Canning Lessons Learned

Sometimes a novice is the perfect person to offer advice on a subject because they don’t make assumptions or skip over important details that an experienced person might take for granted.  This thought kept running through my head as I was making my first solo attempt at canning today and screwing up royally.

Back in January when I was salivating over the seed catalogs, envisioning all the yummy things I could grow, I knew at some point I’d have to find a way to preserve all of that produce that I would (hopefully) harvest.  I don’t like to rely on freezing overmuch – (1) because some things just don’t freeze very well, and (2) if the power goes out for an extended period of time, you’re screwed.

Enter canning.

This term initially confused the bejesus out of me because I thought canning meant you put things in a CAN.  Nope.  (I guess “jarring” would be confusing in other ways.)  Canning involves packing foods into glass jars and boiling them for a specified amount of time, thereby sealing in the nutrients and flavor, and keeping out the bacteria.  Canning allows you to store foods on your pantry shelves, unrefrigerated, for months or even years without fear of spoilage (if you do it right).

There are two types of canning:  (1) water bath canning, and (2) pressure canning.  People generally start with water-bath canning, and once they’ve mastered that, move on to pressure canning.  Water-bath canning can only be used for foods that are highly acidic.  The natural acids in foods such as tomatoes and fruits, or foods that are “pickled” using vinegar brine, helps keep bacteria from growing inside your jars.  Non-acidic foods need to be subjected to temperatures higher than the 212°F boiling point, which can only be achieved inside the pressure canner (not a pressure cooker, they are different).

For more detailed information on different foods, as well as instructions on both types of canning, BALL is generally held as the gold standard.  This is the book I use.

Back in June, I had my first canning experience (that sounds kind of weird or dirty, but you know what I mean).  My friend Po, who is somewhat more experienced than I (which isn’t saying much), came to guide me.  With her help, I was able to “put up,” as we canners say, fourteen 1/2-pint jars of strawberry jam.  Mmmmm!

straw jam

Since then, I’ve done a lot more reading on the subject.  I’ve also purchased my own canning equipment (pot, jar lifter, magnetic lid wand, etc.).  So, feeling brave, today I spent some time water-bath canning a small batch of pickled banana peppers all by myself (I used this recipe).  Since, it was only my second time ever canning anything, and the FIRST time I did it by myself, let’s just say I was making mental notes right and left.  Here’s what I learned:

Glass cook tops suck for canning purposes.  I bought a dedicated canning pot w/a rack so that I wouldn’t have to use my stock pot anymore (like I did w/the jam).  Well guess what?  The canning pot is bigger than my largest burner.  And because so much heat is reflected back onto the stove surface, the burner periodically cuts off, even on HIGH, as a safety precaution.  Well guess what?  That keeps a giant pot of water from actually BOILING.  Kind of the whole point of canning.  Ugh!  So in the middle of sterilizing my jars, I had to swap pots back to my stock pot (it is slightly smaller and fits the burner).  Stupid canning pot.  And guess what?  It says right on the label “do not use on glass cooktops.”  Whoops.  (BTW, I found out glass cooktops are also incompatible with certain pressure canners, too, so beware if this applies to you!)

Have all of your produce prepared (cleaned, seeded, skinned, chopped . . . whatever) BEFORE you begin.  I was madly trying to finish seeding & slicing my peppers before the water and brine were boiling.  Too stressful.

Consider doing a “dry run” when you are packing jars with things like peppers (before the brine is added).  The recipe called for 6-7 banana peppers, or 1-lb., yielding 2 pints.  Yeah, I skipped the “or 1-lb.” part, not considering that size does matter (haha).  I had twice that many peppers, at least, so I figured I had enough for 3 pints.  Well guess what?  I only filled (or so I thought) two pints w/those peppers, but after I processed them, they were mostly brine and only half peppers.  Next time, I will take a cold jar (one I’m not using) and really pack it to see how much it should hold.  And if I need more, I’ll cut more.  BEFORE-hand.

Have more than enough brine ready.  Brine is the vinegar “broth” that’s used to pickle foods (vinegar raises acidity levels).  I filled one pint, then got halfway through the second pint and realized I didn’t have enough!  Ugh!  I had to quickly (before the jars cooled too much) boil some more for that second jar.  Well guess what?  If I’d had enough peppers in the jars, the brine probably wouldn’t have been an issue.  Oh well.  You can always save any leftover brine for another day.

Make sure you have enough support in the bottom of your pot.  Glass jars should not rest directly on the bottom of the pot because they can crack.  I bought a disc to put in the bottom of my canning pot, but alas, it was too big for the stock pot.  I had to resort to the fall-back that many canners use – placing lid rings in the bottom of the pan.  Since I was already in a time crunch because of my other issues enumerated above, I took the lazy way out and only grabbed a few rings to use – not enough to cover the entire bottom of the pan.  Well guess what?  When that water really gets boiling, it pushes the jars around.  And they WILL tip over if they come to the edge of their support.  Ugh.

Most important revelation – with all those pots of jars, water, and brine boiling away, it gets quite humid in your kitchen.  My hair looks like a shrubbery.

pick pepp

Even after all that, my jars gave a satisfying *POP* when I pulled them out to cool.  Such a wonderful sound!  One that will entice me to try again and again.

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