The Basics of Canning

canned food

Canning is a time-honored method that extends the shelf life of fresh foods from your garden, local market, or grocery store, allowing you to enjoy the bounty of one season well into another. This guide will dive into the basics of canning, covering everything from the necessary equipment to step-by-step processes to essential safety tips to ensure your pantry is well-stocked and safe.


Canning isn’t just a craft; it’s a science that involves preserving food in airtight containers, effectively stopping natural spoilage by eliminating air and sealing in freshness.

  • Types of Canning: There are two main methods of canning: water bath canning and pressure canning. Water bath canning is great for high-acid foods like fruits, tomatoes, jams, jellies, and pickles. Pressure canning is used for low-acid foods like vegetables, meats, and poultry, which require higher temperatures to preserve safely.
  • Equipment Needed: The basic equipment for canning includes canning jars with new lids and rings, a canner (water bath canner or pressure canner, depending on what you’re preserving), jar lifters, a funnel, and a bubble remover/headspace tool. Ensuring you have quality, reliable tools is crucial for both the success and safety of your canning.
  • Understanding Acidity and Safety: Knowing the acidity of the food you’re canning is vital. High-acid foods can be processed in a water bath canner, while low-acid foods must be processed in a pressure canner to avoid the risk of botulism, a potentially fatal foodborne illness.

Tip: Always use recipes from reliable sources, especially when you’re just starting, ensuring that the acidity levels are appropriate for safe preservation.

Did You Know? The French confectioner Nicolas Appert first developed the canning process in the late 18th century during the Napoleonic Wars. Appert’s technique involved sealing food in glass jars with wax and boiling them, which earned him the title “The Father of Canning.”


Follow these steps to ensure your canning process is both efficient and safe.

  • Preparation: Start by sterilizing your jars and lids. While newer guidelines state that sterilizing jars may not be necessary if the food will be processed for more than 10 minutes in a boiling water canner, it is always a safe practice, especially for shorter processing times.
  • Filling the Jars: Prepare your food according to the recipe. Use a funnel to fill your jars, ensuring you leave the correct amount of headspace (usually about 1/2 inch to 1 inch, depending on the recipe). Remove any air bubbles with a non-metallic spatula.
  • Sealing the Jars: Wipe the rims of the jars with a clean, damp cloth to ensure a good seal. Place the lids on the jars and screw on the rings until they are fingertip tight.
  • Processing: Place the jars in the canner, completely submerging them in water. Bring the water to a boil and process the jars for the time specified in your recipe, adjusting for altitude as necessary.
  • Cooling and Storage: Once processed, turn off the heat and let the jars sit in the water for 5 minutes. Remove the jars using a jar lifter and let them cool on a towel or cooling rack for 12 to 24 hours without tightening the rings. Check seals, label, and date the jars, and store them in a cool, dark place.

Tip: Always listen for the “pop” of the jar lids—they should be sucked down after cooling, which will be evident to the touch if you push down on the canning lid and there is not a bubble to push down – like on jars in your fridge that have been opened. If a lid doesn’t seal within 24 hours, refrigerate the jar and consume the contents within a few days.

Did You Know? During World War II, governments encouraged citizens to grow “victory gardens” and can their own food to ensure that enough canned goods were available for troops overseas.


Properly maintaining your canned goods is essential to ensure they remain safe and tasty for as long as possible.

  • Regular Checks: Regularly check your stored jars for signs of spoilage such as leaks, rust, bulging lids, or any off odors or appearances. If in doubt, throw it out.
  • Optimal Storage Conditions: Store canned goods in a cool, dark place to prevent spoilage. Temperatures between 50°F and 70°F are ideal. Avoid storing jars in attics or garages where temperature fluctuations are common.
  • Rotation and Usage: Practice first-in, first-out rotation to use older items first. Properly stored, most canned goods will last for at least a year, and many remain safe to eat well beyond that if kept in optimal conditions.

Tip: Keep an inventory of your canned goods, including the type of food and the date it was canned. This practice helps with rotation and ensures you use items within their prime quality period. Additionally, write what is in the jar with a permanent marker on the jar, as your memory could fail you, or water damage to the jar could make the contents less obvious.

Did You Know? Home-canned foods are best used within a year for optimal quality, although they may stay safe to eat beyond that time if the canning is done correctly and storage conditions are maintained.


Having a variety of canned goods at your disposal allows for creativity and flexibility in your cooking. Here are a few tips on how to incorporate these items into your daily meals:

  • Meal Planning: Use canned ingredients in your weekly meal planning. Canned vegetables and meats can be great time savers for quick dinners. For instance, add canned beans to a chili, use canned tomatoes for pasta sauce, or include canned chicken in a hearty soup.
  • Mixing Fresh and Canned: Combine fresh and canned ingredients to enhance flavors and textures. Adding fresh herbs or spices to dishes that include canned components can boost the taste and appeal of the meal.
  • Emergency Meals: Keep a few recipes handy that use mostly or all canned ingredients for those times when you can’t get to the store. Dishes like casseroles, stews, and one-pot meals can all be made entirely from canned goods.

Tip: When using canned goods in recipes, consider reducing added salt or sugar, as canned items may already contain these ingredients.

Did You Know? Canning doesn’t just preserve food; it can also enhance the flavor of the produce over time as it absorbs spices and brines, making for a more flavorful meal when finally opened.


While canning is a reliable way to preserve food, it must be done correctly to avoid the risk of food-borne illness:

  • Botulism Warning: Improperly canned foods can harbor botulism, a deadly toxin. Ensure you follow recommended guidelines and processing times to prevent this risk.
  • Acidification: Foods like tomatoes and figs that border on low acidity may require the addition of lemon juice or vinegar to ensure safety when canning.
  • Use Trusted Recipes: Especially when starting, use recipes from reliable sources that have been tested and proven to ensure safety. Over time, you may begin to experiment, but always keep the basics of food safety in mind.

Tip: Enroll in a canning class or find an experienced canner to mentor you if you’re new to the process. This hands-on learning can boost your confidence and ensure you understand the crucial safety aspects.

Canning is more than just a method of food preservation—it’s a rewarding endeavor that can bring a sense of accomplishment and a little taste of summer into the colder months. By following these guidelines, you can build a diverse and safe pantry filled with delicious, home-preserved foods that are ready whenever you need them. Whether you’re a seasoned canner or a curious newbie, the world of canning offers a fulfilling way to engage with your food on a deeper level.

Check out the Ball Canning Guide for more detailed information on canning as well as recipes.

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