CANNING FOOD SAFELY
This may look like the “scary part” of learning to preserve food, but relax: most of the guidelines are common sense. To avoid contamination, food safety and proper handling are paramount when it comes to canning to ensure a healthy product. However, we’ll guide you through your first canning experience step-by-step and by the time you’re ready to place the fruits of your labor on the pantry shelf, you’ll have the confidence and knowledge to make your next batch of preserves.
Before you begin your first preserving project, purchase a good reference book, such as Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving and keep it handy. Even the most experienced cook needs to look up processing times or double check a recipe at some point. This book will familiarize you with canning equipment, terms, safe food handling and preserving procedures. Note: Buy the most recent publication of canning guides, and don’t use the one from your mother’s cookbook collection from the 60s. Newer publications have safety standards and procedures that may differ from older guidelines.
Sterilizing Jars and Lids
Jars and lids must be sterilized for preserving and pickling. Wash jars by hand in hot, sudsy water and rinse thoroughly with scalding water. Or, if you have a newer dishwasher, put jars through the sanitizing cycle. Preheat oven to 225°F. Place jars on a rimmed baking sheet and place in oven for at least 20 minutes before filling. To avoid breakage, jars must be hot when filled with hot product. Place the separated lids and screw bands in a shallow bowl. Just before filling the jars, cover the lids and screw bands with enough boiling water to cover. This will soften the rubber ring slightly. Do not place lids on direct heat in boiling water.
Filling and Sealing the Jars
Prepare the “filling station” of the kitchen, preferably fairly close to the stovetop. (You don’t want to carry heavy, boiling hot pots of preserves very far.) Line an area with several large dishtowels to create a slightly padded mat. Place the hot jars to be filled on the dishtowels. Dishtowels provide traction and prevent jars from slipping on slick counters. In addition, they provide a buffer zone between the cold tile or granite of your countertop surface and the hot jars. In the event a jar with hot product is accidentally knocked over, the dishtowels provide immediate absorbency and prevent the hot contents from spilling onto you or the floor.
For jams, preserves and jellies, place the canning funnel on the jar and fill to 1/2 inch from the top of the jar. This allows for headspace, which is necessary to create a vacuum to form when food is processed and expands in the jar. For the first few batches of preserves, before you start, get out a ruler and measure 1/2 inch from the top of a jar to give you a visual cue. Some funnels have a bottom rim that is about a 1/2 inch and this makes a great visual template to follow.
Clean the rim of the jar with a clean, damp towel to remove any drips. Place a lid on top of the rim and firmly screw on the metal band.
Hot Water Bath
Processed fruits and vegetables need to be processed in a hot water bath. This process destroys microorganisms that cause spoilage. Fill the hot water canner or kettle with enough water to cover the jars plus one inch. It’s okay to use more water, just don’t under fill the canner. Bring the water to a boil. This step should be started before you fill the jars.
Place the jars in the metal canning rack. Gently lower jars into boiling water of canner, cover with a lid, and boil for the time specified in the recipe.
Remove the jars from the canner with jar lifter tongs and place on towel-lined counter. When all the jars are removed from the canner and cooled slightly, move the jars to a cooling rack set on top of the towels. Allow jars to cool completely before moving to storage.
Test for Seal
During the heat processing, the contents of the jars expand, forcing most of the air out. As the contents cool, the remaining air inside contracts and creates a vacuum that pulls the lids down tightly around the jar rims. The lids are secured in place by the vacuum and the sealing compound of the lids maintains the seal.
As the lids are sealing, you’ll hear ping-ing or popping noises as the jars lids seal. There will be a slight depression or dimple in the middle of the lid. To check for good seals, use your index finger and press the center of each lid. It should stay depressed and there should be no sound. If there is a popping sound, this is an indication that the jar is not sealed. In that case, place the jar in the fridge and eat within a couple of weeks.
Labeling and Storage
Allow the processed jars to cool overnight, and check the seal one more time. Remove the band, and gently press the center of the lid to make certain there is a tight seal. If you discover a jar that has not sealed, place it in the refrigerator and consume it within two weeks.
Partially fill the kitchen sink with hot sudsy water. Remove bands and gently wash each jar, taking care not to disturb the seal. Rinse with hot water, and dry each jar thoroughly. Wash the bands, dry and allow to air dry a bit longer to make certain there is no moisture left on the band. You can replace the rings on the clean jars, if you like (which makes it easier to store product later or if you give away a jar) or you can put away your clean bands to be reused.
Label your products. Do not skip this step! Include the name of the contents, and the date and year you made the product. I also find it useful to keep a notebook with notes that relate to each batch along with a copy of the recipe. It’s useful if you made any changes to the original recipe, such as adding or deleting herbs, or using a new variety of fruit or a new brand of pectin, etc.
Set the jars, right side up, on your storage shelves that are in a cool, dark place. Don’t use your garage for storage if it gets warm in the summer. Find a cool interior closet or use the basement (or your wine cellar!) for storage.
Products will keep safely for a year, but it’s best to consume all of your products within that time, if at all possible. After a year, food begins to degrade. It may be safe to eat, but it flavor and colors begin to change.
Before eating, always check that the seal is still intact! If the lid is loose, or the contents appear cloudy or you detect an “off” smell, throw the food away.