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Everything you ever needed to know to prep for canning season

Canning season is here, and I will explain exactly how to get ready to preserve your farmers-market loot. There are several things you can do to prepare. Ready, set, can!

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Are you wondering why you need to prepare in the first place? Once you start canning, you may find yourself in what I call an enthusiasm-driven pickle, which is when I buy entirely too much fruit or vegetable with little time or plan to can it. Produce should be canned when it is at its peak, and you don’t typically have time to waste. Here’s what you do to be ready:

1. Check your shelves

Check out your pantry and consider what you cooked the last 12 months. What did you not can enough of? What are your go-to meals, home-canned or not? I doubt I will ever be able to can enough tomato sauce. Pasta is a family-pleaser, and the tomato sauce I make is much healthier than the store-bought kind, which is full of added sugar, and it is super versatile. I can over a hundred pounds of tomatoes every year and run out by early summer. 100 pounds isn’t that much — several flats. Don’t be too impressed. Tomatoes are heavy.

2. Plan it out

Think about the recipes you would like to try and the foods you wished you had canned, but didn’t get to. Flip through a canning book or your favorite canning blog for inspiration.

3. Consider the season

You may have to use a canning book for this part, but think about what time of year you are reading this and what produce will be ripening and available in stores near you. Many canning cookbooks are arranged by season so you can plan with the immediate future in mind. Very generally speaking, you can expect these few example items to be ripe in the following seasons:

  • Spring: strawberries, asparagus
  • Summer: berries, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes
  • Fall: apples, pears
  • Winter: citrus

4. Equipment check

You might need to get some wide-mouth, pint-sized jars if you plan on making tomato sauce or some small jam jars if you want to make a batch of jewel-colored jam for gifting. You need brand new lids (maybe in cute, giftable colors), jars in sizes that suit you and a set of canning utensils.

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5. Buy the non-perishable pantry items

You need to have the following items on hand:

  • Store-bought lemon juice: Store-bought lemon juice is very important because when you buy your lemon juice from the store, it is standardized to be at a specific acidity — probably 5 percent or more. The main thing you need to know about acid and canning is if a recipe calls for lemon juice, it is probably to bring the acid of a recipe up (and the pH down below 4.6), and a plain old lemon that you squeeze yourself might not be acidic enough to do so. If the recipe you want to try calls for a “squeeze of lemon” or “zest of a lemon,” then they mean you can use a whole lemon as the source. If it calls for a specific measurement of juice, use bottled.
  • Vinegar: Buy vinegar that is of better quality than the cheap white you might use for cleaning. If the recipe calls for a specific acid level, follow the directions to the letter. If you are not sure exactly what recipes you will by trying or you are just getting started, buy a gallon of white vinegar that is the best quality you can find.
  • Sugar: Buy a quantity that you can comfortably store. Bear in mind that making jam, syrup and jelly takes a lot of sugar. Cutting back on the sugar in the recipe is a not acceptable. Sugar is a powerful preservative, and as such, it is pretty darn important that you follow the recipe. You don’t want powdered, confectioner’s sugar, though you could buy brown if you have a recipe in mind that calls for it.
  • Salt: Pickling salt is merely salt that lacks the additive that will make your pickle juice cloudy. If you are the kind of person that doesn’t want cloudy pickle juice, you might be comforted by purchasing pickling salt. I just use the regular Morton (or whatever is on sale) iodized salt because I don’t care about cloudiness. Bear in mind that a recipe might refer to the salt plus ingredients as “brine.” That just means salt plus water plus whatever else liquid, and it will likely be combined, boiled and then poured over the vegetables.
  • Citric acid: Here’s another critical store-bought item. I’m all about homemade, but this is another purchase made for safety sake. I discuss acid and canning at length, but citric acid is a way to bring the acid level of tomatoes in particular to a safe level. It is preferable to use lemon juice because it is flavorless. It is a white powder, and you usually need about a teaspoon per pint jar. I have never gone through more than one container in a season, and I doubt you would either.
  • Canning lids: You need new lids to can. You cannot use used canning lids. Buy the size that matches the jars you have and feel relieved that there are only two sizes — regular and wide mouth. I usually buy a lot — five or more boxes of each size — when I see them at a good price, but I can buy pretty steadily all season. I’d say start with two boxes of each size if you haven’t acquired jars yet. That will be enough to get going. Get the complete canning equipment list here. You’ll be surprised to find that you already own most of this stuff already!

If you want to learn more about canning, head to Happy canning season!

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