My first time canning can best be described as a hot mess… literally. Boiling jam was burning my skin and my tools were scattered everywhere. I don’t want this to be YOUR first experience with the home canning process, however, so I’m offering up some tips. It’s really not that difficult, and I have since gotten the hang of it, but the first time can be full of panic if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Side note: If you’re a canning beginner and haven’t checked out my post on which canning supplies you do and do not need, read that first! The fewer unnecessary supplies in your kitchen during this process, the better.
Step 1: Prep the Jars
One of the most crucial factors in the home canning process is sterilization. Because your filling (jam, salsa, pasta sauce, you name it) is going to be sealed away for up to a year, you don’t want any yucky stuff sealed in there with it. The good news is, this sounds WAY more complicated than it actually is. This is how I do it:
- Wash jars, lids, and bands in warm soapy water.
- Take out the biggest pot you have. This will be used for sterilizing your jars AND for canning your preserves. (Yes, one pot for both. Stick with me!) I use my water bath canner for sterilization and canning because it has defined temperature settings for both steps and it maintains a consistent heat throughout the entire process.
- Place all of the cans you will be using (refer to your recipe for how many pints it produces and then use that many jars) into your canning rack, and then place everything into the pot. Fill the pot with enough water to cover the jars by at least an inch, and then heat everything until the water comes to a steady rolling boil.
- Take out a small to medium sized saucepan, and repeat this process with your jar lids and bands. Make sure they are completely covered with water by at least an inch and then heat it all up.
- Begin to cook your recipe. Your jars and lids can stay in the boiling water the entire time that you are preparing your filling. You need the jars to stay hot right up until they are filled (see next step).
Step 2: Fill the Jars
When your filling is fully cooked, you are ready to start canning! The most important factor in this part of the home canning process is to keep both parts of the equation (jars and filling) at the same temperature. Ever tried to pour a hot beverage into a cold glass? Yeah, don’t do it. To prevent your jars from cracking when filled with warm food, the jars themselves need to be warm too. Here’s how to do it:
- Lay out a kitchen towel near your pot of sterilized jars.
- Remove your pot of filling from the heat, but let your two other pots containing jars and lids stay on their burners. Move the filling so that it is within close vicinity of the jars and kitchen towel.
- If you are using a canning rack with handles (options 1 or 2 on my canning supply list) pull out the entire rack of jars from the hot water using the rack’s handles. Pour any hot water inside the jars back into the pot without touching the rims of the jars. Rest the rack on the kitchen towel.
- If your canning rack is like mine and does not have handles, use a jar lifter like this one to pick the jars up and pull them out of the water, dumping out any water inside them as you go.
- One at a time, fill each jar with your prepared food using a ladle or funnel. The gap between the top of your filling and the lid of the jar is called headspace. Typically, this gap should be 1/4″ for jams/jellies and 1/2″ for everything else, but your recipe should provide specifics.
- Once filled, use a moist paper towel to wipe down the rims of your jars. You don’t want any food hanging around that area and interfering with your seal.
- Using tongs, remove lids and bands from the boiling water and move to the kitchen towel to dry. One at a time and still using the tongs, place a lid on each filled jar. Then, place a band around each one and screw it on just until it is secure on the jar. DO NOT TIGHTEN. Air needs to be able to escape during the canning process, so the bands should be somewhat loose.
- Return the entire canning rack to the boiling water, making sure that the bands of the jars are not touching one another. Boil the jars for the amount of time specified by your recipe (usually at least 10 minutes).
- If you are not using a canning rack with handles, you can fill the jars, cap them, and return them to the water with the jar lifter one at a time. It will not hurt the first few filled jars to be in the water for a little bit of extra time while you finish filling the rest.
This is definitely the point in the home canning process where I had a panic attack during my first go-round. I felt an insane sense of urgency to get all my jars filled and put back in the water while the filling and jars were still piping hot. The truth is, both will cool much slower than you think they will, and the temperature difference between them would have to be fairly extreme to cause jar cracking. So, don’t panic like I did! It is okay to take your time during this step in order to fill each jar precisely.
Step 3: Preserve and Pop
This is the best part of the home canning process! Once your filled jars have spent the necessary amount of time boiling, move them out of the hot water and back onto the kitchen towel (leaving them in the rack if you have one with handles). After a minute or two, you will hear a distinct “pop!” which means that YOU WIN. The pop is a clear indicator that your jars have sealed properly. Sometimes mine pop as soon as they get out of the water, so listen closely.
If you aren’t sure if your jars popped, wait until they cool completely and then press lightly on the lid of the jar. A sealed jar lid will not move at all when it is sealed; an unsealed jar lid will sink down and make a clicking sound. You might have a few jars that sealed and a few jars that didn’t, and that is okay! The food in the unsealed jars can still be stored in the fridge for a week or two. The sealed jars will stay good in the pantry for up to a year. A year. How’s that for meal prep!?
The home canning process seems daunting at first, but if any of you had seen my frantic first attempt at it, you would feel much more confident about taking this on. Again, take your time to do it right and the rest will follow. Good luck!
Glass jars and bands can almost always be reused after the yummy preserves are used up. Just wash them thoroughly and make sure there are no chips in the glass or dents in the metal bands. The only thing that you cannot reuse is the jar lids. The sticky seal that is activated during the canning process can only be used once. Thankfully, you can buy new lids for a couple bucks, so it is fairly inexpensive to keep up with. Just remind your friends that they will have to return the glass jar to you if they want it to be filled up again 😉