Canning gets a lot of press in the summer as home canners and gardeners start filling those iconic glass jars up with jam, salsa, chutney and much more. It’s very appealing to see ‘pantry porn’ – photos showing off rows of beautiful jars of food, all beautifully labeled and ready to eat. And who doesn’t enjoy eating some homemade jam or farm fresh salsa? But what’s the real deal with canning food at home? Is canning food at home safe? Does the food taste good? Do you need a ton of special equipment to can food? And what about pressure canners, aren’t those things hard to use and really dangerous? Here’s the truth about canning and all the pros and cons of canning food.
Spoiler: There pros outweigh the cons AND I’ve got some great suggestions to help you beat the cons! Read on and learn why canning is cool.
What you need to know about canning food at home
Canning might be the most iconic of all the food preservation methods. It conjures images of serene grandmas, apron-clad, patiently filling jar after jar in a hot kitchen. Or perhaps you imagine a dark cellar full of shelves of glass canning jars. Or, unfortunately, you might hear about canning food and picture dangerous food borne illnesses, mushy vegetables or exploding pressure canners.
The good news about canning food is that you don't have to be a farm granny with a big cellar or resign yourself to slimy green beans. Canning is a safe and delicious way to store food but there are a few things you need to know.
How does canning food work?
First, it would really be more accurate to describe home canning as 'jarring' but that's just not the term we use. Food is packed into a clean, warm glass jar. Then a lid (either single-use or reusable) and metal band are placed on the jar. The jar is processed in boiling water or a pressure canner to heat the contents and the jar itself to the boiling point or beyond. The process kills bacteria in the jar or the food and creates a vacuum which seals the jar. When done correctly, canned food is shelf-stable and lasts for a minimum of 18 months.
Water bath canning versus pressure canning
There are two methods of processing home canned food. In water bath processing, acidic foods like fruits or pickles are simply submerged in boiling water for a preset length of time. The acid in the food prevents dangerous botulism from surviving and the boiling water kills other bacteria while creating the vacuum seal. Foods that are low acid, like vegetables and meat, must be processed under pressure. The pressure allows the food in the jar to heat past the boiling point, which is necessary to kill spores that cause botulism.
The two processing methods are not interchangeable. In order to can safely, follow a tested canning recipe exactly as written. The recipe will include the method of processing as well as the ingredients and processing time.
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Pros of preserving food by canning
Canning is versatile!
Many people think of making and canning jams, pickles or tomato products but you can also can meat, grains, beans and soup. You can even can entire meals in a jar! Between water bath and pressure canning, almost any fruit or vegetable can be preserved in a jar. And there are more and more safe canning recipes available every year, so you don't necessarily have to settle for minimally flavored green beans or sugary sweet jams.
Canning isn't just a form of food preservation, it's also a method of food preparation, so it will save you time down the line.
Fruits and vegetables need to be cleaned and processed before they're canned, yes. But those same foods likely need the same or similar preparation before cooking, too. Many foods are at least partially cooked before they are placed in the jar. Even if a food is raw packed, the canning process cooks the food. Because of this, most home canned food comes out of the jar ready to eat or use. Think of canning as a form of batch cooking.
Many foods can be canned without immediately investing in special gear like a pressure canner.
This makes canning a very accessible way to preserve garden produce. If you have a large stock pot, you only need a few more inexpensive tools to be able to water bath can food. It's very easy to find canning supplies, whether you order them online or buy them locally. Most grocery stores, mega retailers and even hardware stores sell canning supplies.
Canning food is a very inexpensive method of preserving food.
This is especially if you grow some of your own food. And there are lots of way to Save Money on Canning Supplies. While purchasing or acquiring a supply of canning jars and lids certainly may be a sizeable investment up front, you can keep using those jars year after year. That upfront cost will amortize itself out in just a couple of seasons. And if you buy reusable canning lids, you'll be able to recoup the cost for those very quickly. Within a few years, your annual costs to can food will be quite minimal.
The learning curve for canning food is low
While even experienced canners will tell you they're constantly learning new tricks and techniques, the basics of water bath canning are pretty easy even for a novice canner. And there are tons of teaching resources, from online canning classes to books to websites (like mine and others!). Using a pressure canner can feel intimidating but they're honestly very easy to operate and, again, there are lots of cheap and free resources to help you learn.
Canned food is shelf-stable and requires no additional energy to store
As soon as they seal, those jars are shelf-stable. That means that as long as your home or storage area is consistently between 45 and 85 degrees and not subject to excessive moisture, the food will stay safe to eat for at least 18th months. Storing your canned food won't increase your power bill or require space in the refrigerator or freezer.
Jars of canned food are compact and space efficient
Any form of food storage takes up some space, of course. While dried or dehydrated food is the most space-saving, canned food isn't too far behind. Each jar holds a reasonable amount of food for the footprint the jar takes up and the jars fit together nicely on shelves. Full canning jars can easily weigh 2-3 pounds, so it's important to distribute the weight carefully but it's still a very compact way to fit a lot of food in a small amount of space.
Cons of preserving food by canning
Canning food has a lot going for it but there are definitely some drawbacks to canning. The good news is that most of these can be overcome with a little advance planning or troubleshooting.
The texture of canned food can get a little funky
Arguably the biggest drawback to canning food is the change in food texture. There's no denying the fact that in order to safely can food, the food has to boil in the jar (or heat past boiling, if it's pressure canned), which softens the tissues. For some foods, like carrots or pork shoulder, this isn't a big deal. But it can be challenging to preserve the desirable crisp texture of other foods, like cucumbers. And forget about canning high-water content foods like zucchini - it simply becomes mush!
How to minimize texture changes when canning food:
1. Carefully follow the instructions. While it might not seem like a big deal if your headspace isn't quite right or if you don't follow the guidelines for cutting or preparing the food, those things can change the texture of the final product (not to mention the recipe's safety!). Cutting food too large or too small will affect the cooking time, which affects the final texture.
2. Choose the best quality raw ingredients. That means freshly picked, very crisp vegetables, perfectly ripened fruit and high quality cuts of meat. Choose produce that is at the appropriate stage of growth and ripeness. For example, the larger a cucumber, the less crisp it will be. So if you want crunchy pickles, be sure you start with small, crisp cukes.
3. Have realistic expectations. However much we'd like to, NO food preservation method can capture the splendor of freshly harvested produce. There's no comparison between green beans cooked the day they were picked and those that have been frozen or canned. But I promise you those homegrown green beans will still taste a lot better in January when you pop open a jar than the out of season 'fresh' beans or commercially canned or frozen versions.
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Canning recipes can be limited and limiting, especially if you're use to tweaking recipes when you cook
It is absolutely critical to use only lab tested canning recipes when you preserve food this way. Changing recipes or making up your own can be truly dangerous since it can allow harmful bacteria to develop in the food. While some recipes offer options for subbing or omitting ingredients, most require very specific ratios of raw materials. If you're used to chucking fresh ingredients into the food processor in whatever quantity you'd like to make your signature tomato sauce, you may feel very disheartened by your first attempt at canned sauce.
How to deal with restrictive canning recipes:
1. There's no doubt that having to follow a recipe to the letter can be a bit of a downer for some of us. One way to handle this is can ingredients instead of finished recipes. By that, I mean try canning plain tomato sauce or puree or diced tomatoes. Then use those when you're ready to make a batch of marinara or salsa. Yes, it will be a little more work on the tailend of the process, but it will give you back a lot of creative control.
2. Try a variety of canning recipes until you find one you like. While there may not be a salsa recipe that's exactly what you'd like, you can probably find one that you enjoy. It might take a few test batches but it's worth it.
3. Look for canning recipes that offer some flexibility. Some things will be non-negotiable but many recipes do include instructions for subbing ingredients or making other changes safely.
Safe canning recipes sometimes require the addition or omission of ingredients or techniques that adversely affect flavor
In order to be a safe recipe, you may find you have to add things like lemon juice or vinegar (to properly acidify the contents). Or you have to leave out flavor enhancers like garlic or fresh herbs. And 'combo' recipes (like salsa, succotash or soup) have very specific ratios of ingredients that must be maintained. In some cases, things that make a recipe safe can also make it less palatable. Any safe salsa recipe, for instance, will require either lemon or lime juice or vinegar*, and in fairly large quantities. Further, the salsa has to be simmered, which also changes the flavor. There's a limit to the volume of garlic you can add to most canning recipes, which can be a pain if you're used to piling it on. The list goes on.
How to handle canning recipes when you don't like all the ingredients
1. Look for recipes that offer substitutions or swaps. While any tomato recipe will require acidifiers (as noted above), you can often sub lemon juice for vinegar (not the reverse, though) OR you can include an appropriate amount of citric acid, which has no flavor. You might not be able to add six cloves of garlic to every jar of sauce, but you might be able to add as much dried garlic (or other dried herbs or spices) as you want. And you can generally always swap out types of ingredients. If you don't like yellow onions, for instance, you can usually use red onions instead.
2. Try to find a recipe that includes less of an ingredient you don't care for. There are a lot of canning recipes out there, you may be able to track down one that uses a different proportion of ingredients. And my advice to can your food as ingredients instead of finished dishes holds true for this, too.
3. Consider other methods of food preservation if you just can't find a canning safe recipe you like. If you simply cannot find a safe canned salsa recipe that you enjoy, it's ok to freeze your salsa instead. Of if your water bath canned pickles are simply not crisp enough, try making refrigerator pickles or fermented pickles instead. Sometimes looking for an alternative method is the best way to ensure you'll be able to enjoy your food.
You must use only actual canning jars, lids and bands
You might have seen people on the internet reusing commercial food jars to home can food. While I am all about reusing and repurposing packaging, this isn't the way. If you're going to can food, follow a safe, tested canning recipe and use legit canning jars, new lids (unless you bought reusable lids) and rings. This does mean that in order to safely can food, you have to acquire these very specific items, which can represent an initial investment.
Sorry, friends, I don't have a workaround for this particular con. Using the right jars and other equipment, as well as proper processing methods and recipes is just how safe canning works. I'm happy to skirt the rules most of the time but not when health and safety are at risk. The good news is that canning jars are infinitely reusable and not just for canning food.
Canning jars and lids can sometimes be hard to find
Anyone who tried to buy canning supplies in 2020 experienced this! But although the huge increase in demand for jars and lids caused a serious shortage in 2020, it's not a one-off occurrence. Many stores carry canning jars and other supplies but they don't necessarily have a huge stock of them. Once the year's inventory of wide-mouth pint jars sells out, for example, that may be it for the season.
What to do when you can't find canning jars or canning lids
1. First and foremost, can with a plan. That means having some idea of your canning goals for the year so you can purchase jars, lids and other supplies early. One way to do that is to use my Canning Planner (yes,that's a cheap plug - but it's an easy and inexpensive tool that can help you). No matter how you do it, try to have at least a rough idea of how much food you'd like to can long before summer arrives. Then buy or order your supplies early, when they're easy to find and cheaper.
2. Hold onto your vegetables. Planning is ideal but obviously things change. Maybe canning wasn't even on your radar until you saw a friend putting up summer preservers. Or maybe you ended up with more food than you planned for and ran out of jars. If you truly cannot find what you need, or the price is ludicrously high, the best thing to do is...wait. If possible, put that extra produce in the freezer and wait a few weeks or months until you can find what you need. While this won't work for everything, many fruits and vegetables can be frozen until you're ready to process them. In fact, many people use this technique to balance out a busy garden and harvest season. They simply hold onto their produce until the summer rush is past, then can at their leisure.
As a nice bonus, tomatoes are really easy to peel once they've been frozen! Read more about techniques for peeling tomatoes and canning tomatoes with less waste
There's a risk your canning jars won't seal or other canning disasters will ruin your food
It's darned disappointing to check your new jars of food and discover some lids didn't form a seal. And there's no mess quite like a jar full of food breaking while in the canner. While canning food is relatively simple and formulaic, there are still times things just don't go as expected. Sometimes this means simply re-heating the food, putting into a clean, hot jar and reprocessing it. But other times, there's no way to recover from the disaster - which means you've lost time, resources and food.
What to do if your canning jars didn't seal or you have other canning disasters
1. If it's a full-on jar explosion, all you can do is clean up and move on. It's sad but true. If your jars are intact but simply did not seal, you have a couple of options. For foods that can tolerate a second round of heat, just open the jars, heat the contents and repeat the canning process. It's a little tedious but you can generally save your food. Just be sure to use new canning lids, unless you're working with reusable lids. Re-processing works great for jams and jellies, broth, salsas and chutneys and most sauces. It's not great for pickles or vegetables, since that second processing can turn them to mush.
2. For foods that won't handle a second processing (or if you just don't want to redo your previous work), look for other ways to store the food. Some things, like jam or salsa, will freeze well. Foods that shouldn't be frozen, like pickles, will keep for months in the fridge. Cooked vegetables should either be refrigerated and eaten soon or turned into something else, like pureed soup (which should not be canned). Or, look for other canning recipes that use cooked ingredients.
Pros and cons of canning food - in conclusion
If you've made it this far, you might think the cons really outweigh the benefits of canning food. But hopefully you can also see that while there are some drawbacks to canning food, there are plenty of ways to mitigate most of them! No method of food preparation or food preservation is foolproof and there will always be some limitations and drawbacks. But in my opinion, canning remains one of the simplest and most versatile food preservation methods around. If you're looking to boost your home food security, reduce your grocery bills and enjoy homegrown food all year long, canning really can't be beat.
If you're wondering if canning food is worth it....here's my breakdown of the time and cost for canning 25 pounds of green beans.