To can food at home, you combine canning safe glass jars, lids with rubber gaskets, food that's safe for canning and the right heat processing. Home canning allows you to preserve almost any food – even entire meals – but you need to follow the rules. I do the bulk of my canning during harvest season, but can fire up the canner any time of year. One trick I've taken advantage of is to toss whole fruit (like tomatoes) or fruit puree into the freezer, and then finish processing when the weather has cooled. In this post I’ll discuss how to can food at home safely, basic equipment for home canning, and general canning tips.
Once your jars are sealed, all you need is a cool, dark space to stash your bounty. No electricity is required for storage (unlike freezing) and no water is needed to serve (unlike dehydrating). This makes home canned goods an excellent storage food for times when the power is out or water service is interrupted. If you can cook basic recipes, you should be able to can food at home.
How to Can Food at Home – Quick Guide
- Decide what food you want to can.
- Find a safe canning recipe for that food.
- Assemble your canning supplies such as a water bath or pressure canner, jars, lids, funnel, jar lifter, etc. (See full list below.)
- Gather your produce and other ingredients and prepare according to safe canning guidelines.
- Process your home canned goods in a boiling water bath canner or steam pressure canner for recommended processing time and rest time.
- Remove jars from canner and place on a towel to cool (12-24 hours). Try to avoid tipping jars too much as you remove them from the canner so you don’t get food in the jar seal.
- Check seals on jars. If jar has not sealed properly, refrigerate and consume within a couple of days. Remove rings for storage, wipe any spills or drips.
- Store jars in a cool, dry location, out of direct sunlight. Use within 1-2 years for best quality.
- Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving
- Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving
- The Organic Canner
- Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year Round
- Simply Canning: Survival Guide to Safe Home Canning
How Does Home Canning Work?
In simplest terms, you put food in a jar and heat treat it to kill off microbes that will spoil it. When processed correctly, all air is driven out from the headspace (the area between the top of the food and the jar lid), and a vacuum is formed. No air + no microbes = preserved food.
Originally, this type of preservation was done with tin cans, thus the term, “canning” versus “jarring”. The Mason jar was introduced in 1858.
There are two types of home canning – water bath canning, and pressure canning.
Water Bath Canning
Water bath canning is used for canning high acid foods (foods that have a pH of 4.6 or lower). This includes:
- Most soft spreads
- Tomatoes (with added lemon or citric acid)
- Pickles and other high acid foods
For water bath canning, you can use a commercial water bath canner or any large pot, as long as you have enough room in the pot to cover the jars with at least one inch of water.
You must not allow jars to sit directly on the bottom of the pot, or they will be more likely to break. (One option to keep jars off of the bottom of the pot is to make a “rack” of canning rings.) You can use your pressure canner for water bath canning – just leave the vent open.
If you plan to do any amount of canning, a standard water bath canner is fairly inexpensive and well worth the investment.
Pressure canning is required for low acid foods (foods with a pH higher than 4.6). This includes:
- Dairy products* (Canning dairy is not generally recommended. Try freeze drying instead.)
- Soups and Meals
Why do we need to pressure can these foods? We pressure can because of Clostiridum botulinum – otherwise known as botulism toxin – which can be deadly. This bacteria lives in soils and sediments, so it’s everywhere, but most of the time it doesn’t cause trouble, because it lives with lots of other bacteria.
Here’s the problem – botulism grows at temperatures between 40-120°F (5-49ºC) and oxygen levels below 2 percent – like the inside of a sealed canning jar. High acid foods (pH ≤ 4.6) keep botulism spores from germinating into live cells.
To destroy the botulism spores, process low acid foods at 240-250°F (116-121°C) under pressure of 10-15 pounds per square inch (psi) at sea level. Always follow a tested recipe when canning low acid foods.
Below I cover some basic canning equipment that you can buy online or in most hardware stores. You may also be able to find some of it used.
Basic Equipment Needed for Home Canning
Starting at top left in the above photo and working clockwise.
Water Bath Canner
Water bath canners are used for canning high acid foods (having a pH of 4.6 or lower). They are a large pot with a lid and a rack in the bottom to keep the jars off the bottom of the canner.
Jelly Strainer Bag
The white baggie thing in the middle of the photo is a jelly strainer bag. I love this thing. Not only to I use it for straining jellies, I also use it for straining stocks and herbal infusions.
Pressure Canner/Steam Pressure Canner
A steam pressure canner is required for all low-acid foods, such as veggies, meat, soups and stews. I don't recommend canning things like bread, pumpkin butter or chocolate syrup at home. Botulism can be deadly. If I had a nickel for every time I've heard someone say, “Well I know so-and-so who has done it this way for years and they never got sick”, I could retire early. One batch of bad food can kill or make you sick. What's your family's health worth to you? Get your canner tested every 3-5 years at a local extension office to make sure it is holding pressure properly.
Kitchen scales are a necessity when you get into recipes like salsas or sauces, but they also come in handy for gauging how many jars you'll need for the amount of produce you have, for knowing how much syrup to make to cover your fruit or for measuring sugar for jams and jellies. The one I have used to be my grandmother's. It's been around a while (okay, it's much older than my kids), but it still works just fine.
A big, stainless steel ladle that holds at least 1 1/2 to two cups of product will allow you to fill jars much faster than a standard kitchen ladle.
Chopstick or thin non-metal spatula
You need some sort of long, thin object to run around the outside of jars to remove air bubbles. We have chopsticks on hand, so I just use one of those. Don't use a knife or other metal object, as you may scratch the inside of the jar and damage it.
Kitchen tongs or a magnetic jar lid lifter
Again, since I have kitchen tongs on hand, I just use those, but magnetic jar lid lifters can also be used. You want to hold your lids in nice hot water (not boiling) to get them ready to seal. It's a little hot to stick your fingers into.
Another must have – canning jars get wicked hot, so you really need a proper jar lifter to move them about.
A good jar funnel will make it MUCH easier to fill jars, even wide mouth ones. Big ladle + big funnel = fast jar filling.
Food strainers are useful for making sauces. I use mine mostly for marinara sauce and apple sauce, and store it in the box to keep the parts together.
I use my apple slicer mostly for dehydrating, but it would be great for canning apple pie filling, too. (Norpro Apple Master)
What Foods Are Easiest to Can?
Full sugar jams and jellies are probably the easiest foods to start with, because they process for only short amounts of time in a water bath canner and are really hard to screw up. Low sugar versions are only a bit trickier. Plain tomatoes or tomato juice is also very simple, as are fruits and fruit juices.
General Canning Tips
- Prepare your jars, lids and all your equipment before you prepare your food.
- Work from one direction to the other. Don't cross back and forth – it gets messy.
- Keep everything hot. You'll remember this tip very quickly if you lower a cold jar into boiling water, or ladle hot syrup into a cold jar. Jars break rather impressively and make a huge mess.
- Always check and double check the edges of your jars and your lids. Any imperfection along the edge of a jar, and it is unlikely to seal properly. Put it in the recycling bin.
- Keep everything clean. You'll have drips and spills, sure, but remember this is food prep, so try to keep your work space clear of outside contaminants such as hair or dirt.
For additional information on canning and other home food preservation methods, see “New to Food Preserving – Start Here“. Also, “The Natural Canning Resource Book” answers nearly every question I've ever had about canning.
Home canning and other home food preservation allows you to stock your pantry with quality food at affordable prices – with no mystery ingredients. If you have canning questions, just ask, and I'll do my best to help. I've been canning ever since I was a little girl (many decades ago), and keep out to date on the latest canning safety guidelines.
Vegetables and Condiments
Jams and Jellies
You can download a set of pdf instructions for making and creating your own low and no-sugar jams and jellies with Pomona's Pectin (my favorite low sugar pectin) by clicking on the image or text below. Shared with permission from Pomona's Pectin.
You may also enjoy:
- Home Freeze Drying – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
- Home Food Drying – One of the Easiest Ways to Preserve Food
- Canning Questions Answered – Q&A session answering reader questions
Originally published in 2012, last updated in 2017.