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Canning For Klutzes in 20 Easy(ish) Steps

canning is simple, even for klutzes like me.

This summer my sister-in-law Jenna and I both did something  I’ve been meaning to do forever – we signed up for a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) share, which means that every week we get boxes and bags of fresh, organic produce. Too much produce to eat all at once, even for our sizable families. The answer? “Putting up” food via freezing and canning.

Freezing is easy enough, but canning? We had no idea what we were doing, so we went to our friend Amy for advice. Amy’s a farmer’s wife who preserves tons of food yearly, so we figured she’d be the perfect teacher. Under Amy’s laid-back tutelage  Jenna and I wound up with 23 jars of strawberry jam after our first attempt.

But later, as I pored over a “classic” book on the art of preserving, my confidence wavered. The book was full of words like “meticulous” and “immaculate” and “pure” and “scrupulous.” Also words like “e. coli” and “botulism” (as in, that’s what you will  breed if not meticulous, pure, immaculate and scrupulous.)

That scared me. See, I am not exactly what you would call a “meticulous” cook. I am very cautious when it comes to meat and cross-contamination, but I am also messy. I spill. I splatter. I leave a fine dust of flour all over the kitchen whenever I bake. I forget things. I break things.

But I was reassured when I remembered how Amy had described her methods as “laid-back” and even “lazy” and reminded me that she hadn’t killed anyone yet. I was further reassured when Ball sent me their Canning Discovery Kit to try out. The booklet that came with the kit didn’t claim to be a classic or a Bible, but it did feature words like “simple” and “success” and “1-2-3.” Much easier for a Bertha Stewart like me to get on board with.

A couple of months after our initial canning experiment, Jenna and I have successfully gone on to can pickles, sauces, fruit and jams.  And we’ve come to discover that canning is easy and not at all scary. Yes, you need to be reasonably clean, and take certain precautions, and there are some rules you absolutely must follow (more on those later.) But high-acid foods like tomatoes, berries, pickles, chutneys and salsas are pretty forgiving, and it’s highly unlikely you will poison your family. (Save meats and veggies for later, when your skill level is a bit higher.)

To demonstrate the simplicity and ease of canning I decided to take you along on my very first solo canning adventure. Yes, for the first time ever I’ll be canning without a buddy to help slice and skin and boil, to remind me when I forgot a step, or to refill the wine glasses. There won’t even be wine, because I’m canning at 11 AM. And all my kids are in the house, plus I’m pretty sure I just heard the neighbor kid ring the doorbell. Whee! This is going to be…interesting.

Today I’m going to can crushed tomatoes, since I use them a lot and have just enough to use up for a small batch of pint jars. I’m using a recipe from Ball’s Fresh Preserving site, but I’ll break it down in my own language here. If you have any trouble viewing the slideshow or want to print the instructions, scroll down below the photos to see the steps all in one place.

You’ll need:

  1. A large pot, big enough to submerge canning jars in
  2. Various other pots
  3. Jars, lids, and rings (these can be purchased through Ball’s website or at many grocery stores.)
  4. Salt, if desired
  5. Kitchen tools – knives, tongs, etc.
  6. Lemon juice or citric acid
  7. Tomatoes
  8. A stove
  9. Patience
  10. A sense of humor

Ready? Here goes!

nggallery template=’carousel’ id=’1′

  • 01 1 of 20
    01
    Step 1: Fill water bath pot with water and start bringing it to a boil. Make sure to fill the pot enough to submerge the jars, but don't forget about water displacement! (Note: I forgot about water displacement.) Put another large pot of water on the stove and start bringing it to a boil. You'll use this water to blanch the tomatoes, which will make it much easier to remove the skins. And as if that wasn't enough boiling water, you'll also need a small saucepan in which to sterilize and keep the canning lids while waiting to be used. Start heating that water up now. Note: If you have a glass-top stove like I do, it's not recommended that you use those classic enamel canning pots as they can damage the surface.
  • 02 2 of 20
    02
    Step 2: After washing jars in hot soapy water (or running them through the dishwasher) you'll need to slowly warm them up before filling them. This is to keep them from EXPLODING, or at least breaking, as room-temperature glass jars are apt to do when suddenly filled with boiling hot liquid. You can do this in a pot of hot water, but since three pots going on my stovetop at once is enough to make me feel claustrophobic, I prefer to do this in the oven. Put the jars right on the rack, then turn the oven to 225. They're supposed to heat up for at least for 20 minutes, but if you're anything like me it'll take you at least that long to finish the next few steps. (By the way, as evidenced by the photo, I have not cleaned my oven lately. Or, possibly, ever.)
  • 03 3 of 20
    03
    Step 3: Choose ripe (but not overripe), healthy, firm tomatoes free of bruises or spoilage. The recipe I used called for 2 3/4 lb per quart. Since 2 pints are in a quart, if you're doing pints you need a little less than a pound and a half of tomatoes per pint jar. If you don't have a produce scale, do like I do and guess.
  • 04 4 of 20
    04
    Step 4: Wash your tomatoes thoroughly. Cut a small "X" into the bottom of each tomato to facilitate removal of skins.
  • 05 5 of 20
    05
    Step 5: When your blanching pot comes to a boil, carefully drop the tomatoes in, one by one. Again, do not underestimate the power of a large tomato to displace water. (After learning this lesson I decided to blanch in three batches.) After the tomatoes have been submerged in the boiling water for about a minute, remove and plunge immediately into cold water.
  • 06 6 of 20
    06
    Step 6: Now it's time to peel the tomatoes, which is awesomely satisfying. When all the tomatoes are blanched, dump the hot water, rinse out the pot and put it back on the burner to get ready to boil the tomatoes.
  • 07 7 of 20
    07
    Step 7: Cut any green parts off the tomatoes, remove the cores, and cut 'em up. No need to worry about the size or shape of the pieces since they'll end up crushed anyway. (Good news for me, as my - ahem - "knife skills" are seriously lacking.)
  • 08 8 of 20
    08
    Step 8: Add about two cups' worth of tomatoes to the pot and crush with a potato mash....UH-OH. I don't HAVE a potato masher. Oh well, a ladle seemed to do the job nicely. I also used, of all things, a pizza cutter to get in there and break up some of the larger pieces. Improvising is awesome. Add the rest of the tomatoes, smoosh them a little (they don't have to be thoroughly pulverized, as heating and stirring will soften them) and let the whole mess boil gently for about five minutes. Stir occasionally to keep tomatoes from scorching.
  • 09 9 of 20
    09
    Step 9: Take a second to clean up your work space. You'll be glad you did later.
  • 10 10 of 20
    10
    Step 10: Take a second to clean your child, who has just wandered into the room and announced "I used your hand cweam, mommy!" Station child at table with crayons and paper and maybe some "just stay put for a minute" bribery cookies.
  • 11 11 of 20
    11
    Step 11: Now it's time to take the hot jars out of the oven. If you have countertops made of fancy materials that need protection, you may want to put down a cookie sheet or trivets to place the jars on. If you, like me, have countertops made of circa 1990's simulated woodgrain laminate, just toss down a towel and call it good. Using tongs, carefully remove the jars from the oven. Do not then forget that the jars are hot and grab them a second later with your bare hands. (Not that I have ever done that.) Note: you can buy fancy jar-grabbing tongs, which is what we usually use, but I just realized that they are actually Jenna's and are at her house. However, regular tongs seem to work just fine. I think the rubber grippy part is important, though, as it allowed me to get a good tight grip.
  • 12 12 of 20
    12
    Step 12: Time to fill the jars! First, add one tablespoon of lemon juice or citric acid to each pint-sized jar (two tablespoons for a quart). If you forget to do this until after you've put in the tomatoes, no worries. Now spoon or ladle the tomatoes into the jar. If you're smart, you'll use a funnel for this part. If you're forgetful like me, this is the point where you remember that the funnel is also at Jenna's, so you just slosh it in. Pack the tomatoes in as well as you can, then slide a plastic knife inside the jar to remove air bubbles. Add a 1/2 tsp of salt per pint if you want it, then check how full the jars are. You'll want to leave 1/2 inch "headspace", or empty space at the top of the jar, so adjust if it isn't right. If you have a jar that doesn't get quite full, just stick it in the refrigerator and use it soon.
  • 13 13 of 20
    13
    Step 13: Using a clean towel or napkin, wipe the rim of the jar (again, remember that the jar is HOT). This step is important because if the rim is dirty it might keep the jar from sealing properly, and you will cry.
  • 14 14 of 20
    14
    Using the tongs, apply the lid to the jar.
  • 15 15 of 20
    15
    Step 15: While holding the lid down firmly, screw the ring on "fingertip tight." This basically means that you don't want to over-tighten the ring - in fact, it needs to be a little loose to allow the sealing process to work. (Three words: Jar still hot.)
  • 16 16 of 20
    16
    Step 16: By now your large pot of water should be all a-boil and ready for the jars. Large canning pots have metal racks that you clasp the sides of the pots until you're ready to lower them in. Since I'm doing a small batch, I'm using a rack that lowers into a regular stock pot. However, looking at my rack, I discover that one of my children seems to have taken off with the handle. What the…? Guess I'll just have to lower it into the boiling water verrry carefully.
  • 17 17 of 20
    17
    Step 17: Time for the cans to take a bath! Once the jars are submerged, check to be sure they are covered by at least an inch of water, and then go see what kind of havoc your children have wreaked upon the house for the last half-hour.
  • 18 18 of 20
    18
    After 35 minutes for pint-sized jars or 45 minutes for quarts, turn off water and let the jars stand for five minutes. Then carefully remove the rack and let the jars cool in a safe place, undisturbed, overnight. Glory in the beauty of the bounty you have preserved from spoilage, with which to nourish your family all winter long. Or, in the case of three pints, more like a day.
  • 19 19 of 20
    19
    Step 19: Pretend you don't notice the counters and retreat to your bedroom to put your feet up. You will hear glorious "plinking" sounds from the kitchen as your jars seal. You'll know they sealed properly when you check them the next day - the lid should not flex up and down when pushed.
  • 20 20 of 20
    20
    Fantasize about what you'll do with NEXT week's bounty. Feeling inspired? Leave a comment letting me know what you'd like to can!

Printer-Friendly Instructions Below:

Step 1: Fill water bath pot with water and start bringing it to a boil. Make sure to fill the pot enough to submerge the jars, but don’t forget about water displacement! (Note: I forgot about water displacement.) Put another large pot of water on the stove and start bringing it to a boil. You’ll use this water to blanch the tomatoes, which will make it much easier to remove the skins. And as if that wasn’t enough boiling water, you’ll also need a small saucepan in which to sterilize and keep the canning lids while waiting to be used. Start heating that water up now. Note: If you have a glass-top stove like I do, it’s not recommended that you use those classic enamel canning pots as they can damage the surface.

Step 2: After washing jars in hot soapy water (or running them through the dishwasher) you’ll need to slowly warm them up before filling them. This is to keep them from EXPLODING, or at least breaking, as room-temperature glass jars are apt to do when suddenly filled with boiling hot liquid. You can do this in a pot of hot water, but since three pots going on my stovetop at once is enough to make me feel claustrophobic, I prefer to do this in the oven. Put the jars right on the rack, then turn the oven to 225. They’re supposed to heat up for at least for 20 minutes, but if you’re anything like me it’ll take you at least that long to finish the next few steps. (By the way, as evidenced by the photo, I have not cleaned my oven lately. Or, possibly, ever.)

Step 3: Choose ripe (but not overripe), healthy, firm tomatoes free of bruises or spoilage. The recipe I used called for 2 3/4 lb per quart. Since 2 pints are in a quart, if you’re doing pints you need a little less than a pound and a half of tomatoes per pint jar. If you don’t have a produce scale, do like I do and guess.

Step 4: Wash your tomatoes thoroughly. Cut a small “X” into the bottom of each tomato to facilitate removal of skins.

Step 5: When your blanching pot comes to a boil, carefully drop the tomatoes in, one by one. Again, do not underestimate the power of a large tomato to displace water. (After learning this lesson I decided to blanch in three batches.) After the tomatoes have been submerged in the boiling water for about a minute, remove and plunge immediately into cold water.

Step 6: Now it’s time to peel the tomatoes, which is awesomely satisfying. When all the tomatoes are blanched, dump the hot water, rinse out the pot and put it back on the burner to get ready to boil the tomatoes.

Step 7: Cut any green parts off the tomatoes, remove the cores, and cut ‘em up. No need to worry about the size or shape of the pieces since they’ll end up crushed anyway. (Good news for me, as my – ahem – “knife skills” are seriously lacking.)

Step 8: Add about two cups’ worth of tomatoes to the pot and crush with a potato mash- uh-oh. I don’t HAVE a potato masher. Oh well, a ladle seemed to do the job nicely. I also used, of all things, a pizza cutter to get in there and break up some of the larger pieces. Improvising is awesome.

Add the rest of the tomatoes, smoosh them a little (they don’t have to be thoroughly pulverized, as heating and stirring will soften them) and let the whole mess boil gently for about five minutes. Stir occasionally to keep tomatoes from scorching.

Step 9: Take a second to clean up your work space. You’ll be glad you did later.

Step 10: Take a second to clean your child, who has just wandered into the room and announced “I used your hand cweam, mommy!” Station child at table with crayons and paper and maybe some “just stay put for a minute” bribery cookies.

Step 11: Now it’s time to take the hot jars out of the oven. If you have countertops made of fancy materials that need protection,  you may want to put down a cookie sheet or trivets to place the jars on. If you, like me, have countertops made of circa 1990′s simulated woodgrain laminate, just toss down a towel and call it good. Using tongs, carefully remove the jars from the oven. Do not then forget that the jars are hot and grab them a second later with your bare hands. (Not that I have ever done that.)

Note: you can buy fancy jar-grabbing tongs, which is what we usually use, but I just realized that they are actually Jenna’s and are at her house. However, regular tongs seem to work just fine. I think the rubber grippy part is important, though, as it allowed me to get a good tight grip.

Step 12: Time to fill the jars! First, add one tablespoon of lemon juice or citric acid to each pint-sized jar (two tablespoons for a quart). If you forget to do this until after you’ve put in the tomatoes, no worries. Now spoon or ladle the tomatoes into the jar. If you’re smart, you’ll use a funnel for this part. If you’re forgetful like me, this is the point where you remember that the funnel is also at Jenna’s, so you just slosh it in. Pack the tomatoes in as well as you can, then slide a plastic knife inside the jar to remove air bubbles. Add a 1/2 tsp of salt per pint if you want it, then check how full the jars are. You’ll want to leave 1/2 inch “headspace”, or empty space at the top of the jar, so adjust if it isn’t right.

If you have a jar that doesn’t get quite full, just stick it in the refrigerator and use it soon.

Step 13: Using a clean towel or napkin, wipe the rim of the jar (again, remember that the jar is HOT). This step is important because if the rim is dirty it might keep the jar from sealing properly, and you will cry.

Step 14: Using the tongs, apply the lid to the jar.

Step 15: While holding the lid down firmly, screw the ring on “fingertip tight.” This basically means that you don’t want to over-tighten the ring – in fact, it needs to be a little loose to allow the sealing process to work. (Three words: Jar still hot.)

Step 16: By now your large pot of water should be all a-boil and ready for the jars. Large canning pots have metal racks that you clasp the sides of the pots until you’re ready to lower them in. Since I’m doing a small batch, I’m using a rack that lowers into a regular stock pot. However, looking at my rack, I discover that one of my children seems to have taken off with the handle. What the…? Guess I’ll just have to lower it into the boiling water verrry carefully.

Step 17: Time for the cans to take a bath! Once the jars are submerged, check to be sure they are covered by at least an inch of water, and then go see what kind of havoc your children have wreaked upon the house for the last half-hour.

Step 18: After 35 minutes for pint-sized jars or 45 minutes for quarts, turn off water and let the jars stand for five minutes. Carefully remove the rack and let the jars cool in a safe place, undisturbed, overnight. Glory in the beauty of the bounty you have preserved from spoilage, with which to nourish your family all winter long. Or, in the case of three pints, more like a day.

Step 19: Pretend you don’t notice the counters, retreat to your bedroom and put your feet up.

Step 20: Start imagining what you’ll do with next week’s bounty.

Have you tried canning? What are your favorite resources and recipes?


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