Monday, June 17, 2013

Canning for Stoopidheads

As I mentioned previously, I've always wanted to can, but have always harbored a secret fear of it. All the jar-boiling and processing became terribly intimidating in my head and scared me away from attempting it. Finally, this past Thursday I overcame my fears and gave it a shot.

Thanks to a pile of books and a host of resources open on my Internet browser, I managed to can two cars of jam successfully, albeit not without some hairy scary moments involving hot water and glass jars. But now that I'm no longer a canning virgin, I have new-found confidence. Plus I learned a lot from all my various resources, and now I'm going to record them here so I can refer to them easily whenever I can (and there will be more times).

If you've ever contemplated canning, I hope this comes in handy for you, too. It turns out that canning is not as scary and mysterious as you might think,

Four Steps

Based on my one experience, I plan to approach my next canning adventure via these four steps:
  1. Preparing the ingredients for the stuff.
  2. Preparing the canning tools and sterilizing the jars and lids.
  3. Making stuff to go in the jars (in my case, delicious jam).
  4. Processing the stuff in the jars.

There are timing issues involved, which was one of my anxiety points, but in retrospect those timing issues are not difficult to handle. So, the steps.

Step 1: Prepping Ingredients for the Stuff

It may be your recipe is easy-peasy to throw together. OR you might need to pit a million billion cherries. Especially in the latter case, it is a good idea to gather your ingredients and prep them (pit them, chop them, measure them) so that they are ready to go when you are ready to make your stuff.

Step 2: The Canning Prep

A. Gather all your handly tools and wash them.

  • Jar tongs. These will make it possible to manuever your jars in and out of hot water with safety and ease.
  • Jar lifter. This little wand with a magnet on the end allows you to lift and move the jar lids in and out of hot water and onto your jars without touching them and possibly contaminating the finished product.
  • Canning funnel. Lets you fill your jars without spilling stuff on the hot jars and most importantly on the rims, which could interfere with sealing.
  • Ladle. Any old ladle, for filling up your jars.
  • Rack or other something to rest jars on when you can. Resting the jars on the bottom of the pot you use to can exposes the jars to direct heat from the stove and increases the chances of EXPLOSIONS! However, you don't have to buy a special canning rack; any rack (like a cake cooling rack) that fits your pot will do. I've also read of folks using dishtowels folded over several times, or silverware, or (in the case of someone's grandma) little pieces of kindling.

B. Sterilize your jars.

This is where I started getting shaky, what with the hot boiling water and glass. It's not that bad.
  1. Wash all your jars and lids and bands in hot soapy water.
  2. Dry bands and set aside; they do not require sterilization.
  3. Get a pot large enough to hold all the jars you want to sterilize. This does NOT have to be a canner; you can use the same pot later to process your jars of stuff.
  4. Put your rack or rack substitute in the pot.
  5. Put your jars in the pot on top of the rack or rack substitute, then completely fill and cover with water.
  6. Bring pot to a boil on the stove. When the water reaches a rolling boil, THEN start the timer for 15 minutes and let the jars boil. (My recipe said 10 minutes, but I'll err on the side of caution.)
  7. After the time is up, turn off the heat. If your stuff isn't ready to go in the jars yet, leave the jars in the hot water to stay hot. (You need your jars to be hot when you put hot stuff into them or you risk the jars 'sploding,) The jars can be held for up to an hour in the hot water; beyond that, they must be resterilized.
  8. The lids... I'm getting conflicting information. My instructions (which I followed) had you boil them for 10 minutes and hold in hot water. I've seen others that said not to boil them. I'll stick with boiling them for now.
  9. Have a clean dishcloth spread on the counter; when you remove the jars, put them here, right side up.
  10. When you are ready to use a jar, use the amazing jar tongs to carefully lift it from the hot water, empty, and put on the clean dishcloth.

Step 3: Make the Stuff

Now you have your prep work done, and you can can as soon as you have made some stuff. In fact, once you get the jars in the hot water, you could go ahead and start making your stuff. Be sure to think about how long it will take your jars to boil and how long it will take to make your stuff, remembering that the jars can rest in the hot water for up to an hour if everything (as is likely) isn't ready at exactly the same time.

Important things to note in your recipe:
  • Required processing time.
  • Required headspace in jar. Headspace is the mimimun amount of space you should leave at the top of the jar when you put your stuff in it. The purpose of headspace is to leave extra room for your stuff to expand during processing. Thus, it's okay to leave a little more headspace, but not less. Notice I said "little": you don't want to double the headspace or have half a jar full; that's inviting bacteria growth, according to the Interwebs.

Step 4: Can the Stuff

You've got stuff and you've got hot jars. Time to can!
  1. Put canning funnel in canning jar.
  2. Ladle your stuff into the funnel and fill the jar.
  3. Ensure the jar is filled to leave the proper minimum headspace (for my jam, 1/4 inch).
  4. Using your nifty lid lifter, transfer a hot lid from the hot water onto the top of the filled jar.
  5. Put a band onto the jar and screw on, but not too tight--"finger-tight" was a term I read that I found useful. (I left the magnetic lid lifter on the jar lid until I'd screwed on the band.)
  6. Use the jar tongs to carefully lower the filled jars into the already hot water bath on top of the rack or rack substitute, turn up the heat, and put the lid on the canner.
  7. When the water reaches the boiling point, let the jars boil (process) for the amount of time specified in your recipe.
  8. When the time is up, turn off the heat, carefully remove the jars using the jar tongs, and set them back on the clean dishcloth to cool for 24 hours.
  9. Did you hear any "pops"? That the sound of your jars sealing--yay! You can check by pressing your finger on top of the lid: if it can be pressed down and then pops back up, the jar has not sealed. You should probably just eat all the jam in that jar right now. Or you could put in the fridge and share it with your family for the next few weeks. But whatever you do, don't put it on the shelf with the sealed jars or it will spoil. Yuck!

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