Over the last few years we’ve done a lot of canning, and learned a lot in the process.
First, this is not rocket science. I did actual rocket science back in cold war days, so I know. You can nonetheless kill yourself or your family and friends, so take care in what you do.
Like most everyone else, we started with the Ball water bath canning kit. There’s nothing wrong with this, unless you already have a pot big enough to boil several quart jars in. If so, just buy the Ball Blue Book and the tongs. The included pot is not very good, and the polycarbonate debubbling tool works just as well as a table knife.
The Blue Book will more than get you started. Ninety percent of what you’ll ever want to know is in it. Its’ recommendations do change from time to time, and the real food safety freaks say you should buy a new copy every year. I can’t manage to agree. Ball celebrated its 125th anniversary a few years ago. Any changes now are fine tuning. Every three or four years you’ll have spilled enough sticky stuff on it to justify a new copy.
Extension is of course your local land grant universty’s cooperative extension service. The national center for home food preservation is run by the University of Georgia extension for the USDA. It has information about all sorts of food preservation as well as canning. It’s a great site.
Homecanning.com needs a bit of explanation. Once upon a time, there were several companies that made and sold home canning equipment. Over the course of the 20th century they went out of business one by one, and Ball bought their assets. For whatever reason, Ball continued to use the Kerr brand name as well as its own, the other names are gone. Ball has always been a glass company rather than a food company. In the 1980s, they were making most of their money doing high tech glass like CRT tubes, rather than canning stuff, which was becoming a distraction. However, the canning stuff was, and is, a reliable cash cow, and a liveliehood for several hundred people.
So being decent midwesterners (Indiana), and smart business people, rather than a private equity fund (Hi Mitt) they set the canning operation up as a separate company named Jarden Brands and spun it off to their stockholders. So basically all the canning hardware in North America comes from Jarden Brands, no matter what the label is. Besides Ball and Kerr, they also make a budget line of canning jars called Golden Harvest. If you heft one next to a Ball jar, you can definitely tell the difference. However, after several years of use, Golden Harvest is quite good enough. The Ball and Kerr jars are simply over-engineered. All canning jars are called ‘Mason Jars’, I don’t know why, and all pieces are fully interchangeable.
Ball and Kerr quart jars have embossing on all four sides, while Golden Harvest jars are only embossed on two. If you are selling honey or maple syrup, the smooth sides are handy for labels, and, since you’ll never see the jars again, the lower cost is money in your pocket. A case of 12 Golden Harvest quarts is about nine bucks at WalMart, the only source I know. Ball or Kerr run about twelve bucks a case. All brands include one-time lids. Plastic maple syrup jugs are about two bucks each. Plastic honey bears are price competitive in large lots.
Ball also sells plastic screw on lids for use when you don’t need a seal. Not only is this good for leftovers, but jars without shoulders are rated for freezing as well. That would be wide mouth pints, and wide or regular half pints. Wide mouth quarts do have a shoulder, and are thus not recommended for freezing, but we’ve done it, and so far have gotten away with it. Still, if it’s my reputation, I too will recommend against it. If you have free plastic from your local deli or Chinese restaurant, go for it, but if you’re looking at buying plastic freezer ware, canning jars are better value for the money, and no BPA.
Anyway, waterbath canning, which simply means submerging in boiling water for a while, is adequate for high acid foods like pickles and tomatoes, and high sugar foods like jams and jellies. Honey and maple syrup are also high sugar. If you are selling, check your state’s regulations, but here in New Hampshire, honey just needs a lid. In New Hampshire, and also in Vermont, the procedure for maple syrup is to put it into the jar at 180F or higher, put the lid on, and invert the jar for a few seconds to sterilize the bottom of the lid. The lid will seal as the syrup cools. I understand that in Minnesotta one must can by ritual in a commercial kitchen. If you want to make good, safe, maple syrup would you ask the Minnesotta or Vermont Department of Agriculture? I thought so.
When you want to can things which are neither acid nor sweet, which would be stock or most vegetables, you need a pressure canner. Yes, it’s basically like a pressure cooker except bigger and powered by your stove rather than plugged in. The principle either way is to be able to heat the food much higher than the regular 212°F/100°C boiling point of water. The blue book has all the recipes The biggest generally available home pressure canner is the 23 quart model from Presto. Unfortunately, it only takes seven quart jars, or a variable number of smaller ones. If you are seriously trying to put away food for a winter, this is a drag. Suggestions solicited. If however you can delay your canning till heating season. you do get a twofer on your energy bill. The canner also make a great stock or chili pot, much larger than you’ll find at most stores.
If you get into canning at all, you will soon get tired of the price of one-use lids at your local store. I bought several hundred on EBay a few years ago for far less. I got a USPS flat rate box carefully stuffed with both regular and wide mouth lids. The only issue is that we have run out of regular lids with almost 200 wide mouth lids left. I suspect this is because we can ridiculous amounts of both citrus juice and stock, and preferentially use regular lids for both. Anything you can can in a regular lid you can do in wide mouth, but not vice versa. Therefore….
This year we have started using the Tattler reusable canning lids for regular mouth applications. We probably still have enough wide mouth disposables for the 2012 season. They cost something like 8 times what a one time lid does, but the way we do grapefruit juice and stock, that’s maybe two years. They are not USDA approved, but so far, I am completely satisfied, and I’m up to 4 uses and counting. I’m not going to use them for maple syrup, because I’m not sure they will seal as well with the quick flip, and I won’t sell them on honey because I don’t feel like throwing away 75 cents, but we can close to a thousand jars a year. I’m comfortable eating stuff canned this way.