Canning, from Napoleon, to Popeye, to You.

When you think about canning, what type of images pop into your head? Do you envision Popeye tearing into a can of spinach with his bulging forearms and going of to fight Bluto? Perhaps you think of a relative or friend who is famous for their homemade spaghetti sauce or delicious jam. Whatever the case may be, canning is something you should consider trying.

But first, lets start off with an interesting bit of history. Canning started with Napoleon—wait, did I just say Napoleon? What does he have to do with canning? It turns out his involvement arose from necessity. Napoleon believed that, “An army travels on its stomach,” and he wanted to develop a better way to preserve food (for his soldiers to eat when on long military campaigns and away from readily accessible food sources). Accordingly, he offered a fortune to anyone who developed a method of preserving food on a large scale, and that’s why we have canning today. You can read the whole story and some more interesting canning history here.

Today, home canning (and home food preservation in general) is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. There are numerous reasons for this; lets take a look at a few of them:

  • First off, canning your own food is healthier. Home-canned food is free of food additives, excess sugar or salt, pesticides, and preservatives.
  • Home-canned food tastes better than store-bought and is usually better quality.
  • Canning can save you money, especially if you are getting your produce from your garden, a friend, or a local farmers market.
  • It is also good for the environment. Because you can reuse canning jars, waste from store-bought cans and packages will be reduced. Plus, your food will not have been shipped half way across the country.
  • Finally, many people simply enjoy canning or want to learn how to do it in case times get tough; and nobody can deny that this is a useful hobby.

If we’ve piqued your interest but you’re not really sure how to start, we’ve gathered a little advice from 4 canners—all with different levels of experience—in order to help you on your way. Let’s meet them:

Alice Pettis

Bio: Alice has been canning for around 40 years. She mostly cans fruit in season and several tomato products: spaghetti sauce, salsa, and stewed tomatoes (for soups and casseroles). Alice says she can’t live without home canned tomatoes. Main reason for canning: the ability to control her (and her family’s) sodium and sweetener intake.

Ketty Tejada

Bio: Ketty is relatively new to canning. She has been doing it for 2.5 years but enjoys it very much. She cans tomatoes, applesauce, salsa, sauces, and pickles. However, tomato sauce is her favorite. She is from the Caribbean and cooks with it every day (sometimes twice).
Main reason for canning: Saving money. Her husband is a farmer so they have a lot of produce. By canning it, they can preserve their harvest and use it all year round.

Randy Bivens

Bio: Randy’s mom taught him how to can when he was a boy, so he has been doing it for most of his life. His family cans fruits, jams, spaghetti sauce, salsa and beans. They love eating their great tasting applesauce for breakfast.
Main reason for canning: Randy’s family cans to save money, control sugar content and—in the case of beans—for convenience (canning raw beans in a pressure cooker is a very fast way to cook them, plus you can store unopened jars for later use).

Kim Ewald

Bio: Kim is my mother. She has been canning periodically for 15 years, but got serious 5 years ago. She typically cans spaghetti sauce, salsa, applesauce, apple butter and peaches.
Main reason for canning: She knows what she is eating (it comes from her garden, or local orchards) and she knows it will he healthy for her and her family.

Now here it is, some advice, tips, and things you may want to know from our canning crew:

What foods are best to start with?

“Tomatoes” is the most common answer. This is because canning tomatoes is simple—even skinning them is easy (with parboiling, their skin falls right off). Besides this, they are extremely versatile, being a necessary ingredient in many recipies like spaghetti sauce, salsa, or tomato pieces.

Applesauce and peaches are also easy to can. Both would be good fruits to start out with. Otherwise, you could take Alice’s advice and start with, “Whatever foods you like and use the most.”

Do you can with a water bath or a pressure cooker?

Among our canners, water bath canning is much more popular. It’s just simpler and less time consuming, although a pressure cooker is needed if you want to can vegetables (except tomatoes). However, many people prefer to freeze their vegetables instead. Randy explained that, freezing is simpler and healthier, because the heat of the pressure cooker destroys food’s nutrients.

Do you actually save any money?

This is a big question for most of us. Fortunately, the answer is a resounding yes! After the initial start up cost (purchasing equipment and cans) canning is a pretty inexpensive process. Kim recommends checking with friends or neighbors, sometimes they will have old jars laying around that they are not using anymore. You could also check garage sales.

The real trick is obtaining your fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices (or free!).
While many canners are gardeners as well, you don’t need to be. There is plenty of fresh, healthy produce available at your local farmers markets, orchards, or small farms. Buying in season and in bulk will save you a lot of money. Ketty was actually able to can a years worth of tomato sauce—which her family uses almost every day—for pennies on the dollar.

Is canning safe?

Canning is safe. That being said, it is very important to follow the guidelines set by the USDA. Make sure everything is sterilized and clean. Randy reminded me that cook time varies by elevation, so double check to make sure you are boiling your cans long enough.

Kim says, “I always listen carefully when I open it [the can] to make sure it makes a hissing sound when opening. That way I know it was sealed and safe to eat”. Ketty’s advice is also quite practical: If it looks or smells weird, don’t eat it!

Common mistakes to avoid?

Alice cautions against undercooking saying, “Start timing when the hot water bath comes to a rolling boil.” Ketty reminds that it’s important to check the lips of your jars after filling them. Make sure no food spilled on them as this could prevent your jars from sealing properly (or safely)!

Randy points out that you can crack your jars by subjecting them to big temperature changes. So, be careful not to drop a cold jar into boiling water (but a jar filled with warm contents will be fine). Also, when removing jars from the water, cover your cold countertops with a dish rag just in case.

Final tips and advice:

First off, its important to prepare. Alice says, “Organize your equipment so you have everything you need before you begin.” Get everything out, clean it all, and have a plan. Depending on how much you’re planning to can, it may take some time. Ketty says, recognize this and handle it with a good spirit.

Kim also advises that you learn from someone who has been canning for a while. If this is not possible, she advises that you keep their number close at hand in case you have a question. Most people are happy to help.

Getting started:

If you’re interested in starting, here’s what you’ll need:

  • Cans: Today, the cans that people use in their homes are really more like jars. In fact, they’re called ‘Mason Jars’. Basically, they are a jar with a threaded mouth on which to screw the lid.
  • Lids: Canning jar lids consist of two parts: the ring (or band) and the lid. The rings are reusable but the lids should only be used once. (They are very inexpensive.)
  • A water bath or pressure cooker, depending on what you’re canning (check your recipe, many foods cannot be canned with a water bath). A water bath is basically a big pot with a rack inside to keep the jars from touching the bottom.
  • A jar lifter. Essentially, this is a big set of tongs to remove the jars from the boiling water.
  • A wide mouth funnel. This is not necessary, but it makes your job easier and keeps everything clean.
  • Your favorite fruits, veggies, and other ingredients for whichever recipe you are following.
  • Information—like recipes, boiling times, safety info, etc. Get yourself a book on canning, do some research online, or better yet, find yourself an expert canner to help you. (We’ve provided some links below.)

So give canning a try this season. If you enjoy it, it may turn into a useful and tasty hobby. If you feel like you need a little more inspiration, you can read about my first time canning. If I can do it, you can do it too!

Also, check out these links for further information:

  • National Center for Home Food Preservation (USDA)
  • Simplycanning is a great website that will walk you through the process of canning many different products. There are lots of pictures as well as helpful and practical information.
  • Canningbasics is also full of information and recipes you may enjoy.
  • Also, Ball (one of the biggest producers of canning jars) has put together a great canning website with helpful information, how-to guides, and videos.
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Jon Ewald, MD

Jon Ewald grew up in Minnesota and has a love for the outdoors. He obtained his medical degree at Loma Linda University, graduating in 2020. He is currently completing his residency in Radiology at University of Pittsburgh.

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