I talk a lot about food storage here on Savvy Eats. From storing fresh ingredients so they last a little longer, to freezing ingredients and complete recipes, to infusing liqueurs, I try to cover it all. But my absolute favorite way to preserve produce is water bath canning. And now that fresh produce is finally coming into season around here again, I’m so excited to pull out my canning pot and return it to its semi-permanent summer home on the stovetop.
I get a lot of questions about what a beginner needs to get started with canning. Luckily, there are very few specific canning tools that you’ll need – you probably already have many of these things in your kitchen.
Note that these are the tools you will need for water-bath canning, which you can only use for high acid preserves. If you want to can vegetables, pumpkin butter or other low acid foods, you’ll need to follow the pressure canning method, which is a whole different animal.
But if you want to preserve most fruits and some tomatoes as jams, jellies, marmalades, and other types of preserves, here’s the canning tools you’ll need:
A deep stockpot.
You need to be able to place the jars in the stockpot vertically and still have a few inches free above them. In water bath canning, the jars need to be covered by 1″ of boiling water – the extra space keeps the water from bubbling and boiling over the edge! I use this 11.5-quart stockpot (which comes with a canning rack) when I am processing half-pint jars or just a few pint jars, and this 21.5-quart pot (also comes with a canning rack) for larger jars. If you only want to invest in one, I’d go with the 21.5-quart. It does take a lot more time to bring enough water to a boil, but it gives you the flexibility to can everything from small 4-ounce or half-pint jars of fruit butters or jams to full quarts of crushed tomatoes.
When I’m canning small batches, it can be a pain to heat up even the smaller of my canning pots (and it heats up the kitchen like crazy, too!). So I’m considering investing in this 4th burner pot as well. It comes with a basket (that might work as a rack?), and should be just the right size for processing a few half pints at a time.
A rack to fit your stockpot.
The rack is absolutely necessary. It keeps the jars from resting right on the bottom of the pot during processing, so hot water can circulate all the way around the jars, heating your preserves evenly. Both of the stockpots I mentioned above come with their own rack, but you can also buy separate racks or DIY your own.
This one is for cooking your preserves! You’ll want to choose something that is nonreactive, since anything you water-bath can is going to be acidic. Stainless steel or enamel are good choices. Steer clear of copper, unseasoned cast iron or aluminum.
I use Ball canning jars almost exclusively. I can usually buy a 12-pack for $9-12, so they come out to $1 or less per jar. Note: the jars are reusable as long as they aren’t chipped or cracked, and the rings can be used until they rust or get too dented, but you will need to replace the flat lids with every round of canning. The lids are cheap, though – usually $2-3 for 12 lids.
This is the one specialty canning tool that I absolutely wouldn’t go without. I’ve tried using regular tongs to lift jars out of the water-bath canner, and the results have been terrible – think tipped over jars, splashes of boiling water and full jars that I just can’t get a grip on. Seriously, if you invest in one tool for canning, get a jar lifter.
It is so much easier to keep the rims of your jars clean when you use a funnel to fill your jars. This is my second-most recommended specialty canning tool, though any funnel that fits your jars and lets preserves move through them will work.
Measuring cups or a good ladle.
Trying to pour your preserves directly from the pot and into jars can be a very messy and wasteful endeavor. Our ladle is terrible and drips everywhere, so I use measuring cups to transfer my preserves to their jars. If you go the measuring cup route, I recommend ones that are heat-proof and have a long handle, so you can keep your hands from getting overly sticky.
You’ll want to keep a few towels on hand whenever you’re canning: one to rest hot jars on to fill with preserves, one to rest full & processed jars, and one for wiping the edges of the jars clean before putting on the lid.
This one is probably common sense, but if you don’t want to burn your hands or your countertop on a hot pan full of jam, get out the hot pads.
A small heat-proof bowl.
You’ll need to sterilize your lids before you use them. I typically pour boiling water from the canning pot over the lids in a metal bowl a few minutes before I need them.
Lid wand. This little magnetic wand will help you lift your flat lids out of the boiling water you’ve sterilized them in. It is immensely helpful, but honestly, I got by without it for my first 2 years of canning by just carefully pouring the hot water off the lids immediately before I used them.
Edited September 2014 to note: Ball says that preheating the lids is no longer necessary. So your lid wand is no longer necessary!
Plastic chopsticks or a very thin rubber spatula.
These are the best tools I’ve found to remove air bubbles before processing.
Well-tested, trusted recipes.
Choose recipes that have been well-tested so that you know that they are safe. Water activity, acidity, oxygen levels and processing times and temperatures all play a role in making a preserve shelf-stable, and changing one ingredient or the ratio of ingredients can throw the whole recipe off-balance. With my food science background, I feel pretty confident in the canning recipes I post. I also trust recipes from the USDA and Ball Preserving and from sites like Food in Jars and Local Kitchen. Plus, the recipes in most modern canning cookbooks have been put through their paces and are safe to use as well. So especially when you are starting out, stick with these sources for your canning recipes. I’ll talk more later about the kinds of adjustments you can safely make to a canning recipe, too!
So there you have it: everything you need for your first canning experiments. Happy canning!
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