I Was Legitimately Terrified to Can My Own Food, but I Just Learned How — And You Can Too

Just think of it this way: The instructions for canning are substantially easier to follow than the instructions for any piece of Ikea furniture you’ve ever assembled.


As a former test kitchen chef and avid home cook, this is honestly embarrassing to admit, but I have always been really, truly afraid of canning. Or "putting up" food, whatever you call it — I don't do it, plain and simple. I guess it's not exactly the process that's always scared me. I mean, I LOVE nerdy, multi-step, challenging culinary processes. (And in truth, the actual process of canning isn't even all that difficult.) What I'm generally scared of is simply that it won't work. I'm afraid that in six months, I'll go to open up a jar of something that should not, in any way, be green and fuzzy, and yet...you get the picture. What could be worse? That possibility of disappointment torments me. Well, that and the idea that I might inadvertently poison loved ones.

But you know what? I finally decided that it was time, once and for all, to face my fears. I'm not getting any younger and if I was ever going to attempt canning, now was my moment. It was time to "put up" or shut up, if you will. Thus, I consulted with friends who preserve summer produce and other goods annually, and I took a deep dive into the craft myself.

What follows is what I — an entirely inexperienced and rather nervous canning novice — learned this summer. The step-by-step process I've detailed is simple enough for anyone to follow and find success with. And if you're anywhere close to my level of canning experience, I can assure you of this: By the time you've reached the final step of this process, you're going to be mighty proud of the jars spread out before you

What Is Canning?

In simplest terms, canning is a way to preserve food. Essentially, you place food items in an environment that is sterile enough that pathogens cannot cause the food to spoil.This requires heat, a lack of oxygen, and some way to seal the container so it remains completely airtight. And, if properly executed, these canned items can remain unrefrigerated and unspoiled for great lengths of time.

The best place to start is to first determine what food items you want to put up, and decide on a recipe.

How to Can Food

Step 1: Prepare Your Equipment

So the first step to canning is assembling the necessary hardware. You'll need jars (Ball Mason jars are great) and coordinating two-part lids (the flat top with a ring of rubber on the underside plus the screw-on portion that affixes the lid to the jar). These are readily available in most grocery stores, homeware stores, and certainly online. You'll also need a large, fairly deep pot (think a stock pot), and a tool to remove filled, hot jars from the boiling water; there are specialty jar lifters designed just for this purpose, and trust me — they are worth it. Alternatively, you can wrap a few rubber bands around the two "clamps" on a set of sturdy kitchen tongs to turn them into fairly grippy lifters if you don't want to buy the specialty tool. Additionally, you need either a dishwasher or some hot, soapy water to thoroughly clean the jars and lids (even if they're straight out of the package). And if you wash them by hand, you'll want a clean towel or two to use as a drying space for the clean jars and lids.

Ball Glass (16oz) Mason Jars with Lids & Bands, 12ct

Glass Mason Jars with Lid & Band

Mainstays Stainless Steel 12-Quart Stockpot with Lid

Mainstays Stainless Steel 12 Quart Stockpot with Lid

Ball Canning Jar Lifter with Non-Slip Handles

Ball Canning Jar Lifter with Non-Slip Handles

Mainstays Flour Sack Kitchen Towel Set, 20 Pack

Flour Sack Kitchen Towel Set

Also remember, your work surfaces and your hands need to be as clean as your jars; sanitary conditions are key to safe canning. Yes, I realize I'm spelling virtually everything out in some level of excruciating detail, but I'm going on the assumption that you're as much of a canning newbie as I am and cleanliness is important!

Step 2: Sanitize the Jars

The necessity of this step is debated among those who consider themselves real "canners," but I, for one, won't skip it. Like I've already said, cleanliness counts and I'm just playing it safe here, folks.

Carefully place the jars in a large pot of boiling water and boil them for just a few minutes in order to fully sanitize them. (Yes, even after washing them!) Remove the jars using your jar lifter and let them air-dry on a clean kitchen towel.

Step 3: Fill the Jars

Follow the instructions from your chosen recipe to know how hot the food you're canning needs to be when put into the jars. Using a wide-mouthed funnel is helpful in preventing anything from getting onto the rim of your jars. Do note: Anything that prevents the jar from sealing perfectly is not your friend in this process...and food left on the jar rims can do that. Just to make doubly sure, wipe the jar rims so that they're clean.

Norpro Canning Wide Mouth Plastic Funnel

Norpro Canning Wide Mouth Plastic Funnel

When filling the jars, you'll want to make sure that you leave about ¼-inch space between the food and the top of the jar; this is called "headroom." Now, with a very clean chopstick or skewer, gently stir the food a bit to remove any air bubbles. Place the flat lid, rubber ring side down, on top of the jar. Add the screw top and tighten — BUT don't get carried away; you don't want to tighten the lid too much right now. This is referred to as "finger tightening," and you'll really tighten the lid later in the process.

Step 4: Create the Seal

Add the jars to your stock pot filled with enough hot water to cover the tops of the jars by about 1 inch, and do not let the jars touch one another. Cover the pot with a lid and boil for 10 minutes, or as long as is called for in your recipe. Using whatever jar lifter you have, remove the jars to a surface covered with towels.

I think this next part is magic. You should soon begin to hear small popping sounds. This is the sound of the lids sealing to the jars; the vacuum created during their boiling bath causes the flat lids to be pulled down. At this point, you can screw the tops on good and tight. Allow the jars sit at room temperature to cool off.

Step 5: Test the Seal

To check that there is indeed a successful seal, press down on the center of the lid. It should not indent inwards or pop up. If this does happen, you can either reprocess to create a successful seal, or keep this can in the fridge and use it within a week or so.

P.S. This is also the way to check your seals weeks or months down the road before you actually consume the contents. If the lid pops up or down don't use it!

Step 6: Store Your Canned Goods

Store the jars of food in a cool, dark place. They should remain viable for 6-12 months, possibly longer. In the future, you can reuse the jars and screw-tops, but the flat lids should be replaced before you "can" again.

So, I learned a lot. My biggest take-away after actually trying the process for myself is that canning is not at all as scary as I once believed. Follow your recipe, follow the instructions above, keep everything scrupulously clean, and you're golden. The sense of accomplishment when all is said and done is beyond exciting. And there is certainly something to be said for looking over the rows of jars, admiring the foods that you preserved.

My name is David McCann...and I am no longer afraid of canning!


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