Summer-fresh flavors linger all winter long when you preserve the harvest. Canning is as easy as reading a recipe, and the results capture sun-ripened tastes in ways that enhance family dinners and favorite mealtime recipes. Home-canned items trim dollars off the grocery budget and also provide preservative-free food.
Despite the lack of artificial preservatives, home-canned goods remain safely edible for years, although quality declines with the passage of time. Most canned vegetables, meats and soups taste best if eaten within a year or two. Jams, jellies and chutneys are best consumed within six months after canning.
Two types of canning exist: boiling-water canning and pressure canning. Both methods require a canner, which is basically an oversize pot with a rack inside.
Boiling-water canners are usually made of aluminum or porcelain-covered steel. Most come with a removable jar rack and lid. You can purchase racks separately, too, making it possible to use any deep stockpot with a fitted lid as a boiling-water canner. Use boiling-water canners to can fruits, jams and some tomatoes.
Pressure canners have a lockable lid that measures and maintains pressure, similar to a pressure cooker. The main differences between the two are size (a canner is larger) and a readable gauge. For safety, check gauges on pressure canners each year before use. The gauge definitely needs to be inspected if the glass is broken or has fallen out, if parts are rusty, the pointer isn't in the zero block, or if the gauge has been dropped or submerged in water. Most local Cooperative Extension System offices can direct you regarding gauge inspections.
Other must-have items for canning include a jar lifter (allows you to safely lift full jars in and out of boiling water), a small non-metallic spatula, and mason jars and lids. You can safely reuse jars and screw bands from year to year, but the flat lids can only be used once for canning.
A wide-mouth funnel is very helpful for placing produce or jam into jars. A ladle, magnetic jar-lid lifter, and timer are also useful. Look for canning supplies at grocery stores. You can also find tools and jars at local hardware stores.
Start with the freshest, blemish-free produce you can find – from your own garden, a farmers market or a roadside produce stand. Small home gardens don't often provide a yield that's large enough at one time to fuel canning. Work around that by storing harvested green beans, for instance, in the fridge while you wait for the next flush to ripen in a day or two. Another option is to freeze things like tomatoes until you have enough to make a batch of home-canned spaghetti sauce, salsa or tomato sauce.
Research or develop your own system to gauge how much produce yields a certain amount of canned goods. For jams, it takes about 8 cups of raw berries to mix one batch of jam. A 1-gallon plastic ice cream bucket full of green beans yields 5 quarts canned. That same bucket, filled with tomatoes, yields 2 quarts of tomato puree.
Only use recipes that have been tested for canning. Search for recipes online, or check out the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving from your local library.