Even if you’re just dipping your toe into home food preservation, you probably know there are several ways–freezing, drying and fermenting, to name a few–to “put up” food at its peak so you can enjoy after the season has passed. In this space, we talk mostly about preserving food in jars, either through the water bath or pressure canner method.
Maybe you’ve heard of mise en place, a French culinary term. Roughly translated, it means “put in place” and more broadly refers to getting organized in the kitchen with all necessary ingredients and tools for a particular dish. In canning, it is especially important to pull together your mise en place to ensure delicious and safe results.
To that end, we’ve put together a cheat sheet for the basics of water bath canning that bear repeating even for the most experienced among us.
Water Bath Canning Basics: Tools and Equipment
Jars: They come in all sizes. Before you buy, decide on a recipe, its yield and which size jar makes sense. Jars can be reused if free of chips and cracks. Lids cannot be reused. Do not use jars that have the bail and wire lid assembly (not safe for canning).
There are two parts of the lid assembly: the lids and the rings.
Lids: Should be clean to ensure a seal. One-time use only for processing. Can be re-used for dry and refrigerated storage but not for canning.
Rings: The metal ring is an important part of processing, as it holds the lid in place as it seals. We recommend removing the ring when you store jars in a cool, dark place, about 24 hours after processing. Rings can be reused if free of rust and dents.
Jar grabber aka Canning Tongs
Ladle: Helps with precision as you transfer cooked food from saucepan to individual jars.
Lid lifter: Magnetic wand-like contraption that places lids directly on top of jars after they’ve been filled. Great for nervous beginners.
Wide-mouth funnel: Highly recommended. Minimizes waste, mess. Non-metal is best (metal can possibly chip the glass of the jars)
A big ole pot or kettle with a lid: Need not be part of a canning kit, but pot must be at least one inch taller than your jars when immersed in water. [Editor’s note: the pot should be big enough that the water it contains covers the jars by at least 1 inch once the jars are submerged. And, you want to make sure there is enough room for there to be space above the water so the water doesn’t spill all over the stovetop when you submerge the jars].
Rack: Highly recommended. This holds the jars in place while processing.
Air bubbler: Optional but a good tool to have on hand. You need not buy one and can use a non-wood chopstick or small rubber spatula instead.
Kitchen towels: Need at least 1 lining counter area where you’ll place hot, processed jars for their “ping”ing and rest time. You’ll need a 2nd clean towel to clean tops of jars after they’ve been filled and before you put the lids on.
Things to do before you cook anything, regardless of what you’re canning and its pH/acidity level:
[Editor’s note: if you live at high altitude, you will need to be aware of how it may change the canning process. See this canning guide put out by the National Center for Home Food Preservation for details on how to adjust times for high altitude canning.]
1. Carefully read the recipe, more than once, to become intimate with yield, which ultimately affects number of jars you need and will process.
2. Bring canning water to a boil, cover and keep hot.
3. Sterilize the jars–either in boiling pot or in the dishwasher. Jars must be HOT all the time. Remember this mantra: HOT JARS, HOT STUFF INSIDE.
4. For lids: Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Add lids, turn off heat, cover. Keep lids in hot water until ready to use. Lids need to be hot. DO NOT BOIL LIDS. This time in the hot water (not boiling) activates the sealing compound of the lids.
5. Rings: Wash in hot, soapy water before using.
6. All ingredients need to be cleaned, prepped and ready to go before you begin canning. Canning is not cooking; IT IS PROCESSING.
7. Follow the canning recipe you choose. Processing times wildly vary, depending on its acidity/pH level. This also means: Do not improvise, particularly while you’re learning. Canning is a science, not an art, with food safety as the top priority.
8. Have questions on specifics? Check a reliable and up to date book (like a recent edition of the Ball Blue Book) or the website for The National Center for Home Food Preservation. The “Search” function at the botton of their home page allows to you search for specific information. We at CAA use it all the time!
You may also want to see our Canning FAQs page with more information.
Have fun! Canning is a hoot and a half, and you won’t believe how delicious the results are.