May 21, 2010

Getting Ready to Can!

In case you haven't heard, canning and preserving are back in style. And why not? Home canned food generally costs about half what store-bought canned food costs, has no artificial colors or flavors, has no preservatives, is lower in sodium than most commercially canned foods, and is more nutritious than store-bought food if it's canned at its peak. You can also can meals (like beef stew) ahead of time, and warm them up on days you don't feel like cooking, and unlike your frozen foods, you needn't worry about losing the food in a power outage. Too, canning jars are used year after year, unlike store-bought canned food cans, which must be tossed in the trash or recycled commercially.

Many people think it's expensive to set yourself up for home canning, but it needn't be. You can often find the tools you need at garage sales and thrift stores. Which is why I'm typing about canning supplies today. If you want to try your hand at canning this year, now's the time to start looking for used equipment. It's also a good time to start purchasing equipment new, bit by bit, if that's what you prefer to do.

So, without further ado, here's the equipment you'll need to start canning.

Canners
There are two types of home canners: Boiling-water canners and pressure canners. Boiling-water canners and are suitable for fruits, jams, pickles, and high-acid foods. Pressure canners are required for safely canning low acid foods, like meat, poultry, fish, and vegetables.

I recommend starting with a boiling-water canner. I think most people find them less intimidating - plus they are less expensive new and may be purchased used. I don't recommend buying used pressure canners, since they must be carefully regulated for safety; older pressure canners may be more prone to exploding during use. New pressure canners sell for about $70 to $100 new.

Boiling-water canners are about $30 to $70 new, but I often see them at thrift stores and online auctions for $10 - $35. Too, you can just as easily use a big, tall pot you probably already own. It should be three inches taller than any canning jars you place inside it and must have a snug-fitting lid.

Canner Racks

Canners come with racks inside them to prevent canning jars from touching the bottom of the pot. If you’ve purchased a used canner without a rack, you can purchase a new replacement for about $15. I've also heard of people making their own by purchasing some extra canning jar screw bands; connect them together with some string, and place them on the bottom of the pan. Round cake cooling racks can also be used in place of a canner rack.

Jars

Canning jars are possibly the most expensive equipment you’ll need, running about $9 for a dozen 1 pint jars. However, this is a one-time investment you’ll use over and over again. It’s unlikely you’ll ever need to purchase more - unless you decide to increase your canning productivity. (More food means more jars.)

Also, clear glass canning jars can often be found at thrift stores, estate sales, and online auctions for pennies each; just check each jar carefully for cracks, breaks, or nicks along the opening. (Uneven or broken openings don’t allow jars to seal properly.)

It’s not a good idea to re-use glass jars from grocery-store food. These aren’t designed for home canning and may either break during the canning process or not seal the food safely. It's also not considered safe to use vintage canning jars with attached lids.

Incidentally, if you have a choice, I recommend purchasing wide-mouthed jars. They are easier to fill and allow for easier removal of contents.

Lids and Screw Bands

Modern canning lids are easy to use and offer a reliable seal. They can only be used once, but cost a few dollars a dozen. Screw bands are circular, bracelet-like devices that screw onto the top of the canning jar. They may be reused year after year, and can be purchased used. Do not use screw bands that are rusty, however.

If you buy new jars, they usually come with screw bands and lids. Lids can also be purchased with matching screw bands, or you can buy the bands alone for a few dollars a dozen
Other ToolsYou’ll need a way to safely remove the jars and lids from the pots without burning yourself. New jar lifters (image left) typically cost only a few dollars. You may also want to buy a jar stirrer, but any non-metallic spoon or spatula will work just fine. A plastic or metal funnel for filling jars makes the job less messy, and can be had for a nominal price.

Or, For Those Who Hate to Shop...
If you don't want to mess with gathering all your supplies, canning kits are available online and in some retail stores. For about $65, you can purchase a boiling-water canner, a jar rack, a handful of jars and lids, a jar lifter, a funnel, and a stirrer. Just add some more jars, and you're ready to go!



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