Nearly a decade ago, I arrived in my grandparents’ kitchen with a pound of beets, some apple cider vinegar and a craving to learn how to can. My interest in sustainable food had grown while studying the environmental and health problems of our industrial food system, and had led me to a simple solution: Harvest beets from my organic garden and pickle them in my own kitchen. After a couple of hours with my grandparents, I had safely preserved my ruby gems. The pings of the lids sealing fed my desire to produce healthy food for year-round meals, and to continue the multigenerational tradition of canning and preserving.
Newbies often approach home preserving with trepidation and no grandparents to teach them. As long as you follow a recipe and safe canning methods, you’ll be able to preserve all sorts of foods. A few hours of energy use will reward you with months of energy-free food storage, and an unsurpassed feeling of security and wealth.
I turned to our readers, book authors, our editorial team, and, of course, my grandparents, to compile these pro canning tips. For step-by-step processing instructions, refer to any of the books listed as Home Preserving Resources. Find more how-to and myriad tested recipes by reading our Home Canning Guide.
Experienced home canners know to plan, and then can accordingly. If you don’t spread jam on biscuits every morning, then don’t preserve enough jam to feed the whole neighborhood. The time investment isn’t worth it (although homemade jam with a hand-lettered label and a ribbon tie makes a great all-occasion gift).
1. Think about what you’ll realistically eat. Take into account the food your family enjoys. Plan for meals based on what’s in your pantry, and make substitutions to recipes to include what you’ve preserved. — Sharon Astyk
2. Calculate your annual needs for whatever you’re planning to preserve. I felt like a genius when I realized I use approximately four 14-ounce cans of diced tomatoes a month, and that if I just canned 3 or 4 pints a week during tomato season, I’d end up with all I needed for an entire year. — Robin Mather
Any reputable canning book will deliver detailed how-to instructions, but you can also learn the ropes by offering to assist an experienced preserver. As a home canner who’s taught a few folks in her own kitchen, I welcome both the company and the helping hands. Here’s how several experts got a handle on basic canning methods and stepped up to intermediate-level skills.
3. To get started, I took a home preserving class from an extension office. — Nikole Brundick
4. Read through canning instructions and recipes several times before starting. Follow directions, don’t change anything other than herbs and spices, and you will preserve safely. — Cathy Barrow
5. Start your recipe searches with the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving or another trustworthy book. I know too many friends who simply browse Pinterest or the Web for canning and preserving recipes, not realizing that all recipes should be carefully formulated and tested to ensure proper food safety. — Shelley Stonebrook
6. Know your spreads: A jam contains pieces of fruit, whereas a jelly uses only the juice. Although any sweet fruit spread may be called preserves, technically, preserves are made with whole fruit. A conserve is a jam or preserve that includes dried fruits and nuts. Marmalades are usually made with citrus and slivers of peels. Fruit butters are purées, such as applesauce, cooked down to a spreadable consistency. Syrups are pourable liquids. — Leda Meredith
7. I’ve created an outdoor canning kitchen. My setup is portable and consists of a camp stove or two, a propane tank, and a table. — Ilene White Freedman
8. Heat up your canning jars when you’re preheating water in your water bath canner. When your recipe is ready to can, remove the jars from the pot and set them on a clean towel on the counter. There’s no need to invert them, as any remaining water will evaporate. — Marisa McClellan
9. When you’re ready to remove your jars from the water bath canner, first lay down a towel on the countertop. Otherwise, the piping-hot glass jars could crack on contact with the counter’s cold surface. — Leda Meredith
10. If your seal after processing isn’t good, you can reprocess any unsealed jars within 24 hours. Use new lids, and process the jars for the same length of time a second time. Alternatively, you could freeze the food, or put it in the fridge and eat it within the week. — Eugenia Bone
Beginning preservers will need to invest in a few basic pieces of equipment. For acidic foods, such as most fruits, jams, pickles, and salsas, you’ll at least need jars, lids, jar-lifter tongs, and a water bath canner with a canning rack. Take it to the next level with a pressure canner to can low-acid foods, such as stews, meats and most vegetables. I’m absolutely taken with my aluminum All American pressure canner, which can also be used for water bath canning. Here are a few more go-to gadgets to make home canning and preserving more efficient.
11. Top of the line is a digital scale that can handle large quantities as well as measure small amounts. A mandoline is a hand-powered cutting tool that cuts thin, uniform strips. — Leda Meredith
12. When chopping vegetables and fruits for salsas and such, take advantage of your food processor. First, chop the fruits and veggies coarsely by hand, and then chop finely using the pulsing action of the processor. Chop each ingredient separately to keep softer foods from turning to mush. — Andrea Chesman
13. One piece of equipment I’ve found invaluable for canning is my Squeezo, which is a large strainer tool that takes the place of a food mill for separating pulp and juice from seeds, skins, etc. The process is fast. I use my Squeezo for tomato-preservation projects, applesauce and grape jam. You can purchase different screens for berries and stringy vegetables. — Shelley Stonebrook
14. When cooking jelly, use a heavy-bottomed, stainless steel stockpot that’s at least three times deeper than the level of the juice and sugar combined to accommodate the jelly bubbling up when boiling. — Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine
15. If you have the equipment needed to make jams, you’ve nearly got all you need to make jelly — just add a jelly bag and stand. Ladle the fruit into the bag, and let the juice drip for up to four hours. You can place the stand in the refrigerator overnight and finish the next day. (For crystal-clear jellies, don’t squeeze the bag.) — Cathy Barrow
16. Your pressure canner can double as a boiling water bath for acidic foods. — Leda Meredith
Quality ingredients matter. The best ingredients are organic, fresh from the garden or local farmers market, and put up at peak ripeness. I supplement my garden harvests by buying crops in bulk during their high season and making a day of putting them up. Our experts weighed in on what goes into their jars when they are canning and preserving.
17. To ensure tomatoes are acidic enough to safely can in a water bath, add 1 tablespoon of bottled lemon juice or a quarter-teaspoon of citric acid per pint jar of tomatoes. For quart jars, double those amounts. Bottled lemon juice has a consistent level of acidity that fresh lemons don’t always have. — Leda Meredith
18. Choose pickling, canning or kosher salt when pickling. Unlike table salt, these salts are free of anti-caking agents, which can cause the pickling liquid to turn cloudy. Iodized table salt will also affect the appearance of your pickles. — Eugenia Bone
19. Pickling cucumbers pickle better than other cukes because they have thinner skin and crisper flesh than most “slicers.” Try varieties of American pickling cucumbers, European picklers, Middle Eastern cukes or Japanese types. — Andrea Chesman
20. To reduce foaming on the surface of soft spreads during cooking, add up to a half-teaspoon of butter to a soft-spread recipe before cooking. — Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine
21. Infuse pickles and preserves by making a spice bag instead of leaving whole spices in your final product or settling for the cloudy brine caused by powdered spices. Cut a 6-inch square of muslin fabric, and place your spices in a heap at the center of the cloth. Gather up the edges and tie them into a pouch with cotton string. Remove from the pot before you ladle the spiced food into jars. — Andrea Chesman
22. Reclaim the waste skins and cores from apple-based recipes by making homemade pectin. Combine 2 quarts peels and cores (or whole apples cut into 1-inch chunks) with 2 tablespoons lemon juice in a large pot. Add water to partially cover, and then bring the ingredients to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the cores become mushy (about an hour). Pour into a cheesecloth-lined colander, and let drain overnight. The next morning, boil the thick liquid that has drained out until it’s reduced by about half. You’ll end up with about a pint. Store any pectin you won’t use right away in the freezer, or can it in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. — Leda Meredith
23. Some garlic will turn blue or green when canned in brine. There’s nothing wrong with it! — Cathy Barrow
If you’ve heard canning is a lot of work on a hot day in a cramped kitchen — well, that’s sometimes true. But you can save time and sweat upfront with a few clever canning ideas and a little planning.
24. Chuck a glut of tomatoes into the freezer to be canned later. Those frozen tomatoes will make great canned sauces, in part because they’re so easy to peel — just rinse the skins off under running water. — Robin Mather
25. Learn to multitask. Start jam while dinner is simmering by popping prepped fruit mixtures into the refrigerator to macerate overnight. The next night, process the jam while dinner sizzles on the grill. The time investment will pay you back all year long. — Cathy Barrow
26. After blistering whole peppers on the grill or under the broiler, put them into bags in the freezer. At a later date, pull them out and run water over them. The blackened skins will then slip off more easily. — Joy and Robert Lominska
27. I prefer to can in small batches. The food cooks quickly, especially if you use wide pans, and preserves can also be lower in added sugar than conventional recipes because you don’t need as much sugar to support the set. — Marisa McClellan
28. I cook for one, so I usually make a full recipe of whatever I’m preparing and then end up with a gallon or more extra. After I eat one meal, I can the leftovers. — JoAnne Grandstaff
29. Many of the nutrients in produce are located in the peels. When making applesauce or other similar dishes, consider skipping the peeling instructions and instead use a blender to make the sauce from the skins along with the pulp. (If our ancestors could’ve used blenders, I’m betting they, too, would have tapped this timesaving method.) — Cheryl Long
You have two opportunities to limit waste when canning and preserving: First, while you’re canning, and second, after the food has been stored in your pantry. If you end up with a stack of jams to use up, consider savory applications, such as a glazing for pork or chicken. What follows are even more mouthwatering canning ideas to make the most out of your home-preserved foods.
30. Go “shopping” in your pantry and freezer to plan pantry meals for the week to come. — Robin Mather
31. When canning spiced apples or apple pie filling, use leftover spiced juice to make a granita. Add more sugar and orange juice to taste, and then freeze, breaking up the ice crystals with the tines of a fork over the next couple of hours. — Eugenia Bone
32. Save apple cores and peels to make apple-scrap vinegar for cooking (but not for food preservation). For 1 pound of cores and peels, dissolve 2 to 3 tablespoons of sugar in 2 to 3 cups non-chlorinated water. Put the apple scraps into a nonreactive bowl, and pour the sugar water over them. Cover with a towel and let sit at room temperature for a week. Stir the ingredients at least once a day. After a week, strain out the fruit. Keep the liquid at room temperature, stirring at least once a day for two weeks to a month, and always keep the bowl covered loosely with a cloth. When the taste is to your liking, transfer the vinegar to bottles. — Leda Meredith
33. Press tomato peels, seeds and solids through a mesh strainer to create tomato water. Use it to make a tomato martini or a vegetable broth, or to cook rice. You can also dry tomato peels on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a 200-degree-Fahrenheit oven for a couple of hours. Blitz the dried peels in a blender and sprinkle liberally on salads, eggs, sauces or hummus. — Cathy Barrow
Home Preserving Resources
Many of these canning tips came from the following titles.
• Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine
• The Feast Nearby by Robin Mather
• Independence Days by Sharon Astyk
• The Pickled Pantry by Andrea Chesman
• Preserving by the Pint by Marisa McClellan
• Preserving Everything by Leda Meredith
• Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry by Cathy Barrow
• Well Preserved by Eugenia Bone
Find articles on canning methods plus a roll call of tested and tasty canning and preserving recipes for raspberry jam, dilly beans and much more on our Home Canning Page.
Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Thanks in part to her grandparents’ example, she has become a passionate proponent of home food preservation.
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