Does it make sense to can your own food?

Canning is a great way to preserve food, no doubt about it. But it takes time and special equipment, plus you need a large amount of produce. It makes sense to wonder if canning your own food is worth the upfront investment and hours in the hot kitchen.

To provide some insight, here’s my breakdown of canning 24 pounds of green beans in 2 days, including my costs, my time and whether I’d do it again. You an apply these observations to just about any other food you’re considering canning to see if it’s worth it for you. Spoiler: I do generally think it’s worth it to can your own food, but I also think it’s important to “do the math” and make sure each canning project is a good use of time and resources.

To learn more about the absolute must-have canning tools, see Essential Canning Supplies. I’ve included links to the items I use, so you can get an idea of the cost to purchase these necessary canning tools.

Disclosure: I’m an affiliate for Lehman’s HardwareAzure Standard and other companies. Clicking on links in my articles and purchasing products may result in the seller offering me compensation. I only share products I use and enjoy. Affiliate relationships help me cover the cost of producing content for Hey Big Splendor.

three cans of green beans

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Does canning save money? Is canning cost effective?

This was my biggest question – is canning cost effective? Canning jars and lids cost money and buying a large quantity of fresh produce costs money up front.

For me, it came down to this: would the canned beans be cost effective when compared with buying them fresh during the off-season? If you’re not considering green beans, apply this same logic to any other food. For me, it made sense to consider this using green beans since we already buy them fresh all year long. Buying them fresh and canning them versus buying them fresh over the course of the year is a beans to beans comparison…

How much does it cost to can food?

Green beans were in season, so I was able to buy them in bulk at a local farm for $1.60 per pound. At the store, “fresh” green beans are generally at least $2 per pound and usually closer to $3 or 3.50, depending on the time of year. Pound for pound, there’s no question that it’s cheaper to buy beans in season.

Remember when I said that the general estimate is 2 pounds of raw beans per quart? Well, it turns out the Romano beans are bigger and denser, so each quart jar held less than a pound packed. Even the regular beans came in at less than 2 pounds per quart. Some weight was in the stems and ends I trimmed off. But even so, I planned for 24 pounds of raw beans to yield 12 quarts of beans. Instead, I ended up with 25 quarts. Both varieties of beans, tightly packed, yielded more quarts than expected.

Based on our previous bean consumption, I know we use around 2 pounds fresh or 1 jar per week.

My original calculations assumed each quart would cost about $3. Because I ended up with double the quarts, each quart cost $1.60. That’s definitely cheaper than buying a bag of raw beans at the grocery store. Remember, we were buying a $4-6 bag of beans each week (2 pounds per bag). Even if each quart cost the original $3, that’s a savings of $1-$3 per week.

Other Canning Costs

But what about the cost of the jars? I’ll be honest. I’m not factoring the cost of my jars into this because I use them every year. Like my pressure canner, the jars are a fixed cost that will be amortized over the coming years. That doesn’t mean purchasing canning jars isn’t a financial consideration, of course. The great news about jars is they have lots of uses beyond canning, so if you try canning once and decide you don’t want to do it again, you can repurpose those jars.

Each time I can, I’ll have to buy new lids or use a Tattler reusable lid. So add about $.35 to the cost per jar for single use lids.  That brings the cost for a quart of beans to $1.90, give or take price changes in lids.

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How long does it take to can green beans?

It’s definitely cheaper, from a raw material standpoint, to buy a large quantity of fresh beans in season than to buy them all year long at the store. But it takes time to clean, process and can the beans. That’s going to be true for virtually any food you can – there will be some amount of cutting, peeling or other processing before it goes near the jar. Is it still worth it, once time is factored in?

In order to find out,  I kept track of my time.

I spaced my green bean canning out over two days. From opening the bags to taking the final batch of jars out of the canner, I logged about 10 hours. That’s a LOT of hours! But it’s really important to note I was doing a lot of other things during those hours. The actual process of breaking the beans down is time consuming. A lot of that 10 hours included waiting for water to boil (over and over), waiting for the canner to go up to pressure and then come back down. In other words, time I spent doing other tasks while keeping a loose eye on the canner.

Canning Time Breakdown:

  • Breaking the beans down took about 3 hours total. That was BY FAR the most annoying part but I listened to podcasts and music and it flew by. But keep in mind if I bought beans at the store, I would still have to do this part! Even the beans that are supposedly “ready to cook” still usually have stems and ends that have to be removed, even if one chooses not to break the beans into 1 inch chunks. Canning food is just as much about food preparation as it is food preservation.
  • Every time I ran a load in the canner, it took 10-13 minutes for the pressure to come up to 11. The beans processed for 25 minutes. It then took a whopping 37 minutes (on average) for the canner to fully depressurize. So every single load of beans took over an hour of time, but for most of that, I could be doing other things.
  • I ran six canner loads, total. Remember what I said above about making sure you’re running the maximum canner load each time? If I’d realize my canner could hold more quarts per load, I would only have needed to run four loads, saving me over two hours. Live and learn.

To learn more about the absolute must-have canning tools, see Essential Canning Supplies. I’ve included links to the items I use, so you can get an idea of the cost to purchase these necessary canning tools.

So IS canning food worth it?

Looking at the costs, both fixed and variable, and knowing that I could actually have cut my time investment down to 8 hours, it’s definitely worth it to me. Consider that canning food isn’t just food preservation. It’s also food preparation. When viewed through that lens, canning food really is worth it. Without canning, I’d still have had to spend some time processing beans for dinner and I’d far rather do it all at once and have it over with for the entire winter! Now, all I need to do is open a can, bring it to a boil and then it’s ready for dinner. In combination with the cost savings, it definitely feels worth it to me.

What about the flavor? Do canned green beans taste good?

To me, the quantitative factors, time and cost, both seem to pay off. But what about another, very subjective issue, flavor? After all, there’s no point in canning food you won’t actually enjoy eating.

There’s no comparison between freshly harvested green beans in-season and off-season imported/hothouse green beans. But what about canned green beans that were harvested in season compared to “fresh” green beans purchased off-season? I’ve found that even after canning, the in-season beans are still tastier than off-season “fresh” beans at the store.

Flavor and texture was a huge concern for me. I spent my childhood eating bland green beans my grandparents canned from their garden. That made me wary of canning green beans, until I realized my family avoided salt religiously back in the 80’s. Take it from me, home canned green beans with salt are delicious and flavorful.

Canning vegetables with more flavor

To expand your options, grab a copy of the Ball New Book of Canning. It’s a great canning book but it’s full of new, flavorful recipes for pressure canning green beans, carrots, corn and entire ‘meals in a jar’. I tried out the Lemon Garlic Green Beans and it’s a great variation.

Some foods are better able to withstand the canning process, so that’s going to be an important factor, too. Summer crops like squash or zucchini tend to become soggy mush when canned, which is why there aren’t even pressure canning recipes for those vegetables.

At the end of the day, make sure the foods you’re considering canning will still be palatable after processing. For foods that don’t do well canned, you can still save money on your winter grocery bill by freezing, drying or freeze-drying!

Variety Matters

No matter what food you’re canning, pick a really flavorful variety. The tastier and “meatier” your produce is raw, the more flavor after the canning process! Some produce varieties are better suited to canning than others, so it pays to do a little homework. I canned both Romano and standard string beans. The plump Romano’s had a better flavor and texture after canning, though both were still great.

So canning food IS worth it?

Yes. It’s cheaper*, the time investment is honestly pretty comparable to standard food prep and cooking and they taste great. It’s also comforting to have a stockpile of food that we would normally eat. Covid-19 has certainly driven home how fragile the supply chain can be.

Drawbacks to Canning Food

As great is canning is, there are a few drawbacks, though. It’s necessary to have or buy a pressure canner and jars to can many vegetables, all meats and soups – that can be a big investment upfront. One way to get around this is to see if you can borrow someone’s canner for the weekend. That way you can do your beans all at once and see if you enjoy the process enough to purchase your own canner.

It’s necessary to have somewhere to store the canner and to store all those lovely jars of food, as well as the empty jars once the food is gone. Learn more about how much space you need to store canned food.  Canning food does limit future preparation somewhat – once you’ve canned vegetables, it’s pretty much impossible to sauté or roast them. This will be true for any canned food, so choose both foods and canning recipes that you’ll actually want to eat and be able to use in your kitchen. If you hate the taste and texture of canned potatoes, then don’t waste your time on them. Store your potatoes a different way and use your canning resources for something else you’ll actually use.

Buying a pressure canner

If I didn’t already have a pressure canner, putting up beans wouldn’t have been nearly so cost effective. It would have taken me a few years to amortize the cost of the pressure canner. If you want to invest in a pressure canner, the most cost effective way is to buy one used. Check Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist or eBay. Pressure canners are very well made and can last decade if cared for. Be sure to check the ring and gaskets and have the gauge checked at your local extension if you buy a used canner. Looking for a new pressure canner? This is the modern version of the Presto canner I use (mine is from 1977!).

Growing the food you can

Eventually, I hope to have enough space to grow most or all of my beans for canning, which will reduce the cost even further.

Which brings me to my final point. I chose to address whether canning food is worth it through the lens of purchasing raw produce. If you’ve grown the food yourself, the cost benefit analysis of canning it will probably be quite different. This is especially true if you’re able to can garden surplus and use it in the winter!

All in all, I’m really pleased with the process, I’m happy to have put up so much food and I’d definitely do it again.

*If you either have canning jars and a pressure cooker or are willing and able to sink some cash into this with an eye to long term food preservation

I updated this post to add a link to two new articles. How Much Space Do you Need to Store Food? and What Supplies do you Need to Store Food? Both have a lot of useful information to help you further evaluate canning and food preservation. In addition to all of the concerns about time and money I’ve covered here, it’s also worth considering if you have what you’ll need to store your canned food and other bulk food items.

For the expert or the novice, find all the cooking, canning and food preparation supplies you need at Lehman’s.

What do you think? Is canning food worth it? Please leave a comment and let me know if you’ve decided to give canning a try or if you think I’m off the mark on my conclusion!