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Home Canning 101

I grew up in the Midwest, on a farm. Our vegetable garden was nearly an acre in size, so for a family of five, we had a lot of food to preserve or store in some fashion. Most everyone I knew did a lot of canning, and so did we. I grew up watching my mother can dozens of jars of vegetables and fruits. When I was old enough (and tall enough to reach the counter), I would help her prepare the food or the jars or both. It was a lot of work, but we enjoyed having our home-grown tomatoes, green beans, dill pickles and strawberry jam in the middle of January.

When I grew up and moved to California, I didn't think I'd ever be doing my own canning. Produce was so abundant in the Bay Area on a year-round basis, that even in the middle of winter you could always find freshly-harvested fruits and vegetables. However, I reached a point where peach season was just not long enough, and I wanted to can some jars of my favorite fruit to enjoy in the winter. I also had abundant crops of Roma tomatoes in my vegetable garden, which would make wonderful pasta sauce come January. So, I decided to try canning; how hard could it be?

The first step was finding equipment. I needed a water-bath canner and jars. Easier said than done in the Bay Area. Now, I should point out that the Santa Clara Valley where I live used to be the apricot and plum capital of the entire United States. My house sits on land that used to be an apricot orchard. Before personal computers were invented and the entire area became immersed in high-tech industry, the valley had lots of canneries and tons of orchards. So, you would think that people would have their own canning equipment, but no sir. I went to 6 stores before I was able to find a canner at a hardware store - and I bought their last one. Jars are a little easier to find; at least 2 stores carried those!

Next was finding information on how to can. I first called my mother and had her mail me some of her basic canning recipes. Then, I went to the Internet and found lots of information through the USDA extension service about canning, including how to can just about anything and also lots of guidelines on safety. I ordered a couple of books on canning.

Everything arrived by early June, and I was ready to go. My first experiment was with nectarines. I set aside an entire Sunday, and took my time, following all the safety instructions to the letter. After about 5 hours, I had 3 jars of nectarines in nice, shiny pint jars. The lids popped and everything, meaning that they were safe. I was so excited. Now I was ready to handle the next fruit: apricots. Since they were so abundant, and I liked them almost as well as peaches, why not? I bought a box of apricots from a vendor at the local farmers' market, and went to work. Now I had 12 jars of apricots and 3 jars of nectarines. One month later, it was time to can my coveted peaches. That took a while, because of having to peel the peaches, which I didn't have to do with the nectarines and apricots. But eventually, I had 12 jars of peaches to add to the pantry. Finally, I had a bumper crop of tomatoes in September, and canned 18 jars; I made spaghetti sauce all winter!

Encouraged by my early experiments, I tried many other things the following year. I made apricot jam, pickle relish, corn relish, pickled beets, dill pickles and tomato-pineapple chutney. Some things worked, others didn't work so well, but now it's a very creative adventure for me. I love experimenting with different combinations of fruits and vegetables to come up with new things. I've learned a lot along the way, and developed some really simple recipes for canning. I hope these tips and recipes will help you as you begin your home canning adventures.

Home Canning 101 TIPS:

1. Make sure you have enough jars washed and sterilized ahead of time. If not, you may have more fruit or vegetables than you thought, and you will have to stop and wash some more. It's better to have jars leftover that you can just use the next time.
2. To protect your hands from fruit and vegetable acids (and to keep the food more sterile), wear thin latex gloves while working. When lifting jars in and out of the canner, slip on wrist-length potholders to avoid burns. Sometimes a little water will splash on you. I learned this the hard way!
3. To avoid getting a dull film on your jars, add about 1/2 teaspoon of cream of tartar to the water in the canner.
4. Get a set of very large stainless steel bowls. They hold a lot of fruit or vegetables and it's easier than having a lot of little ones around. Also, stainless steel won't react with acids, such as the ascorbic acid that you add to fruits while you're waiting to put them in jars.
5. The nice thing about canning is that you can control the amount of sugar or salt you put in your food! There are lots of alternatives to canning fruits with sugar syrup (see peach recipe below), and the same goes for salt with tomatoes. Just be sure to follow safety guidelines so that the food won't spoil.
6. With a Sharpie pen, write the name of the contents on the lid and the DATE the food was canned (month and day!). This is your expiration date. Don't keep any canned foods more than one year after it was canned.
7. Never re-use canning lids (they won't seal anyway). However, you can re-use the rings as long as they're not rusted or corroded.
8. When you re-use canning jars, look closely at the rim to make sure there are no chips. If there are, they won't seal properly, so you shouldn't use them.
9. Use the size of jar that is appropriate for your family size. I always use pints, because there are only two people in our family. Err on the side of a smaller jar, because you can always open another one.
10. If you want to try making jam using fruit pectin (such as Sure-Jell or Certa), try using the dry type of pectin first rather than the liquid. I've never been able to get the liquid type to set properly, so I think the dry kind is better for beginners.

Canning supplies:
I recommend the following at a minimum:
-a jar lifter
-a "vise-clamp" to hold the jar while you tighten the lid
-a magnetic lid grabber
-a canning funnel (has very wide opening perfect for jars)
-a very large stainless steel cooking spoon
-a stainless steel ladle
-an enamel water-bath canner that holds 9 pints or 7 quarts, with metal jar-lift rack
-Plastic jar of granulated ascorbic acid (you can find this in health food stores)

Canning jars/lids:
I prefer Ball brand lids and either Ball or Kerr jars. Jars come in boxes of 12, and are either "regular" or "wide-mouth". Sizes are half-pint, pint, and quart; I've also seen very small "jelly jars". You can also buy decorative lids with different designs such as strawberries, grapes, apricots, or Christmas themes. These are great to put on jars you want to give as gifts.

Canning books and information:
My two favorite books are:
1. "The Ball Blue Book", 2001, 120 pages. This is a very up-to-date guide with some great recipes, and it also includes guides for freezing and dehydrating foods.
2. "Canning and Preserving without Sugar", by Norma MacRae, 1997, 291 pages. This will give you some ideas on sugar alternatives and has some great recipes, also.

Lots of information on the Internet. Just key in search terms like "home canning", and you will find guidelines and recipes. Here are two home extension websites that have detailed procedures for canning:

This website is: "Home canning of fruit and fruit products". It has lots of information on processing times and how to prepare the fruit for canning.

This article is called "Let's Preserve Tomatoes". All the information you need to can tomatoes, plus recipes.

RECIPES: Here are my two best:

Canned Peaches

1 teaspoon ascorbic acid
1 gallon cold water
24 large peaches

48-ounce bottle peach juice, no sugar added
2 T. lemon juice
1/2 cup fructose or sugar
1 cup water

Wash jars and lids. Heat water in canner and when it is boiling, put jars in. (It may take up to half an hour for that much water to heat to boiling!) Let jars sterilize for 10 minutes.

In a large stainless steel bowl, dissolve ascorbic acid in the gallon of water. To prepare peaches, heat water in a soup pot to boiling. Wash peaches, and dip in boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove peaches and let cool or put in colander and run cold water over. Peach skins should come off very easily. For each peach, peel skin off, then cut in half lengthwise and remove pit. With paring knife, remove the red pit bed and discard, to make sure that no small pieces of pit make their way into the canned peaches! Slice peaches or leave in halves as you prefer. Place slices or halves into the ascorbic acid bath.

In large pot, place peach juice, lemon juice, fructose or sugar, and water. Heat to simmering, stirring. Keep hot.

Remove jars from canner, and place in a spot close to hot syrup and peaches. Ladle some boiling water over the jar lids in a small bowl. Working quickly, fill jars with peach slices or halves used a slotted spoon. With small tablespoon, push fruit down to compact it in the jar, and add more peaches until there is about one half inch of space at the top of the jar. With a ladle and the funnel, pour syrup around peaches until it reaches a level of about one half inch below the top of the jar. With a small spoon, push the peaches away from the edge of the jar, working your way all around the edge; this releases any air bubbles. With a thin, non-terry kitchen towel, wipe the top surface of the jar that will be in contact with the lid until it is clean. With magnetic wand, place lid on top. With vise-grip, grasp the jar in one hand, and screw the ring over the lid with the other hand. Tighten as far as you can. Set jar aside and repeat for remaining jars.

Place jars in canner and allow to come to a boil with the lid on the canner. When you see steam start to escape, set the timer for 25 minutes. Process, then remove jars and set on folded towels to cool. Add next set of jars and process again for 25 minutes. Allow jars to cool overnight. Tap each lid to make sure lids have popped and you have a tight seal; if they have popped they will sound solid. If not, they will sound hollow. If some jars have not popped, turn them upside down and let them sit for a few hours. If they still haven't popped, then refrigerate that jar of peaches and use them within a week. Wipe off jars with a wet towel. Label the lids of the jars with the contents and date, and store in a pantry.

This makes about 8 to 12 pints, depending on the size of your peaches. You will likely have syrup leftover. I often save the syrup and use it for the next patch. It's also tasty to use the leftover syrup in fruit punch or in smoothies.

Apricot Jam

9 cups sliced apricots
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
7 cups sugar
1/2 tsp. butter
2 boxes Sure Jell

Wash 12 half-pint jars. Heat water in canner and bring to a boil. Sterilize jars for 10 minutes.

Place apricots and lemon juice in large soup pot. Bring to a boil over high heat; cook for 3 minutes, stirring. Add the Sure Jell and the butter. Bring to a rolling boil. Add sugar all at once and bring to a rolling boil and boil 1 minute.

Using a canning funnel, ladle into sterilized jars. Place lids on as per canned peaches recipe instructions. Process in canner for 15 minutes.

This makes 12 half-pints. You might have a little bit left, but put that in a pretty glass bowl and serve it for breakfast the next day. This jam makes a great gift, so use those pretty decorative lids.

ONE LAST THING: Learn the canning brag!
I remember all the neighbor women would talk about how much canning they did. It went something like this.. "Lordy, I put up 27 quarts of tomatoes last week, and 18 pints of jam." The key is that it doesn't matter WHAT you can, it's just the NUMBER OF JARS that are important. So experiment with canning and rehearse the canning brag!

I hope that you have lots of great canning adventures!

Catherine Kitcho

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