Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Canning: A how-to

Do you know how to can?

You do?


Okay I'm kidding, but I am pretty jealous. Chances are a family member taught you. My grandfather was a canner by trade, but lived in Texas and I never learned the family business. Okay fine, he worked in can plant and didn't make pickles for profit... but apparently he and my grandma used to can at home all the time. They did have a hobby farm after all. What's the point of farming if you can't use your stuff year round?

Veggies weren't the norm in my garden growing up, aside from tomatoes (which were always eaten fresh) and one time I think we grew a baseball bat sized zucchini. Apparently my mom has "never actually canned" either which sad, but also sheds light on how things change from generation to generation. And now, here we are, "Generation - Oh shit the world is falling apart", planting our gardens, cooking locally grown food and eating our vegetables, and without Grandma next to us to show us what to do.

I've thought about canning. Friends encouraged me: "It's not hard at all" "Just read the Joy of Cooking, they'll tell you how to do anything". Great. But it seems to me canning is one of those things people teach you how to do, not something you can just learn to do from a $5 book you bought at Menards. Yes, boys and girls, Menards.

canning, take one

My hopes is that one CAN learn to can by the book, and that as I learn to can, maybe it will help you learn too if your mom, uncle or grandma or dad didn't have the chance to teach you how. Just for you I will expose it all; my successes, my lessons and my failures.

I decided my 1st endeavor would be an easy one: dilly beans. String beans (or green beans, or wax beans) run rampant in Minnesota this time of year and for an insanely cheap price. I bought what I estimate to be about two pounds for five bucks.

canning, take one

I'm not providing a recipe because I don't want you to sue me if it doesn't work and I haven't tried the beans yet to tell you how delicious they are. There are of course loads of recipes on the Internet and canning books are notoriously inexpensive. I do however want you to have a good understanding of the canning process from one learners perspective to another, so here we go.

canning, take one

Canning 101

Warm up those jars. I have a dishwasher so this is the method I used as I had a few forks and knives that needed cleaning anyway. I made sure it was on the heated water cycle, and waited for my jars to get clean and hot. This can also be done by simmering the jars for 10 minutes, completely submerged in water, but what can I say, I'm a lazy canner.

While I waited for the dishwasher to run I got everything else ready. Water and vinegar with salt solution on the burner? Check. Beans hulled and organized? Check. Garlic peeled, dill heads picked, crushed red pepper and mustard seed at the ready? Check. Lids heated in a separate pan? Check.

*Failure: I didn't have my lids heated/sterilized when I was ready to go. They are supposed to be boiled for 10 minutes, and there is nothing in the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving about using the dishwasher as an option. This set me back. I would suggest boiling them in the same water that you plan to can in HOWEVER, unless you have a super long magnet wand, the water will probably be too deep for this option.

canning, take one

So now, your jars are hot, your water is boiling, your brine is ready, your lids are sterile. And it's go time:

Take out one jar at a time. Place one garlic clove, one head of dill, mustard seed and crushed red pepper in the bottom of the jar. Fill it as tight as you can with beans. And I mean tight! Use a flat utensil to stuff the beans onto one side of the jar while you fill the other.

canning, take one

Once the jar is full and the beans are lower than the middle of the threads on the jar (this is called 1/2 inch of headspace) you're ready to add your vinegar solution.

canning, take one

Using a canning funnel (incredibly helpful!) add water to the same point of the jar (1/2 inch headspace). Take a flat, clean utensil and agitate to get out any air bubbles. Shove any floaters there might be a few) back under the point of no return (re: 1/2 inch from the top of the jar) and grab your lid out of the hot water (the oh-so-fancy Ball magnetized sticks are incredibly convenient here as well) and set it uniformly on top of the jar.

canning, take one

Screw on the ring so that it is finger tight, not so tight a 5 year old couldn't unscrew it.

*Fail. I have a HUGE pot a home. I have no idea how big it is, and I'm not going to go check just to brag, but I was POSITIVE the ball jar rack would fit into my ridiculously huge pot. Guess what? Yep, just 1/4 inch too narrow for that fancy jar rack. This led to both cursing and improvisation. I used my big ole'pot, without a rack, and with yet another fail, not enough water to cover the single jar at a time method I had decided was going to work best for me without Mr. Jar Rack. Why do I even bother continuing on at this point? Well... sometimes there is just no going back.

Place your four jars in your jar rack, making sure there is at least one to two inches of water covering the tops of your jars (yeah, har har, yuck it up...). Boil for 5 minutes, remove jars and let cool.

*Fail: My brining solution ran out after jar one. 2 cups of water plus 2 cups of vinegar in a quart jar apparently mean negative space in a jar filled with green beans? Or I simmered the solution too long and 3/4 of it evaporated? THIS is why I'm not giving you a recipe.

Oh, and did I mention that's it. THAT'S IT? You're done!?! Wait two weeks to see if your pickles taste like pickles, don't mold, expand or get fizzy. Where is my instant gratification? Where is my PING?

Not one recipe indicated WHEN the jars are supposed to ping (meaning SUCCESS! You've done it! You've successfully removed air from your jar, your lid IS decompressed and your food isn't going to kill you when you eat it!... hopefully!) or what this ping sensation was going to be like. Would you be able to hear it from the next room? Is it distinguishable from other noises around the house? Should it have decompressed while it was in the water bath? I may or may not have heard one (or maybe two) pings during this process. The 1st jar I completed seemed to have completely decompressed during the boiling process. Two others, and the 1st were definitely compressed after an hour of cooling, but that 4th jar was a thorn in my side. What did I do wrong? How did I do anything differently with that 4th jar? I went out to socialize that evening and by the time I got home it was down!

canning, take one


Clearly, I have no idea WHAT I am doing, but so far, they look greenish, haven't exploded, started growing mold and are actually kind of pretty!

canning, take one

Things I've learned (aside from my previously listed failures):

1.Do this with someone else. Have a "Lets learn to Can" party, or force your significant other into the learning process with you. I already know two people who are mad I canned without them, so chances are, you know someone who wants to try it out too.

2. Be really organized. Is your kitchen a little cluttered? Clean it up. Get your Mis En Place together more than you would for any other meal you've cooked.

3. Don't worry about failure. Canning has been around since the days of Napoleon. If you go to eat something and it looks or smells horrible, consider it a done deal and order a pizza... or buy some Gedney's.

4. Submerging your jars isn't a must, but will result in lowered liquid levels inside your jars (according to the Magic Blue Book)

5. You CAN learn to can from a book... AND trial and error. I am now the proud owner of 3 canning books, and honestly can't wait to try again. (My grandma is so excited I'm canning I'm inheriting the family pressure canner). I'd like to try something not pickled next time but it is about to be cucumber season. Salsa is definitely on the list. Any other must try ideas out there?

canning, take one


De Nueva said...

My friend Jessica from the MLC cans. She has a pressure cooker special canner thing. You two should get together and have a canning party. I will bring her out with us when I'm home, you guys can discuss.

PS. The word verification I have to type is crucio... which I find appropriate on Harry Potter opening night. :-)

Kassie said...

Seriously, if you are putting hot liquid into a jar, there is no need to do a water bath too. That's just overprotective Ag Departments talking. If the can lid goes down, you are cool

Pam said...

Nice post sweetie. Just one minor correction...your grandfather was a can maker and he worked in can plants.


Katie said...

I know exactly what you mean about hearing the "pop". I started canning last summer and I have yet to hear it. I have two jars of pickled green beans on my counter right now that "seem" to be processed correctly, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

Mac said...


I canned a bunch of stuff last summer and have done canning off and on for several years. I'm planning a big canning extravaganza with tomatoes late in the season. It's way easier to do it with others. We should get together and let the hubbies talk and drink beer. We'll do the above plus can a bunch of tomato sauce or more beans. Sound good??

Melissa Mc

Kate said...

great idea!