Canning Instructions to Preserve Food

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Preserve meat, fish, fruits and vegetables with these detailed canning instructions.

Late season harvest canning instructions to preserve food such as meat, fish, and the fruit and vegetable harvest.

Canning Instructions to Preserve Food

I was never more secure in our wilderness home than when I lifted the latch and opened our pine cupboards to see double rows of variously shaped bottles traveling all the way to the far log wall. The ruby of pickled beets, the purple hue of huckleberries, rows of peas, pickles, and velvet raspberries in scarlet syrup were waiting for the long winter. Throughout our years in the bush, we ate only wild meat and the rabbits, chickens, and geese we raised ourselves. The store of moose and bear rose and fell with the seasons but we preserved everything from hindquarter roasts to heart and tongue to soup stock from boiling down the bones. I confess that for me the beginning of each canning season still initiates an energetic fumble through cupboards and drawers, while I mumble, “Where’s my favorite funnel?” “Where in tarnation are the tongs?” or “Where’s the confounded colander?” The wise canner assembles all tools in advance, and one advantage of this method of preservation is that once the equipment is acquired, none of it needs to be purchased again. Well…almost none.

Why do I bother with this time-consuming and inevitably messy seasonal chore? How about the spiritual zing of opening a jar of ruby cherries or apricots for dessert in the depths of February? Now how about saving all the money you would have dumped into fresh produce for the entire winter? Getting warmer? Not only is preserving economical, in the long run it also saves time.

The simple theory behind canning is that heat and an airtight seal preserve fruit and vegetables safely for months. The food, packed in jars, is heated to very high temperatures to destroy enzymes, bacteria, and other food-spoiling microorganisms. As the sealers heat, the air is driven from them, and as they cool a vacuum seal forms. This vacuum seal prevents the air from re-entering the jars and spoiling the contents. And unlike frozen produce, canned foods are not dependent on electricity to keep them sound. In our grandparents’ time, refrigeration wasn’t available and canning was the most practical method for storing perishables.

My own grandmother, with belt cinched tight on her pink housedress, and in shoes fit for battle, would march back and forth across the kitchen hoisting hot jars from the steaming water bath. Nanny canned in the same spirit that she conducted most of her business. Her preserves were like prayer bottles filled with the best of the harvest. Nothing matched her pears, or the tangerine tone of her pickled crabapples. Unlike me, Nanny was completely prepared and she followed the procedure with crisp efficiency. Also preserved in my mind is my own firm resolution to side-step the domestic yoke and seek out a life of adventure. Ironically my trail led to a remote pioneer existence where survival included canning countless jars of produce every year. On our Coast Mountain homestead, where, like our grandparents, we lived without refrigeration, it was our chief storage method.

The Two Basic Canning Strategies

Water-Bath Canning

There are two basic ways to process preserves: water-bath canning and pressure canning. The appropriate method is determined by the level of acid in the produce. All low-acid foods such as vegetables, meats, poultry, and seafood must be processed under pressure at 240 degrees Fahrenheit. Without this intense heat a harmful bacteria, called Clostridium botulinum, can survive and thrive. The growing spores produce a deadly yet insidious toxin, since the food gives no obvious indication of spoilage. Luckily the spores do not grow in high-acid foods such as tomatoes, pickles, and fruits. It is safe to process these in a boiling water bath at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. The equipment needed for this is either a traditional water-bath canner or a metal pot that is three to five inches deeper than the jars. The pot must have a tight-fitting lid, a flat bottom, and a wire rack for lifting jars out and for preventing them from touching the bottom (or each other) or falling against the sides of the canner. You can also use a steam-pressure canner for waterbath canning provided it is deep enough. And the pot should be no more than four inches wider than the stove’s burner.

Pressure Canning

It may be best not to buy a used canner made before 1970 because it may lack vital safety features and finding replacement parts could pose a headache. Pressure cookers should come equipped with a jar rack, a dial pressure gauge, an automatic vent/cover lock, a steam vent, a safety valve, and a lid that turns to lock into place.

Now, do you want to use the hot pack method or raw pack method of filling the sterilized jars? One rule applies to both techniques: Only use produce in its prime. Fruit and vegetables will be preserved but not improved by canning.

In the raw pack method, the food is packed raw into the jars, then covered with a boiling hot liquid. Generally, raw packed fruits and vegetables shrink during processing and they should be packed tightly. There are exceptions however, including corn, peas, and lima beans which actually expand during processing and so should be packed loosely.

With the hot pack method, the food is preheated in liquid, packed hot into hot jars, and then covered with hot cooking liquid. Hot packing is superior in the sense that more air is forced out of the food tissues. There should be enough liquid to fill in around the food as well as to cover it.

After packing each jar, remove air bubbles by poking a plastic spatula or plastic knife between the food and the jar. Metal utensils could scratch the glass. Move the spatula up and down while rotating the sealer. As air is released, the level of liquid may subside and you’ll need to add more fluid. The head space is the space between the top of the food and the lid, and it is essential for the expansion of food during processing and to enable a vacuum to form. If too little space is left, some of the food may pump out during processing. If too much space is left, air may remain in the jar after processing. Either could mean a poor seal. The required amount of head space varies according to the food, so it is important to follow the recipe.

After filling the jars properly, the next step is to seal them. Place snap lids in a shallow bowl of boiling water for three minutes to soften the rubber seal. Do not boil directly over heat because this could damage the sealing compound. Wipe the sealing edge of each jar rim with a clean damp cloth to remove any drips or particles that could hamper the seal. Place a lid squarely on each jar, then firmly screw on a metal ring. The sealing compound on the lid will safely survive only a single use and should then be disposed of.

Fruits and Veggies

To process high-acid foods, such as fruit and tomatoes, place the packed jars into a half-filled water-bath canner. If raw packing, the water in the canner should be hot but not boiling. However it is safe to use boiling water for hot-packed fruits and vegetables. Once the jars are lowered into the canner, add hot or boiling water to raise the level one to two inches above the jars. Be careful not to pour boiling water directly onto the jars. Put the canner lid on and as soon as the water comes to a rolling boil, begin to count the processing time. Type of food and altitude will determine the length of time, and a reliable cookbook or canning book should be consulted for this information. Throughout the processing, keep the water at a steady but gentle boil, adding more if necessary.

I learned to treat jars gently years ago when my family first moved to the bush in British Columbia. I was feeling banished from the southern orchard paradise. Fruit from trees gradually took on mythical proportions and when my mother arrived with prune plums I nearly knocked her over getting at them. It was essential to can them right away, and so I set about diligently pricking each prune with a fork, then pressing them into the hot jars, filling each sealer with sugar syrup and leaving a half-inch head space. Following the proper procedure, 25 boiling minutes later I lifted the lid. Gripping the birch jar lifter, I hoisted the first hot sealer and felt the bottom of the jar collapse as the fruit drifted out and diluted itself to death in the water. I fished for another one and felt the same sickening sensation as the bottom gave way. In the end five out of seven jars collapsed and I was left with a fractured-glass-and-plum stew. Aware that glass can become fatigued, I concluded that these jars had been used one too many times. With the cold pack method, even after boiling water or sugar syrup has been added, if the contents are cool enough, the jars won’t heat up. I’m careful now never to put cool jars in boiling water.

Meat, Fish and Beans

To can low-acid foods such as meat, fish, and beans, put about three inches of water in the pressure cooker and position the packed closed jars. Following the instructions for your particular pressure canner, secure the lid but leave the vent open. Heat until a steady flow of steam escapes from the vent. Allow it to whistle for about 10 minutes, then close the vent. Once the dial gauge has reached the proper pressure, begin to time it. It is essential to maintain a steady pressure, and if wood heat is used the gauge has to be carefully monitored and the canner shifted about accordingly. Once the time is up, remove the pressure cooker from the heat and wait for about 45 minutes until the gauge registers zero. Open the vent. This will release the remaining steam. Two minutes later open the lid and remove the jars.

Canned food needs to be cooled upright and gradually in a safe place out of a draft. This takes several hours. Don’t put jars on a cold surface and don’t cover them with a cloth.

Rhubarb and Huckleberries

In the north rhubarb was a staple fruit. It unfurled early, and after we had glutted ourselves on the rosy sauce we began to can it. There was such an abundance, we harvested only the tender ruby stalks. Once chopped up, rhubarb should be left alone to make its own juice. Simply sprinkle it with sugar and let it sit overnight before preserving it. Vary the amount of sweetener to your taste. A guiding amount could be a half cup of sugar to every four cups of rhubarb. We discovered that rhubarb combined with berries is even better. It blends well with raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, or saskatoons. Cook the sauce, then add the berries for the last 10 minutes. Rhubarb can scorch, so be sure to stir. Pour the mixture into piping hot sterilized jars, then process in a water bath for 10 minutes. In the dimness of winter, our hands reached for the rhubarb with the deepest hue while the jars of plain sauce waited, like wallflowers, on the shelf.

Huckleberries are a pleasure to can. Simply fill the sterilized jars, press the fruit down gently but firmly, add the sugar syrup, and process. All berries need to be packed with a measure of firmness to avoid floating fruit.


One secret to good canning is to be innovative. One of my favorite jellies is a blend of raspberry and red currant. With jam and jelly making, commercial or natural pectin can be used. High levels of natural pectin are present in many fruits including green apples, cranberries, and underripe berries. Once again, the level of sweetness is a matter of individual choice. Despite dire warnings by commercial pectin companies, I regularly alter the recipe and make decent jam with a ratio of six or seven cups of fruit to four cups of sugar, rather than the recommended ratio in which the sugar exceeds the fruit. Jam cooked longer will become thicker, but the occasional runny batch can make great pancake syrup or sauce for pudding or ice cream. And there is now commercial pectin available, derived from citrus peels and pulp, that requires little or no sweetener.


Our climate wasn’t kind to cucumbers. We made our bread-and-butter pickles by substituting zucchini for cucumber. Add a few red or yellow peppers to dress up the jars and tantalize the taste buds in the barren winter. During my 13 years in the bush I pickled heaps of beets, and I learned to be careful not to overcook them. Remove them from the heat while they still have some firmness; as they sit in a mass waiting for peeling, they will continue to soften.

My mother still raves about Nanny’s dessert tomatoes. First she would make juice from over-mature tomatoes pressed through a sieve. She then peeled prime tomatoes after scalding them in boiling water and cooling them in cold water. After packing them, she filled the jars with hot juice, sealed them, and processed them in a hot water bath.

Canned Food Sealing and Storage

After the canning has cooled, test the jar seals. The sharp inhaling plink of lids as they bear down is music to any experienced canner’s ears. Equally recognizable is the disheartening dull thud of canning lids letting go of their rims. To test the seal, press the center of each lid. If it is already down and doesn’t move, it is sealed. If it moves up or down it isn’t sealed. Tap the jar with a spoon. A clear ringing sound indicates a good seal. A dull sound may mean a poor seal. Refrigerate any suspicious jars and use them within the next few days.

The rest are ready to be stored. How quickly we forget! It is best to write the name of the product and the date it was canned on a label that will adhere to the jar. Felt pen on masking tape is efficient but not overly attractive. Be decorative, especially if the product is intended as a gift.

Canned goods can be stored in any dry, dark, and cool space. If the spot is too damp the lids and rings will rust. We learned this the hard way one winter when we stashed some jars in the root cellar. If the place is too warm, the food may lose flavor or change color. Freezing can break the seal as well as the jar. Stored in proper conditions, canned foods will retain their flavor, color, and nutritional value for about a year. Check through your supply of preserves now and then for any signs of spoilage. A bulging lid means tainted food. Use your eyes, ears, nose, and common sense to decipher any suspicious symptoms as you open each jar. If there is mold, foaming, discoloration, or odor, discard the food immediately. Further, before serving any canned meat or vegetables, bring them to a boil and heat thoroughly. Above all, do not give it the taste test, and religiously apply the blanket rule: When in doubt throw it out.


Canners, jars, snap lids, and screwbands

Large bowls and other containers – for preparing food. Be sure to choose non-aluminum. Stainless steel is ideal.

Colander – These large-hole strainers are essential for draining washed or salted fruits and vegetables.

Tongs – These are handy for moving hot beets and other produce, as well as for lifting snap lids from hot water.

Jar lifter – This is essential for lifting hot jars from the canner or pressure cooker. We had a homemade birch pair. The commercial ones are metal and coated with soft plastic.

Good paring knife – Have this in advance for peeling fruit and vegetables. A knife you are comfortable with is essential.

Measuring spoons and measuring cups – Get your proportions right.

Long-handled spoons – These are important for stirring your bubbling brew, which will froth and spit. Metal is best because wood absorbs color and flavor.

Funnel – A canning funnel fits neatly inside the jars and is vital for keeping the rims clean while filling.

Potato masher or pastry blender – good for crushing fruits slightly so their juice is released.

Spatula or plastic knife – for removing air bubbles from jars before processing.

Clean Cloth – This will be dampened and used to wipe rims.

Timer or clock – for keeping track of processing time.

Labels – lest we forget when or what we canned.


Pots and pans – Heavy non-aluminum pans with at least a six-quart capacity.

Candy or jelly thermometer – A thermometer with a metal clamp for fastening to side of pan to detect correct jelling temperature.

Food processor or food mill – These grinders are either manual or electric and are ideal for pureeing fruits or vegetables.

Cheesecloth – This loosely woven cotton is good for straining juice from softened fruit and pulp.

Jelly bag – This mesh bag hangs, allowing the juices to drain. It should be dampened first so that it doesn’t soak up juices from the fruit.

Ladle – This large spoon with cup bowl, long handle, and spout will ease the task of pouring hot jelly and jams into jars.

Mesh skimmer – This long-handled fine-wire mesh strainer is ideal for removing the foam from the surface of the boiling jelly.

Pasteur’s Revolution

Mason jars, named after their inventor, John Landis Mason, may now seem the dullest appliance imaginable, but they were a revolution in the nineteenth century. Originally, earthenware jugs and bottles sealed with wax or corks were used for “canning,” until Louis Pasteur discovered that the microorganisms they let through caused spoilage and disease on an epic scale. Mason, a tinsmith, was thunderstruck by the notion that glass containers sealed with a rubber ring and gasket would keep food indefinitely. The design has remained basically consistent to this day.

The jars range in size from half pint to half gallon and are available in regular and wide-mouthed styles. In modem times these jars are closed with self sealing lids and metal screwbands. For water-bath canning, other types of jars can be used as long as they are the right size for the rings and lids. Mayonnaise jars are especially good for this. As long as the jars are in good shape, they can be employed indefinitely. However it is important to check the jars and metal rings for any nicks, dents, or other flaws before using. Discard any damaged ones, or if the jars are still in reasonable shape, they can serve for other types of storage.

Before filling, the jars must be cleaned and sterilized. Wash them with hot soapy water but avoid the use of steel brushes or any metal devices because they damage glass. Rinse in scalding water. In order to avoid breakage, sealers should be hot when filled with boiling liquid. Jars may be left in hot water until using, or put in a 225 degrees Fahrenheit oven for 20 minutes before filling.