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 into whether it’s worth it to can food, here’s my breakdown of canning 24 pounds of green beans in 2 days. This article includes my costs, my time and whether I’d do it again. You an apply these observations to just about any food you’re considering canning to see if it’s worth it for you. The first version I wrote focused more directly on whether canning green beans was worth it. I have made edits since then to do a better job of generalizing the cost-benefit analysis to any food.
Part one covers the actual process of pressure canning green beans. So be sure to check that out if you need to know how to can green beans.
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. And to help you plan your canning, here’s my take on the pros and cons of canning food, with some solutions to dealing with some of the drawbacks to canning.
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.
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Does canning save money? Is canning cost effective?
Is canning cost effective? Canning jars and lids cost money and buying a large quantity of fresh food costs money up front.
For me, it came down to this: would the canned green 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 in the summer versus buying them fresh over the course of the year is a beans to beans comparison…
A quick caveat:
If you don’t regularly buy a food at the store (or plan to), then canning isn’t cost effective for that food, unless the following is true: you already have everything you need, including plenty of jars and lids AND you’re not paying for the raw food. If you have more than enough lids and jars and the food is free (either from your garden or somewhere else), go on and can it, unless you know for sure you don’t like the food or won’t eat it.
How much does it cost to can food?
There are two costs in canning food – the sunk cost of jars, lids, bands and other canning equipment and the recurring cost of the food itself.
The biggest variable in canning costs is the raw food. If you buy the food you’re canning, that will obviously impact the canning costs. If you’re growing it yourself, you won’t have the same out of pocket expense, though there will still be costs associated with gardening.
Buying food to can
For the purposes of this exercise, I’m looking at canning fresh green beans that I purchased rather than grew myself.
Green beans were in season, so I was able to buy them 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 fresh beans in season. But is it cheaper to buy fresh green beans in season and can them, rather than just buying imported fresh green beans all year long?
If you read How to Can Green Beans, then you’ll know the general estimate is 2 pounds of raw beans per quart. Well, it turns out the Romano beans I bought are bigger and denser, so each quart jar held less than a pound packed. Even the regular string 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 purchased 24 pounds of raw beans, expecting it 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 in fresh beans. 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
Each time I can, I’ll have to buy new disposable lids or use a Tattler reusable lid. So add about $.35 to the cost per jar for single use lids, around $1.25 for a reusable lid.
Purchasing lids brings the cost for a quart of beans to $1.90, give or take price changes in lids, for single-use lids and $2.85 for a quart with a reusable lid.
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.
If you need to buy jars, assume each jar will cost around $1, if you buy jars early in the season before the prices go up.
But you only need to buy jars once, unless yours break or get damaged. So while the first quart might cost an additional $1 for the jar and $.35-$1.25 for the lid (total of $1.35 – $2.25), that cost will end up spread out. The more times you use the jar (and the reusable lid, if that’s the route you go), the further you’re spreading that initial cost out.
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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!
The actual process of breaking the beans down is time consuming and there’s no multi-tasking there.
But a lot of that 10 hours included waiting for water to boil (over and over) or 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. But…friends, I didn’t realize my canner could hold more quarts per load than I was putting in! I actually only have needed to run four loads, saving me over two hours. That would have made my total canning time 8 hours instead of 10. 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.
The best canning books and books about food preservation
The All New Ball Book is my favorite canning book. In addition to providing sound instruction, it has really interesting recipes and it offers guidance on how to use the food you’ve canned in other recipes. I really like their ‘meals in a jar’ recipes, which include some tasty variations on canned vegetables and meats. Remember, canning isn’t just a way to preserve food – it’s also a great way to prepare food in advance.
If you only buy one canning book, that’s the one I recommend. Click on any of the books to order your own copy through Bookshop. Buying from Bookshop means I receive an affiliate credit (at no cost to you), which helps cover the costs of producing content. Bookshop robustly supports local, independent bookstores.
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 IF it’s a food you’ll eat regularly.
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.
What about commercially canned green beans?
Someone commented on this post to ask why I didn’t compare the merits and costs of home canned green beans to commercially canned green beans. The answer is because we were not in the habit of buying commercially canned green beans. If we had previously been eating commercially canned green beans, then that comparison would have been useful. Our grocery bill included purchasing fresh green beans regularly, so I wanted to compare buying and canning fresh beans to simply buying fresh beans out of season.
If you regularly buy and eat commercially canned green beans, then you may prefer to compare the cost of a can to the costs of canning them yourself.
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 also 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!
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 and some fruits – 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
More resources to help you plan your canning season and food storage
Check out the pros and cons of canning food to learn more about the benefits and drawbacks of canning. While you don’t have to use every scrap of food when you can, learning how to can with less waste is helpful. And I encourage you to check out using reusable canning lids to cut your canning costs and reduce waste.
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!
I also recommend making a few batches of pickled or “dilly beans”. You won’t be disappointed and they make a fantastic, crunchy, snack all year round!
Dilly beans so sound good! I’m hoping to grow more beans myself next year and I definitely want to put up a few jars of those.
My job as a kid was to snap the ends off of the green beans and for me nothing tastes better than home canned
Jeff, that’s a fantastic memory! I’ll admit that snipping beans is my least favorite part of eating them, whether I’m canning them or not! But it’s SO worth it, the flavor is incomparable. Do you have a favorite variety? I love Romanos but I’m going to try a couple of heirloom pole varieties next year, too.
I found the pressure canner made mushy beans. I used a waterbath canning the but to do it safely using acidification adjusting the Ph to below 4.6 using a brine of water, white vinegar and salt. You CANNOT taste the acid and the beans are NOT soft. They taste like freshly cooked.. The brine starts with a Ph lower than 4.6. I used a Ph meter. I’m out of town
Hi John – I know that texture is a big concern for pressure canned vegetables, so I can understand looking for other options. It would be great if methods for adding acid to non-acidic foods were tested to determine if such a practice can be quantified and done safely. Unfortunately, there are not currently any methods for water bath canning low-acid foods that have been tested and declared safe. It’s important people who are not experienced canners know that there are risks to deviating from established, tested canning method or recipes. I strongly encourage anyone who is planning to can do so using only approved canning methods.
Why not compare the cost, flavor, color, texture etc of home canned vs. store bought canned and frozen green beans? Because real people who are busy and want to save will buy what’s available in stores. Not everyone has a place to grow a garden. People will buy fresh in the store and just go cook them and eat , and not take the time and work to preserve them.
Hi Carolyn – Thanks for your comment.
I chose to focus on a direct comparison between purchasing fresh beans year round or buying or growing fresh beans in season and canning those. We don’t buy or use frozen or commercially canned green beans, so the comparison wouldn’t have been a useful one relative to own household. Someone with different purchasing or consumption habits could look at a comparison of those factors instead.
My primary aim in breaking down the process of canning a year’s worth of green beans for our household was to help other people who do can food decide if green beans were a good option for them. No matter how enthusiastic someone is about growing and/or preserving food, they likely still have a limited number of jars and space, a limited budget and limited time. For some people those resources might be better used canning extra tomatoes or jams or something else their household would get more value from. With this post, they have at least some information to help them consider their options.
Thanks for stopping by, Carolyn. I hope you’ll visit often.
I canned 24 quarts of green beans this fall. They were given to me and I was thrilled to get them! I grew up on home canned food and learned how to preserve food from my mother. My father always raised a big garden. We canned and froze everything! I already had the jars, rings, and pressure canner. So all I had to buy was the kids. I love home canned green beans!! They are much better than the ones bought in the stores.
Diane, I’m so glad you shared that! My grandparents had a garden and grew and canned all their green beans when I was a kid. I was happy to can my own this year and carry on that tradition. And so far we’ve been really happy with the flavor and texture – that was my one hesitation about canning beans. Thanks for visiting, I hope you’ll come back again soon!
I canned 20 qt I grew in my garden this year ! I haven’t canned since I helped mom as a kid ? Tried the first qt during Thanksgiving ! FANTASTIC !!! I’ll sure do more next year ! Hard part is snapping the beans into 1.5-2″ pieces ! I remember mom pooing a big bowl of popcorn and kids in town coming over to eat popcorn and help snap beans ! She did about 150 qt a year !
Hi Scott – I agree, the snapping and prepping beans is the worst part! But what I liked about canning all my beans at once is that I could just get that part over with. It’s so nice now to just open a jar and heat it up. And I have found the flavor to be excellent so far, which was a concern I’d had. Both the straight beans and the Romanos have held both their flavor and texture so well. Your mom is amazing for canning 150 quarts, thank goodness she had help!
Sorry that was popping corn lol
hahahah, as typos go, that’s a pretty good one :D. Thanks for stopping by, Scott, I hope you’ll visit often!
I think home canning is the best… you know what is inside the container and you can make favorite recipes. I have a favored recipe for pickled jalapenos, yum. I don’t can quarts anymore now my family grew up, so a couple years ago I added 8 oz jars and fell in love with preserving food all over again. I now use my quart jars to store dry potatoes, beans and grains… a boon here in the country in my battle against field mice. Having things beautifully and safely stored in my spare bedroom is awesome.
I hope the new canning enthusiasts get truly hooked and it isn’t just a fad… my garden and preserving food has given me satisfaction for 50 years. I added a dehydrator and most of my soup ingredients are dehydrated these days.
Add in my new salad wall for fresh greens all winter!
Hi Rebecca – I agree, it’s lovely to look at a nicely organized stash of food and preserves. It’s a very comforting and satisfying feeling. This is the first year I’ve canned green beans but I’ve got my go-to recipes for pickles, jams, and other foods and I agree, I don’t care for store bought any more. I also think you’re right that when you home can or dry food, you know what’s in it, and that’s a real benefit. It will be interesting to see how many people who took up canning this year return to it year after year – I suspect many will fall in love with it. And even if they don’t carry on each year, they may return to it over time. Thanks for coming by and for offering your comments, Rebecca. I hope you’ll visit often.
I’ve been canning for years. I love my beans, and salt is a must. I enjoy every part of canning. It’s not like work to me. Luckily I have a big supply of jars and bands. Hopefully the shortage of seals will pass.
Yes! I think the shortage will resolve itself in 2021, that was the hardest part of canning this year. I agree that although it’s a lot of labor, canning doesn’t feel like work to me. It feels like a really satisfying, rewarding task. I agree about the salt! Now that I understand my grandparents didn’t put salt in their beans, I realize why I never liked them! I’m glad you shared your thoughts, Terry, I hope you’ll come back often!