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Canning 101

Glass jars of tomatoes and peaches lined up on a table

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Even for those of us that are well-versed in canning, putting up your own food can be super intimidating. But, I promise, once you know the basics, canning is a safe and easy way to preserve the bounty of summer (either from your own garden or from local farmers). And, as an added bonus, it’s super fun! You can can!

There is a ton of really wonderful information out there that outlines exactly how to can. My friends at Ball have an excellent, in-depth resource (complete with videos) for learning how to can that I recommend checking out if you really want to learn more. Instead of reinventing the wheel and rewriting their entire how-to, I thought I’d give you a general overview (to really show you how easy it is!) and then provide you with a glossary of terms that I’ll be using in my canning recipes. This will be a great resource to have as I post more and more canning recipes.

Let’s start off with a general canning overview. Processing food to be shelf-stable at home seems complicated, but it really isn’t. I’m here to prove it’s simple, fun, and easy! It’s, more or less, a three part process:

Step One: Get Ready

mason jars

Just like you would with any other kitchen endeavor, you need to make sure you have the tools of the trade. And in the case of canning, you need to make sure your tools are clean, sanitized, and easily accessible. You’ll need jars, lids (and the rings that attach the lids to the jars), ladles, spoons, a funnel, a jar lifter, and anything else your recipe calls for. Sanitizing is easy, you can either heat them in very hot water, put them on the sanitize cycle in your dishwasher (that’s what I do), or even sanitize your jars in the oven by heating them slowly.

Step Two: Prepare Your Recipe


The second step is something you probably recognize—you cook something! Following a recipe, you cook jam on the stove or make up a batch of salsa or simmer a pot of your world-famous homemade spaghetti sauce or make up a batch of pickling liquid. You can do that, right? Make sure to pick a tested canning recipe for best results.

Step Three: Preserve


The third part is where the preserving actually comes in. After filling sterilized canning jars with your food, you then heat the jars to kill bacteria and seal. There are two ways to do this, either in a large pot of boiling water (often just called a “canner”) or using a pressure cooker. The pressure cooker gets to a higher heat level, which is needed to preserve low acid foods like meats, beans, and corn. The waterbath canner is good enough for jams, jellies, and pickles. For both methods, you process for a certain amount of time set in the recipe, and then, once the time is up, you’ve canned! You fish the jars out of the water, set them aside to cool, and once they are cooled and sealed, you can store them in your pantry just like any other canned food you’d buy at the supermarket.


Lentil Sloppy Joes

The best step, right? Home canned food can last for years, but it’s the best quality for the first year. And the home canned food is so much more flavorful and tasty than the stuff you get in the store, chances are, it won’t last that long!

Now that wasn’t that hard, wasn’t it? Of course, this is just a general overview of the steps, but it really is that simple. No need to feel intimidated!

Canning Glossary

Here is a glossary of terms and phrases that you’ll commonly find in my canning recipes. I’ll try to stay consistent and use the same phrasing for each step, so you can always pop back over to this post for reference (and I’ll make sure to link to it in each recipe).

Canning or Pickling Salt — A special kind of salt that has no additives or caking ingredients that can make canning liquid cloudy. You can easily use regular table or Kosher salt without impacting the taste, but the jar may appear cloudy.

Citric Acid — Naturally derived from citrus fruits, citric acid is available online and in the canning section of most stores. It is used to up the acid level of medium-acid foods (like tomatoes) so they can be water bath canned. It is also used to keep certain fruits (like apples and pears) from browning in the jar.

ClearJel — Cornstarch breaks down when canned, so for recipes that require thickening with cornstarch, instead you use ClearJel—a modified cornstarch that doesn’t break down during the canning process. You can buy it online or at many canning supply sections.

Cold-Pack or Raw-Pack — When packing whole fruits or vegetables in jars for canning, some recipes ask you to “cold pack” or “raw pack” the produce—meaning you pack it without cooking beforehand. Usually, you then pour a hot canning liquid over the produce before processing. This is a good method for more delicate fruits and vegetables that might not be able to withstand cooking and processing at a high temperature.

Fingertip Tight — An easy way to remember how tight to screw on your jar lids—just fingertip tight. Screw the lid on until your fingers meet resistance, and no further.

Foam — When boiling many foods before canning, they will develop a foam (this is especially true for jams and jellies). You skim the foam off using a slotted spoon before ladling into jars.

Funnel — You know what a funnel is! But you’ll want to pick up a canning specific funnel that is sized to fit into both standard mouth and wide mouth jars.

Gel Stage — When you’re cooking jams, jellies, and preserves, you’ll cook them until they hit the gel stage—where the jam will set up when cool. To test the gel stage, there are multiple ways, but I like to place a saucer in the freezer before cooking. And then, when I’m ready to test, spoon a teaspoonful of jam onto the saucer, place back in the freezer. Check after one minute, and if the mixture looks jam-like, you’re good! If not, keep cooking.

Half Gallon Jar — Great for storing very large foods (like whole dill pickles). Be careful, some of the half gallon jars sold in stores are not rated for canning—they are for decor only. Make sure to only pick up half gallon jars rated for canning.

Half Pint Jar — The typical jelly-jar size. It’s eight ounces (or a cup) and often comes with a pattern or texture on the side of the jar. You can also get quarter pint (4 ounces) jelly jars.

Headspace — The unfilled space between the top of the food (say raspberry jam) and the top of the jar. It is important to follow the correct headspace recommendations in the recipe. The correct amount of headspace is important to allow for expansion during preserving, but also to ensure a good, quality vacuum seal.

Hot-Pack — When you cook the food before it goes into the jar. This is good for sturdier produce and for recipes that have a more cooked consistency (salsa, tomato sauce, etc.).

Jar Lifter — Hot jars are hot! A jar lifter is a special tool that is designed to fit around the mouth of the jar and lift them out of the canner.

Jelly Bag — A fine mesh bag that is used to strain fruit puree to get clear juice to make clear jelly. You can also use a nut milk bag or a Greek yogurt strainer (this is what I use).

Lids and Rings — The two-part closing system for mason jars. The lid is a flat piece with a rubber sealing gasket on the underside. The ring is an open, donut-shaped piece of metal that screws onto the jar over top of the lid.

Waterbath Canner or Canner — A large pot of boiling water used to process high-acid foods (like pickles and jams). You can purchase specific large pots made for canning, use an electric one (that’s what I use), or just use a large stock pot.

Pectin — The naturally-occurring substance in fruits that makes them gel into the thick texture of jams and jellies when cooked. Some fruits have lots of naturally-occurring pectin (like apples and blueberries) and don’t require much, if any, added pectin to make jams. Other have little (strawberries, for example) and require added pectin. You can purchase pectin online or at most grocery stores. There are two different kinds of pectin—regular and low-sugar. If you’d like to adapt a recipe to be lower in sugar, you must use low-sugar pectin in order for it to set.

Pint JarA two cup jar. Perfect for storing foods that you would usually buy in a “normal” 14-ounce can like vegetables, beans, or tomatoes.

Pressure Cooker or Canner — A special kitchen pot that is pressurized and allows the heat within the pot to get much higher than typical boiling. You’ll need this for canning meats, soups, beans, and any foods that are low-acid. Make sure to get one that goes on your stove top. They also sell electric pressure cookers, and those are great for cooking, but do not work for canning. Many of the stove top ones can also double as a “regular” pot for waterbath canning or for making soups.

Processing Time — Each recipe will require a specific processing time based on the thickness of the food. Processing time begins with a boiling waterbath canner when the water is at a rolling boil. Processing time begins with a pressure canner when you reach the pressure reading recommended by the recipe.

Remove Bubbles — Trapped air bubbles in jars can cause issues when processing, most recipes will request that you remove bubbles. You can do this by simply running a sterilized butter knife (or a specific bubble removing tool) around the inside of the jar a few times after it’s been filled.

Standard Mouth Jar —The normal width mouth jars that are very easy to find. These are great for storing pourable foods (soups, stocks, etc.), and are readily available.

Quart JarA four cup, or quarter gallon jar. Great for storing larger foods (like pickles) or foods that are high in volume and that you might buy in larger quantities at the store like chicken broth or juices.

Wide Mouth Jar — Jars with mouths that are as large as their sides, great for packing in foods like pickles, peaches, and other items that you’ll want to take out whole. They are also easier to clean! I love wide mouth jars, and am slowly transitioning all my jars to wide mouth.

I hope this helps clear up some of the confusion surrounding canning! If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments, and I’ll make sure to get you answers (or point you to where you can get them yourself). Happy canning!

Cassie is the founder and CEO of Wholefully. She's a home cook and wellness junkie with a love of all things healthy living. She lives on a small hobby farm in Southern Indiana with her husband, daughter, two dogs, two cats, and 15 chickens.

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2 Responses
  1. Amber

    Thoughts about making jams/jellies with gelatin instead of pectin? I’ve heard great things about gelatin and it’s nutritional properties and thought this might be a good way to get some in to my kids’ diet.

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