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Home Canning Guide for Beginners

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Home Canning Guide For Beginners

The time of abundance is upon us!  Gardens are pumping out massive amounts of veggies (more than we can eat!) and its time to start preserving summer’s bounty for the bleak days of winter.  This is a season that has a rhythm all of its own, that is older and stronger than me.  My family has been canning and preserving our food for generations.  My earliest memories are of long days in the garden with my extended family, loading baskets of bounty to the kitchen,  and picking wild berries with my cousins.  My mom canned from strawberries to applesauce, which means she was in the kitchen from spring to fall, standing over boiling water, in our steamy kitchen through the hottest days of summer, with a pretty scarf holding back her hair.  Bushels of peaches and pears would arrive in half-barrels, as well as concord grapes for juice, and anything else she could get her hands on.  I’d often drift off to sleep to the popping sounds of lids sealing.

I had to re-learn to can as an adult, when I moved out of the city and back home to the mountain.  My mom had just passed away, so her oldest and best friend came over to show me the ropes.  I took pages of notes, researched, bought books, and dug through my mom and grandma’s collections of recipes and magazine tear-outs.  I found they exchanged recipes in letters to each other, and discussed how other family members pickled their onions.  Through all these gifts from the past, I learned that canning and processing hasn’t really changed too much.  I’m a stickler for safely prepared food, so I follow the USDA canning guide exactly.  I use the “tried and tested” recipes, and base my own recipes on these strict guidelines.  The Blue Book Guide to Preserving is still the gold standard, and I recommend it for everyone, I actually have both my mom’s and my grandma’s, and most of the information here has been cross-referenced with that book.  Actually, read that book before you start canning!

The Principals of Home Canning

There is nothing more beautiful and wonderful than canning food from your own garden and serving it to your family months later.  However, you need to have a solid understanding of the foods you are about to preserve, the best way to process them, and how they can spoil.

The Best Produce

I prefer to harvest my own food or buy directly from a farmer.  For the most part, I don’t buy food from a grocery store that I intent to can, because I have no idea how fresh it is, or where it came from.  If I am going to go through the work of canning and processing my own food, I want to be connected to it.  There are times when I have to use an onion of a sprig of dill from the store, but those are the rare exceptions, and I do my best to make sure they are fresh. Always start with the best produce possible.  Canning will preserve what you have, not make it better.


Spoilage can occur from molds, yeasts, bacteria and enzymes.  These are the guys that begin the decay process, along with insects, and change the food into something not suitable to preserve.  If the mold, yeast and bacteria are not killed in the processing, they will be more than happy to grow and breed in the ideal conditions of your sealed jar.  Botulism is food poisoning (can be deadly), caused by the bacterium Clostridium, which lives in low-acid foods, and can only be destroyed at 240F. The temperature for boiling water processing is 212F, while the process temperature for pressure canning is 240F.

Check your jars of food for signs of spoilage- mold, fermentation bubbles and discoloration.  Never consume spoiled food!

  • Molds & Yeasts- easily destroyed between 140F-190F
  • Bacteria- spores in low-acid food are destroyed at 180-212F
  • Enzymes- slowed at 140F, inactivated by boiling water processing
To reduce spoilage and the presence of molds, yeast and bacteria, use produce that is fresh and free of damage or rot.  Minor bruises and blemishes can be cut away, but it is safest to discard overly ripe or rotting produce.

High Acid / Low Acid

In the canning world, food is divided into two classifications- high acid food and low acid food.  These classifications are based on the ph (acidity) of the food and determine the proper way to process it.  High acid foods are protected from dangerous bacteria (they don’t like high acid) and can be processed in boiling water.  Low acid foods must be processed in a pressure canner where temperatures can get high enough to destroy the spores.  This is very important, you don’t want to kill anyone!

High Acid Foods

Boiling Water Canner 212F

Pickled foods
Jams and Jellies
Fruit Butter

Low Acid Foods

Pressure Canner 240F

Tomato sauces
Beets, Turnips
Green beans, spinach
Soups, broths

Tomatoes are borderline.  They can be processed in boiling water, but they need to have lemon juice or citric acid added to them to boost the acidity.  If you are making a tomato sauce that has low acid veggies added to it, such as onion, garlic and peppers, follow tested recipes exactly, or process them in a pressure canner just to be safe.  I know a lot of people who use the “nobody’s died yet” approach, and I don’t eat their canned food.

Processing Methods

The boiling water method and the steam-pressure method are the two ways to properly can foods.  It is really important to follow your manufacturer’s instructions, especially for your pressure canner.  The processing times are also absolutely necessary for destroying the molds, yeasts and bacteria.

Altitude and barometric pressure effect the pressure and processing time for safe canning.  Recipes are created with the standard of being below 1,000 feet elevation, so you may need to adjust the time in the boiling water, or the pressure weight, based on your altitude.

Boiling Water Method

The simplest and cheapest way to can, and you can really produce some beautifully processed high acid food.  I have my mom’s old enamel pot and a jar rack, and that is all you need to get started.  Fill the pot about 2/3’s full of hot water and set it on the burner to boil, then start preparing your food.  

After the food and jars are prepared, lower them into the hot water with a jar lifter, put the lid on, and set the timer for what your recipe says.  Always adjust for altitude.

Steam Pressure Method

Pressure canning is for processing low acid foods, and is the next step after mastering the boiling water method.  The steam inside the pressure canner circulates around the jars, transferring the heat by conduction, and brings the contents of the jars to 240F, which destroys the bacteria and dangerous spores.

When using a combination of high acid foods and low acids foods (tomato sauces) it is best to assume the acidity is low and use the pressure canner.


To get started, you need the basics:


The cheapest way to get started is to buy the  Granite Ware Water-Bath Canner which you can using find at a hardware store.  The All America Pressure Canner
is on my wish list because it is awesome (mine is a much older version).  Keep in mind that most of the time you can fill your pressure canner with water to use the boiling water method, so if you are really interested in processing low-acid foods, maybe just buy one pot.

Jar Rack

I prefer the flat-bottomed rack because you can fit in more smaller jars when making jam, but the rack with the segments for quart jars is nice for keeping them separated.


Jars, jars, jars… they can come from anywhere!  Buy them new, get them handed down from friends who don’t can anymore, even pick them up at thrifts stores or check craigslist.  When cared for properly, jars can last a really long time.  Always be sure to check for cracks and chips each time you use them, and throw them in the recycling if they have any defects.  Chips along the top edge will prevent lids from sealing, while other imperfections can make the jar break in the canner, which makes a big mess and wastes all the food you’ve been working on.

All home canning jars, no matter what size, all have either a regular or wide mouth opening.  Wide mouth jars are good for when you have to cram a bunch of things like pickles or peaches into a jar, the bigger opening just makes it easier, while regular jars are prefect for sauces, juices and broth.

Lids and Rings

New jars always come with lids and rings.  The rings can be used over and over again, but the lids can only be used once.  You can buy little boxes of regular or wide mouth lids most places, and also sleeves of rings and lid sets, if you need more rings.  Keep your eye out for sales and stock up!

Canning Utensils

The most important piece you need is a jar lifter, which takes the jars in and out of the hot canners.  This is a MUST, don’t even try canning without a jar lifter! You also need a wide funnel, which will fit over both regular and wide mouth jars.  It might be easiest to just buy the boxed set of canning utensils.


Pectin is used to “set” or gel jams and jellies.  Liquid pectin, powdered pectin and no-suagr pectins are the basic types.  They all have a specific purpose, and are not really interchangeable.  I prefer no-sugar pectin for most of my jams because I don’t like to use much sugar (and everyone in my house has blood-sugar issues).  I’ve found that liquid pectin is the best thing for pepper jelly, which does need lots of sugar to balance the heat.


Use the timer on the stove or your phone, just make sure you have at least one handy!

Towels and Washcloths

Lots of clean towels are needed for canning- hot jars need to be set on towels, rims need to be wiped, and messes need to be cleaned up.  I have special washcloths that are only used for canning.

Recommended Equipment

Most of this stuff can be found at your local  hardware and grocery stores, but you can order this Complete canning set
at a pretty nice price.

Complete Canning Set

 Granite Ware Water-Bath Canner

Granite Ware Water-Bath Canner

All America Pressure Canner

All America Pressure Canner

Specialty Equipment

After you’ve been canning a while, developed your techniques, and found your favorite recipes, you might want to invest in some equipment that will make your life easier.

Invest in quality equipment, and you’ll be able to pass it down at least one generation too.

Disclaimer- the items I have selected from Amazon are example of products similar to what I use.  Most of my stuff is old, antique or hand-me down, so I found highly-rated equivalents.  Also, Amazon gives me a tiny commission if you visits them via my website and make a purchase within 24 hours. 


Pre-Canning Planning

It is so important to spend the time getting yourself and your kitchen ready to can.  When things get “hot and fast”, you will be thankful you prepared and have everything ready to garb.


Sometimes it is hard to tell which comes first, the recipes or the produce!  Either peruse recipes and find what interests you, or look at your giant pile of veggies and try to figure out what to do with all.  Plan to process your produce as soon as it is ripe, directly after harvest, or when you get home from the farmer’s market.

Considering the size of your family, what they like, and how much you plan to gift, will help you decide which direction to go in.  I have the basic I make every year, knowing exactly what my friends and family look forward to, then I also experiment with new recipes.  Most of the new recipes are great, but be prepared for some bummers.


  • Read and re-read the recipes you want to try, make sure you have plenty of ingredients and all the necessary equipment.  I can’t tell you how many times I have mis-measured or messed something up and didn’t have enough, lets say vinegar, to finish my canning without having to run to the store, while all kinds of things are bubbling away on the stove.  Catastrophe.  During canning season, make sure you have jugs of vinegar, bags of sugar, bottles of lemon juice, and lots of pectin and lids!  Just pick up more every time you shop, it will get used eventually.
  • Examine all the equipment to make sure everything is working properly, “oh ya, I forgot I lost that screw last year…”  Make sure it is clean and ready to use, order new parts if necessary.
  • Look through your collection of jars, make sure none have gotten cracked or chipped.  Do you need more?  Yes, of course you do!  Start looking around for hand-me downs or sales.
  • Set up a little canning station in your kitchen, so everything is within arms reach and easily accessed.

Clean the Kitchen

Before I begin canning for the season, I spend a whole day detailing my kitchen.  Clean out all those funky nooks and crannies!  Everything needs to be super clean to get started, then as the season gets going, you’ll have a whole new mess from splatters and bubble-overs.
Clean really well before every canning session.  Wipe down all the counters and have a pile fresh towels and wash clothes.

So, I guess it is now time to get started!  I’m working on a step-by-step “learn to can” guide, so stay turned for that very important information.  In the mean time, I am offering canning classes and private lessons to my local friends, right in my kitchen!

Take a peek into my world of Eating, Gardening, Making and Mothering, authentically and with meaning. Thanks for visiting!
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