This is the time of year gardeners and local foods enthusiasts have a lot of extra fruits and vegetables on their hands, and no idea what to do with it all.
One option, of course, is canning some of it, but if you’ve never done that before and don’t have any of the equipment, it can seem like a daunting task — and a little scary, because if you don’t know what you’re doing, there could be food safety issues.
I asked some canning experts for their advice for beginners. First of all, everyone agreed that if it’s your first time, start with something simple, like a jam or a salsa.
“One of the easiest and most popular recipes for first-time canners are jams,” said Jessica Piper, a home canning expert with Jarden Home Brands, the maker of Ball mason jars and other canning equipment. “Jams are simple because they utilize the best seasonal fruits to make a delicious, fresh recipe, without many steps, that can last all year. Pickles are also extremely popular. You can pickle a number of vegetables, not just cucumbers.”
Jams and salsas are also considered easier because they are canned using the boiling water bath method, which is the most accessible way to start.
Boiling water bath canning is for high acid foods (most fruits, pickles, salsa, relish, dilly beans), and it uses inexpensive equipment, some of which you may already have around the house.
Pressure canning is used to preserve low-acid vegetables — typically vegetables you are preserving on their own, without any added acid like vinegar or lemon juice (anything not pickled) — and foods containing meat and dairy. A pressure canner can run $80 to $100.
“If you were just canning green beans by themselves, they would definitely have to go into a pressure canner,” said Allison Carroll Duffy of Brunswick, a master food preserver and author of “Preserving with Pomona’s Pectin” (Fair Winds Press, $21.99). “If you’re making dilly beans, which has a lot of vinegar in it, they’re considered high-acid and can be canned in a boiling water bath canner. So that’s a key distinction, and it’s a pretty important one for safety reasons, primarily because of the risk of botulism.”
Start with fruits and vegetables that are in season, the experts say, and use a trusted recipe.
“Certain fruits you do need to add acid to, to make sure they are high enough acid, and also to make sure they gel properly,” Duffy said. “So it is important to use a tested recipe, particularly when you’re first starting out.”
Kate McCarty, a master food preserver who teaches classes in food preservation for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, agrees. She said people who take her classes are often surprised to learn that federal guidelines recommend adding bottled lemon juice to tomatoes to ensure they are safe for canning.
“Grandma’s recipe is fine for a pie or something,” McCarty said, “but when we’re talking about food safety and the potentially lethal growth of bacteria, it’s kind of a different game.”
So what equipment do you need if you’re making jam or salsa?
BOILING WATER BATH CANNER: This is the biggest piece of equipment you’ll need. You can buy one cheap, or you can use a large stockpot you already have in the kitchen, as long as you have a rack to go into the bottom of it.
“If you have a lobster or a corn steamer, those can be re-purposed as a canner because they already have a rack in the bottom, and they’re usually nice and deep,” McCarty said.
Why is the rack so important?
“You need to have your jars elevated off the bottom of the pot because the water has to circulate fully around all the jars in order to process them properly,” Duffy said. “And for the same reason, you can’t have the jars touching each other, or touching the sides of the pot. They need to be covered with 1 to 2 inches of water at the top.”
JAR LIFTER: This is just what it sounds like, a tong-like tool to lift the jars in and out of the boiling water.
CANNING FUNNEL: This is, essentially, a wide-mouth funnel that makes it easier to fill the canning jars.
HEADSPACE TOOL: The headspace is the distance between the top of the jam and the bottom of the lid on the canning jar.
“In processing, the air is getting forced out of the headspace,” Duffy said. “Ideally all the air gets forced out of the headspace, and everything expands in the jar when that happens. So when the jar is cooled, things shrink again, but because the air’s been forced out of the headspace, that’s what creates the vacuum seal in the jar, which is essential to proper storage.”
If you measure the headspace wrong, chances are the jar won’t seal properly. If you don’t have enough headspace, the food will seep out the sides of the jar. You can use a ruler instead of a headspace tool to measure, but the tool isn’t expensive.
BUBBLE FREER: Just like it sounds, this tool will release any bubbles trapped in your jam. (Bubbles can crack the jar.) Sometimes the bubble freer is on the opposite end of the headspace tool.
MAGNETIC LID WAND: This is about the length of a chopstick, and on the end of the wand there is a little magnet. It’s used to lift your jar lids out of simmering water.
MASON JARS: For jams, buy the half-pint size. A smaller, 4-ounce jar might be good for gifts, but for general use get the larger ones because most recipes are written for half-pint jars or smaller. Buy the Mason jar style with the dome lid and screw band.
“When you go to re-use those jars later, you’ll need to buy new lids,” Duffy said. “You can re-use your band, but you’ll need new lids every time you can. That dome lid is important because that’s where the vacuum seal is occurring. After you process your jars, that lid is going to be sucked down.”
All of these tools can be found at your local hardware store or any store that carries canning supplies. You might also consider buying a beginner’s kit, like the Ball Home Canning Discovery Kit. Some of these kits have more tools than you really need, but they are so inexpensive it doesn’t really matter.
“You can buy the pieces separately, but this four-piece kit (from Ball) is less than $10, and you can find it at Hannaford and Shaw’s,” McCarty said. “That has the jar lifter and the funnel to help you fill the jars, and some other tools to make canning easier.”
We like easy.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at [email protected]