Save Your Food: Canning and Freezing 101

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There’s nothing like popping open a jar of homemade jam on a blustery winter day, as our grandmothers knew all too well. Once maligned as unnecessary and labor-intensive, home canning has undergone a renaissance. A new generation is discovering that there’s something uniquely satisfying about preserving the season’s best produce.

Pretty much anything can be “put up” for the winter in a jar, from fruit to vegetables, beans, salsas and chutneys. Once you’ve looked over a couple of recipes you’ll be itching to try canning for yourself! Here’s our guide to help get you started.

You can preserve veggies in vinegar and make pickles, preserve fruits in alcohol, make your own tomato sauce or mash together berries and sugar to make jams, jellies and preserves…the possibilities are endless. Photo: Flickr/amiefedora

Ingredients to look for

Thanks to refrigeration, you can buy blueberries in winter, but that doesn’t make homemade blueberry jelly any less delicious. For the best results, pick produce that’s in season and at the peak of its freshness.

Canning is also a great way to use up a fruit or vegetable that you’ve bought too much of (went a little crazy apple-picking this fall? Whip up some apple butter!). As we move into autumn, plums, apples, eggplant, cucumbers and onions are all coming into season, so watch for them at your local farmers’ market.

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Common methods

There are three main canning methods: hot water immersion, pressure-cooking and freezer canning. High-acid foods, typically fruits like oranges, strawberries and tomatoes, must be preserved through hot water immersion; low acid foods, typically vegetables like okra, beets and asparagus, must be preserved using a special pressure-cooker.

Perhaps the least intimidating option for first-time canners is freezer canning. By simply mixing chopped fruit, sugar and fruit pectin, you can make a simple jam that will keep in the refrigerator for weeks. More traditional canning methods should preserve food up to a year.

Remember, the basic principle of canning is to kill the bacteria and enzymes that spoil food, then to seal the jar tight to keep them out. Canning places a lot of emphasis on sterilizing and boiling for a reason! The good news is, when canned goods go bad, it’s pretty easy to tell – they’ll look and smell rotten. As long as you follow instructions carefully and throw out uneaten food after a year, you should be fine.

Tools you’ll need

Here’s a list of basic kitchen implements that will make this process a lot easier:

  • Mason Jars (Bell jars), with lids and seals. Pint sized jars are best.
  • Jar Tongs
  • A second, small pair of regular tongs
  • For hot water canning, a water-bath canner or a circular round rack that will fit in your stockpot
  • For pressure canning, you’ll need to buy a pressure canner
  • A small funnel isn’t essential, but will make pouring hot liquids a whole lot easier
  • Means of labeling your cans once you’re done

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Step-by-step instructions

Grab a recipe book, and read the recipe the whole way through so you can budget your time appropriately. While pickling, for example, you may have to soak the vegetables for a few hours before cooking them in a salt-and-vinegar solution (called brine). Most canning recipes look something like this:

1. Sanitize and clean first.
Sterilize the jars by immersing them in boiling water.

2. Prepare your food according to the recipe.
If you live at a higher altitude, double check your timing; it takes longer to boil water when you’re up high.

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3. Fill the jars!
Whether you’re pouring in jam or arranging veggie pieces and pouring a brine solution over them, you’re going to need to leave a little bit of space at the top, called “head space.” Check out the recipe for specific instructions.

4. Seal the lids extra tight.
Immerse the lids in boiling water to soften them, then place a softened seal on each filled jar. Screw a ring down over the seal. Process the jars, either by immersing them in boiling water or placing them in a pressure canner. Remove the processed jars using your jar tongs and allow to cool for 24 hours. Once jars are cool, the seal should be sucked right down against the jar’s contents and shouldn’t respond when you press on it.

5. Enjoy the fruits of your labor.
You’re done! Label and store your jars in a cool, dry place. They’ll keep for a full year. Refrigerate after opening, and enjoy!

Side note: Freezer canning involves preparing the jam mixture, adding pectin, and filling jars – that’s it. These preserves will keep in the freezer for up to six months, and in the refrigerator for one week.

Need more?

There are so many resources online that it can be hard to know where to begin. Here are a few of our favorites:

Ball’s Complete Book of Home Preserving
This canning compendium has 400 recipes and extensive tips…a must-have for serious home preservers.

Canning for a New Generation
Those eager to avoid canning’s old-fashioned image will love this hip guide.

The River Cottage Preserves Handbook
This enthusiastic cookbook by Britain’s River Cottage sustainable food gurus will inspire you!

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