The Art of Canning: A How-To | Civil Eats

The Art of Canning: A How-To


Even though supermarkets have made canning and preserving unnecessary, there is still something wonderfully fulfilling about preserving food yourself (and the results are MUCH tastier than anything you can buy in a grocery store.)

When my husband’s grandmother, Marcia, a great cook and remarkable woman who I loved, passed away a few years ago, I inherited her preserving cookbook, Putting Food By.

I treasure this worn book, not because the recipes are anything special, but because it is speckled by years of use and it includes her notes. Marcia kept a detailed record of everything she “put by” in its blank end pages.

Her notes include where she picked the fruits or vegetables (the names of farms and orchards which must have been near her home in Grafton, VT sprinkle the pages — Dutton’s, Warren’s, Harlow’s, Allen Brothers, and Lake Warren), comments on the crop (“good yield” or “small onions”), how much of each thing she made, as well as a few recipes, including one for homemade breakfast sausage. Marcia was a prolific canner — rhubarb, peas, applesauce, apple butter, tomatoes, onions, strawberry jam, blueberry jam, etc. She actually had to tape in a few extra pages to keep track of all her canning harvests.

Inspired by Marcia’s passion and armed with her annotated copy of Putting Food By, I have made a few forays into the world of canning. Though it may seem a little daunting at first (any endeavor that could result in botchulism probably seems a little daunting), it’s not particularly complicated or difficult. By and large, my efforts have been successful. Canning does require spending a lot of time over a very hot stove, but there is something incredibly rewarding about opening a jar of bright red tomato sauce or a pint of sweet golden peach halves in the dead of winter. The tastes of summer brighten the short, dark days of winter (no matter what coast you live on.)

In order to avoid poisoning your family and friends, you will need to follow a recipe closely. If this is something you are interested in, I’d strongly suggest buying or borrowing a canning and preserving cookbook (see below for some suggestions.) However, there are some basic steps that will be the same regardless of what you’re making. Hopefully, this little overview will help to make canning clearer and less intimidating.


  • Canner (basically a big pot – I use the boiling water method, though there is also something called “pressure canning” that uses a pressure cooker)
  • Canning rack (a rack that holds the jars in the canner)
  • Funnel (for pouring hot liquids into the jars)
  • Jar lifter (tool you use to grab the hot jars and lift them out of and into the boiling water in the canner)
  • Jar wrench (tool you use to tighten the lids)
  • Jars, tops, and lids (size will depend on what you’re canning and how you want to preserve it)
  • Clean dishtowel or two



Although the cooking times and packing instructions will vary depending on what you are making, there are some basic guidelines you’ll need to follow, no matter what you’re preserving.

1. Sterilization. You must sterilize your jars and lids by boiling them (though some recipes also suggest sterilizing them in a dishwasher) for 15 minutes before filling them. As long as the glass jars are not cracked, scratched, or compromised in any way, it’s fine to re-use them, however, the tops and lids cannot be used more than once – you must use new ones each time you can.

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2. Get Your Food HOT. It’s important to pack the jars hot. The jars should be hot from the boiling you just did to sterilize them and in most recipes, the food, itself (applesauce, tomato sauce, jam, etc.) should be bubbling hot on the stove when you pour it into the sterilized jars. Or, if you’re making something like dill pickles which you pack into the jars cold, the pickling liquid you’re using to fill the jars, should be boiling hot.

3. Acidity Levels. One of the keys to successful canning (meaning that whatever you make will NOT kill anyone!) is to follow the recipe/directions closely. In addition to all the boiling, the thing that will preserve the food you’re making is the amount of acid in the recipe. Some foods are naturally acidic and others are not. High-acid foods are easier to work with, while low-acid foods require longer cooking times (and possibly the use of a pressure canner which will cook them at a higher temperature than the hot water bath canner I use.) So it is important to follow the recipe and use the exact amount of the exact ingredients and cook at the exact temperature for the exact length of time.

4. Boiling Times. Boiling the filled jars for the appropriate amount of time is also important to ensure that no bacteria survive. The jars should be sealed tightly and you must leave enough headroom (usually half an inch though this may vary by recipe) to ensure that the food has room to expand in the heat without denting the jar tops and lids (and therefore destroying the seal). You must have enough water in the canner to cover the tops of the jars by two inches.

5. Slow, Even Cooling. Once you’ve boiled for the specified amount of time, you should remove the jars, and place them on a clean towel with enough space between them to allow air to circulate. All the recipes I’ve read say that they must be in a draft-free place. I believe this may be due to fears that a cold breeze could cause the hot jars to crack (but I am not 100% sure). Regardless, it’s easy enough, so just do it!

6. The Proof is in the “Pop”. As the jars cool, the lids should be sucked down by the contracting air in the bottle, resulting in a delightful popping noise as the jar seals. If the tops do not pop down, the seal has failed for some reason. But, as disheartening as it can be when a lid fails to pop, all is not lost, just eat the contents of that jar right away and keep it in the fridge.

7. Storage. Once the jars have cooled completely (let them cool overnight) and the lids have popped down, store them in a cool, dry, dark place. This will help keep the colors of the canned good from fading and help prevent the contents from spoiling.

8. Don’t Eat Anything Suspect. If any of the jar lids look misshapen or pushed up or if you notice mold, bubbles, cloudiness, bad smells, or oddly discolored food when you open the jars, do not eat them! Throw the contents (and the jar lids and tops) away.

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  1. Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving – you gotta figure that the makers of the glass jars know a thing or two about canning. I haven’t used this but it got rave reviews on Amazon.
  2. Farm Journal’s Freezing and Canning Cookbook – I have not used this but it looks to be one of the more popular options on Amazon.

Suggestions for other cookbooks are very welcome! Please just add them in the comments field.

Eve is the creator of The Garden of Eating, a blog about food--cooking it, eating it, and growing it. She has a legendary love of aprons and can often be found salivating over the fruits and veggies at one of the many farmers’ markets near her home in Woodstock, NY. Read more >

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  1. kirsten lindquist
    Love the post! Always a fan of canning. Btw, another way to deal with "unpopped" cans is to reinsert them into a boiling water bath for another 10 minutes to finish the process!
  2. Liz
    as a daughter of the famed Marcia referred to in this post, i can attest to the wonders of my mother's canning efforts. one of the things my sisters and i loved to do was be around during the canning of jam--especially currant jam from our currant bushes (that now reside at my sister's house in N Vermont.) As the jam boiled and bubbled, my mother would skim the foam off the top. The foam would cool and turn into a gooey residue that we loved to eat. Thanks for the memories, Eve!
  3. I'm asking for canning supplies for Christmas. I've got apple & pear butters, citrus curds, and rhubarb sauces I want to "put by."

    I've read that you can actually sterilize jars in the oven - less messy and less danger of spilling boiling water on yourself. You should also be able to reuse the screw-top part of the lids, just not the sealing circle.
  4. Great post!

    I've never attempted any of my own canning, but maybe now I'll be inspired to do so. :D

    I saw the little bit you wrote about breakfast sausage. What are your favorite brands? I really love Johnsonville sausages, but I may be biased because I work with them. :p

    I wanted to tell you all about our contest called Create Your Own Ville, has anyone heard of it? You can go online to register and enter to win $23,000 in cash and grilling prizes. Just visit

    Does anyone plan on entering?
  5. Thanks for the correction on the lids, Sarah. You're absolutely right. As long as they're not warped at all, you can reuse the bands but not the tops.

    But don't wait until Christmas! Take the plunge now when the picking is good. You can buy the full set of canning supplies at a hardware store and it's pretty cheap (I think maybe $30-$40 for everything?) I got mine at an ACE hardware and think that they tend to carry canning supplies.
  6. There is true delight in the 'POP' after hours of work, especially if you harvest, clean, prep, and can all in one afternoon. It's like a pat on the back after a day of hard work.
  7. Haha, yes well, I'm waiting until Christmas because I'm currently jobless and starting expensive grad school in the fall. Plus, space is at a premium in my teensy tiny apartment kitchen right now. Hopefully by late fall we'll be in a bigger place, even more hopefully with a place to plant a garden.

    If I get it at Christmas, I can use the cheap citrus fruits of winter to make and can curds (hopefully they can well), and then in the spring and next summer I can maybe can the fruits of my labor!

    I wouldn't mind reading more entries about how to "put food by," especially on how to store vegetables long-term without a root cellar. Any ideas?
  8. Hey Sarah,
    sounds like a good plan. I'd love to have more space, myself.

    As far as more things you can read about putting food by, here's a link to a post I wrote about that earlier this year:

    It includes a link to a NYTimes article about urban rootcellars and talks about two books you might like (though neither one is a how-to guide, exactly) -- Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (great descriptions of how her family preserved food -- really fascinating.)

    Good luck with your grad school, gardening and canning endeavors!
  9. I love Laura Ingalls Wilder! "Farmer Boy" was always my favorite because it talks about food. LIW got me started young as a foodie, I guess! I tried to read "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" a while back, but got stuck and gave up. Maybe I'll have to give it another go.

    And thanks for the links. The NYT article is amazing!

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