoarding up calories for myself and my family for the fallow season.  I feel like a mama squirrel gathering nuts into my nest, and I love to see the pile growing!

For those who are just getting started, here would be my non-expert advice.

1. Read some books. A very digestible classic is the Ball Blue Book of Home Preserving.  It’s inexpensive (mine was $6.50) and sold most places that sell canning supplies.  It has tons of basic and more interesting recipes, plus all of the information you could ever need on the mechanics of canning.  Plus I like that I can be sure that all the recipes are vetted in terms of food safety.  I just bought a copy this summer, and it’s already dog-eared.  For jam, I love Well Preserved by Joan Hassol.  My friend Nancy loaned me this book, and I liked it so much that I bought my own.  Although I have used this recipe more for inspiration that following exact recipes–I prefer less sugar than she suggests, and have substituted low-sugar pectin in many of the recipes.  It is both a lovely memoir about jam making and filled with interesting recipes.  And as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my new favorite canning book is The Joy of Pickling by Linda Ziedrich.

2. Find a canning buddy.  For me, I was lucky enough to find an experienced canner in my friend Nancy, who could answer my questions and provide me with encouragement.  It would probably work equally well to find an enthusiastic friend who wants to learn along with you.  There is something magical about canning–trust me!–and it’s wonderful to have a friend or two who can share your triumphs, mourn your un-set jam, and understand your new obsession.  If you have someone who can walk you through your first canning adventures, all the better.

3. Get the right tools.  Especially a jar lifter.  I bought my first canning kettle with a rack this summer, and it’s definitely a must for quart jars of  tomatoes.  For half-pints of jam, you can get away with any big stock pot.  Myself, I’m jonesing for a magnetic wand to pick up jar lids, but it’s far from required.

4. Just do it. The detailed directions for canning can be a little overwhelming, but the actually doing of it is not that complicated.  It is important to follow recipes closely, especially in terms of maintaining the acidity of your food (this keeps bad bugs from growing). Personally, I’d start with jam, since it’s hard to screw up using commercial pectin, and it’s also hard to poison anyone.  If jam is bad, the worst that happens is that it’s moldy or icky–not dangerous. And speaking from experience, it’s probably a good idea to try your first batch or two without your kids underfoot, if possible.

Really, there is little more satisfying than seeing those rows of shiny glass jars filled with your own preserved concoctions.

Happy canning!