Yes, you CAN: A step-by-step guide to canning

Ashley Mann, discovery and engagement manager at Minnetrista, talks with residents about canning during the cultural center’s weekly farmers markets. Mann leads canning workshops and blogs to promote food preservation.

By Kate H. Elliott, photos by Brooke Kratzer

Ashley Mann is in the business of preserving lifelong memories. As discovery and engagement manager at Minnetrista, Mann churns up workshops and programs that encourage people of all ages to explore the world around them and enrich their lives.

The farm-raised Hoosier takes particular joy in facilitating canning workshops and blogging about food preservation on behalf of the cultural museum and nature area in Muncie, Indiana. The work, Mann said, stirs up memories of her youth—days spent in the kitchen with her mom, shucking corn and boiling preserves.

The South Bend native invited us to a recent canning demonstration, during which she and her colleagues prepared applesauce from the orchards of East Central Indiana. Applesauce, salsa and pickles are among the easiest recipes for beginning canners, Mann said, but she’s bottled “just about everything”—from meats to Mountain Dew jelly.

What is canning?

To put it simply, you fill a clean jar with prepared food, apply the flat lid and threaded ring to the jar and submerge the filled jar in boiling water for a prescribed amount of time (which varies, depending on the food). When you remove hot jars from the water bath, heat escapes, taking with it any air left in the jar. Escaping oxygen pulls the lid down to create an airtight seal.

A food-safe sealing compound embedded in each lid aids in the maintenance of the seal, allowing you to store canned goods at least a year.

Get in gear

There are as many products to help you can as there are foods to preserve. But at the very least, you’ll need: tongs, a wide-mouth funnel, a range of measuring cups, and a jar lifter (you can use other methods to lift hot jars, but a lifter is much safer, Mann said).

A large, wide, non-reactive pot like an enameled Dutch oven is a good vessel for cooking preserves. A deep stockpot makes an excellent canning pot, but you must place a round rack or kitchen rag in the bottom of the pot so water can circulate fully around the jars. 

Rachel Foster, Minnetrista’s daily experience coordinator, uses a jar lifter to pull sterilized jars out of the electric canner. An electric canner increases your capacity.

Follow tested recipes

Follow a recipe from a reliable source like the Ball website, the National Center for Home Food Preservation or your grandma. Always work with the freshest produce you can find, Mann said. Applesauce, jams and salsas are great options for beginners.

The Minnetrista team whipped up a classic applesauce recipe, using apples from area orchards.

Clean your jars

Wash jars before every use, Mann said. All jams, jellies and pickled products processed less than 10 minutes should be filled into sterile empty jars. To sterilize empty jars, put them right side up on the rack in a boiling-water canner. Fill the canner and jars with hot (not boiling) water to 1 inch above the tops of the jars, then boil for 10 minutes.

Jars prepared with a pressure canner and those boiled longer than 10 minutes in a boiling water canner do not need to be sterilized prior to filling.

Stir, spoon and measure

While you’re sterilizing jars and lids, prepare your recipe. Ashley and her Minnetrista team prepared this classic applesauce recipe from apples gathered from local orchards.

Mann quartered and boiled apples before running the cooked apples through a food mill to remove all seeds, stems and skins.
Foster spoons steaming applesauce into sterilized jars, making sure to leave head space at the top of each jar.
Depending on the recipe, you’ll need to leave between ¼ and ½ an inch of headspace (that’s the room between the surface of the product and the top of the jar). If you don’t leave space, you run the risk of jars exploding.
Wipe rims of jars with a clean, damp paper towel or the edge of a kitchen towel. Apply lids and screw the bands on the jars to hold the lids down during processing. Jars will be hot, so pot holders or gloves are your friend.

Sealing the deal

Using a jar lifter, carefully lower filled jars into the canning pot. You may need to remove some water as you put the jars in the pot. Once the pot has returned to a boil, start your timer and boil the filled jars according to the recipe.

Foster places jars into an electric canner, which allows you to produce more jars than when you use a stockpot (eight or nine jars in an electric canner compared to three in a stock pot).
When your timer goes off, remove the jars from the water bath promptly. Place them back on the towel-lined countertop and let them cool.

The jar lids should begin to ping soon after they’ve been removed from the pot. The pinging is the sound of the seals being formed and the center of the lids will become concave as the vacuum seal takes hold.

You’re not alone

Mann and her team at Minnetrista regularly blog about food preservation techniques and canning best practices. The cultural center also facilitates regular canning workshops and often shares resources during Minnetrista’s weekly farmers markets. Check out a schedule or call Minnetrista at 765-282-4848.

Most canned goods last about a year in the pantry.