By Leslie Kelly

Canning was once a literal lifesaver, with foods preserved to feed families through long winter months. Now, it's super trendy to put up fruits and vegetables, meats and seafood. There are groups dedicated to promoting the craft of creating small batch jams, jellies as well as relishes and chutneys. Enthusiasts share tips on best practices, from the great debate over whether or not to use pectin to making suggestions about what foods are prime candidates for water bath processing versus pressure canning. While it might sound daunting to a newbie, it's easier to can than you might imagine. Yes, you can can.

Getting Started

You should begin by deciding what's going into the jars that will be tucked away like gems in your pantry. Summer berries are a favorite ingredient for jams, but ingredients are available year-round. Think winter squash chutney or pickled carrots, cranberry relish or old school sauerkraut. Consider mixing things up with a variety of jar sizes, with the small and medium size jars making for perfect gifts.

Choose the freshest fruits and vegetables available. Going to U-pick farms, farmers' markets, or using fruits and vegetables from your own garden are great ways to ensure freshness. Avoid overripe or under-ripe fruits, which can affect the acidity and stability of the final product. Cucumbers, especially, need to be at their peak of freshness to make great pickles.

Pectin, an essential gelling agent, is found naturally in many fruits. Most recipes call for added pectin, in either liquid or powdered form; there are also special pectins available for making low-sugar preserves. Jams and jellies made without pectin must be cooked longer, depending upon the amount of natural pectin in the fruit.

In preserving, acid provides flavor, texture, and helps prevent bacterial growth. Acid is also an important part of the fermentation process in pickle making. Lemon juice is typically used as the acid for fruit preserves, while vinegar is more common in vegetable preserves.

Once you've settled on a recipe, it's go time.

The Equipment

The investment in canning supplies puts some people off, but there are now kits designed for beginners looking to test the waters. While sturdy canning kettles last for decades, the next generation of canning rack is made from hard silicone and holds three to four jars, which easily fit in a stockpot. Small batch canning is picking up steam, where you make enough for a quick afternoon project rather than devoting an entire day. Special canning tongs are helpful for removing jars after they've been processed, but in a pinch, you can wrap rubber bands around a set of regular tongs and remove the jars that way.

Canning Tools

  • One extra-large pot for sterilizing jars and lids
  • Five- or six-quart metal or glazed cast-iron pot
  • Jar grabbers
  • Metal funnel
  • Several metal ladles of different sizes
  • Jars, lids, and rings
  • Paper or cloth towels

Tips for Home Canning

Read your canning recipe carefully to see if ingredients have to be prepped ahead of time. For example, does your watermelon rind need to soak in brine overnight before you can move on to the pickling process?

Filling Jars

In recent years, canning experts have noted that the practice of sterilizing jars and lids is not necessary because any harmful bacteria will be eliminated during the water bath process. You can reuse jars and rings from previous years as long as they are in good condition, but you'll need new lids each time to ensure a good seal. Soak the lids in hot water for at least ten minutes to soften the rubber edge. This will help the lids grip the tops of the jars when you screw on the rings.

Jars should be washed and dried before they're filled.

A canning funnel makes the filling step extra neat. Fill the jars, leaving about 1-inch of space near the top, so the contents have room to expand during processing. The amount of "headspace" you need depends upon the recipe, so be sure to follow directions.

Run a thin, non-metallic spatula around the insides of the jars after they have been filled to remove air bubbles, and wipe the rims of the jars with a damp paper towel -- any food residue on the rims could prevent a proper seal.

Place the warm lids onto the rims and screw the rings firmly into place, but not as tightly as you can. You can tighten the rings a bit further once the jars have cooled.


Make sure the water level in the kettle will fully cover the tops of the jars by about 1 inch. Bring the water to a rolling boil and lower the jars nestled in the rack into the water and cover the kettle. Set the timer for 10 minutes for most jams, jellies and chutney, slightly longer for fruits and pickles, or following the instructions in the recipe. Low acid foods such as tomatoes and green beans must be processed in a pressure canner, in which the temperature rises beyond the boiling point. Meat and seafood also requires processing in a pressure canner. Please note that pressure canners are not the same as pressure cookers, so don't be tempted to use one!

Final Steps

Once the processed jars have been removed from the water bath canner, let them sit, undisturbed, for at least an hour. As the jars cool, the lids will become sunken in the center and you may hear a little "ping," indicating the lids have sealed. If they don't seal, refrigerate the preserved food and eat within two weeks or you can try using another lid and going through the water bath process again.

Now, it's time to stand back and admire your good work. There's nothing quite like the sense of accomplishment that comes from creating something delicious that you can share and enjoy months later. Be sure and label your babies, and include a date. There are tons of pretty labels to make those jars standout, and some designed for easy removal, so you can fill them up again.

Storing Your Jars

Store your jars away from direct sunlight in a cool, dry place. Processed foods typically have a shelf life of a year, although many items will not spoil for longer periods. If you see mold, discoloration, or smell something off, discard the food immediately. But don't just trust your nose -- some bacteria can produce toxins that are undetectable by sight or smell, so if a jar's seal has been compromised, throw it away. If in doubt, throw it out.

Does the whole process of canning seem intimidating? Get your feet wet by starting with Freezer Jam or Refrigerator Pickles.

VIDEO: Homemade Jams & Jellies the Easy Way

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Seasonal Quick Pickles

Pickling isn't just for high summer. Check out how to make spring and winter pickles, too!

Let's get to the recipes!

Pickled Veggies

Jams and Jellies

Fruit Butters

Relishes and Chutneys

See our complete collection of Canning and Preserving Recipes.