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New to canning: what do I really need?

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Since I've been getting heaps and heaps of strawberries in my CSA these days, I'd like to start canning. I've seen the Alton Brown episode and feel confident that it's something I can try on my own. My only question is which pieces of equipment are really necessary? From what I can tell, the jar tongs, lid magnet, and funnel are crucial. Most of the cheap kits I have seen also include jar wrenches and bubble removers. But do I definitely need the special rack / basket? Alton Brown says it is so the jars won't rattle while they are being boiled. Can I achieve the same effect with a metal steamer basket? Or dispense with it entirely?

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  1. I've been canning for years and have no idea what a lid magnet is. Will have to go look it up after I finish typing this. But yes to both the jar tongs and the funnel. For a bubble remover I use a knife; had no idea anyone was selling a product for it.

    I did without a rack for years because I couldn't find one that fit the cheapo aluminum stock pot I used for canning. I used a folded up towel in the bottom of the pot to try to keep the jars from rattling around. As I say, I used that setup for years. But when I finally broke down and got a rack, it sure made things easier.

    ETA: Remember that our grandmothers did this for years using whatever equipment they happened to have. You can to do the same until you figure out what's important to you.

    18 Replies
    1. re: JoanN

      The lid magnet is a small plastic wand with a magnet on one end. You use it to lift the lids out of hot water and plop them on the jars. A couple years ago I canned with a friend who had been canning for some time. She got to use a lid magnet for the first time. She said it made that step easier and went out and bought one for herself.

      1. re: Melanie Wong

        Thanks. I had no inkling. Will keep an eye out for one.

      2. re: JoanN

        Love my lid magnet and that's an essential for me, did canning without for a while and this was one of my best finds! For air bubbles, I use a chopstick...makes me crazy how they sell a gadget for everything......

        Not for canning, but post canning, they sell boxes of the white jar lids so when you open a jar you don't have to use the 2 piece jar lids. Not essential just convenient and nice to include if you are giving as a gift.

        Have fun!

        1. re: geminigirl

          The more I think about how I fiddle around with tongs trying to get stuck-together lids out of recently boiling water, the more I see the need for this inexpensive, easy-to-store item. Old dog > new tricks.

          1. re: JoanN

            And the magnet is just the right strength to pick up ONE lid at a time.

            Like most things, the need and usefulness probably depends on the volume one is producing. Said friend and I worked through 100 pounds of tomatoes that afternoon, so it made a difference to her.

            And like others, I use a plastic chopstick or a knife to take on bubbles.

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              Hi, Melanie:

              Just curious... What's the hurtin' need to remove a bubble? I commonly get 1 or 2 pea-sized bubbles in preserves, and never have given them a second thought until reading this thread.

              Aloha,
              Kaleo

              1. re: kaleokahu

                Good explanation here: http://www.foodinjars.com/2010/07/can...

                1. re: JoanN

                  Hi, Joan, and thanks for the link. It says:

                  "The reason it’s important to rid your jars of trapped air is that in canning, the empty space to product ratio needs to balanced carefully. You need to have enough air in the jar so that after processing, the escaping heat can pull the oxygen out of the jar and create the vacuum seal. However, too much air and you find that some of your product is left sticking out of the preserving liquid, leaving it prone to discoloration and the development of off-flavors.

                  Additionally, if you leave those air bubbles trapped somewhere in the middle of the jar, they may try to escape during processing and can end up pushing some of your liquid out of the jar, leaving you with even less of your precious brine or syrup."

                  The part about not having solids protruding up out of the liquid "sort of* makes sense to me, but almost nothing else stated there does. Air is pulled out when the jar cools? Really? I thought the air expanded with heating, pushing a little bit out (while under the boiling water), and then what was left contracted upon cooling, and *that* draws the vacuum.

                  Considering the volume of the ullage that you *want*, (a) the little bubbles I get in jams are minuscule; and (b) there's no way they can force liquid out of the jar while in the canning bath.

                  Maybe it's just important with non-fruit preserves? I remember my mom and grandma canning salmon, and I believe the oil/brine never quite covered the tops of the pieces, but I'm not sure.

                  Still curious, I guess.

                  Aloha,
                  Kaleo

                  1. re: kaleokahu

                    I've most definitely had air bubbles (eh, it won't matter) push preserves out from under the lid. There's no way you'll get a good seal if there's jam under the lid -- and since the boiling water washes it away, you might not realize you've gotten a bad seal until you open a jar of jam to find a fluffy blanket of mold.

                    My grandmother swore that air bubbles could cause spoilage...seems logical when you include aerobic organisms in the mix. They don't all die at 212F

                    1. re: sunshine842

                      Hi, sunshine:

                      I'm not trying to be difficult, really. I totally get how a goobered-up jar rim can result in a bad seal, and how *that* can breed nasties. I just don't understand how a small bubble can force jam to goober up an otherwise clean rim when you've already got 50-100x that ullage in the jar.

                      You obviously know more about this than I. But I'm also puzzled by the idea that aerobic bacteria can grow inside a bubble if they don't also grow at least as well on the *surface* of the jam. Is there any reason to believe this surface (i.e., the part exposed to the partial-vacuum ullage) is less prone to microbial growth than a bubble trapped in the jam?

                      Aloha,
                      Kaleo

                      1. re: kaleokahu

                        on the surface is more likely to be heated to a higher temperature than air bubbles trapped inside a viscous substance (insulation).

                        She never had a single jar go bad...which I realize doesn't prove the absence of aerobic bacteria...but why mess with a process that nets 100% success?

                        1. re: sunshine842

                          Umm, I dunno... If the jam gets ladled into half-pint jars at 220F and then gets another solid 10:00 at a roiling 212, I'm doubtful anything in the interior of the contents is being "insulated". Between the heat, the acid and the sugar, I'm not losing sleep over a pea-sized bubble. And I *would* worry over repeatedly poking something into each jar to let the bubble out--I'd likely contaminate and cross-contaminate every jar.

                          1. re: kaleokahu

                            I said way back at the beginning of this that a pea-sized bubble in jam was probably no big deal,but that a big honking air pocket in canned whole tomatoes can spell ruin for the jar.

                            If you don't want to chase air bubbles, don't. I'll keep chasing mine.

                    2. re: kaleokahu

                      Not quite sure where this post will show up on this thread, but it's meant to appear in the posts about air pockets. One explanation that was given for getting rid of them was because escaping heat can pull the air right out of the jar and create the seal. That made absolutely no sense to me, so i checked the reference and gave it some thought - and found something more authoritative than someone's blog. check out the info from the National Center for Home Canning. http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/general/ensu... I've used their recipes [quite good] and their directions and explanations are clear and easy to follow.

                      so let's go back to the air bubble thing. Canning works because of the ideal gas law - which IMO explains everything that's important. It explains why putting a lid on your tea mug keeps it warm longer and why pressure cookers work, and all sorts of useful things. PV = nRT. P is the pressure. V is the volume, n is a standard number that we won't discuss, R is a constant that we don't need to discuss, and T is temperature. All this is saying that if the pressure or volume changes, then the temperature automatically changes. if the temperature changes, the pressure and volume change [have i put you all to sleep yet?

                      ]

                      in canning, when you heat the pot, the PRESSURE increases [the jar contents expand - that's why we have to leave a headspace], because the temperature has increased, but since it's still in the same jar, the volume has stayed the same. we haven't driven anything out of the jar - we've just expanded it as we heated it. as the jar cools, the contents contract, pulling down the seal - that wonderful POP.

                      so what happened to the air bubbles? the same amount of air is still in there - because we haven't driven it out [the lid prevented that]. and air can DISCOLOR the food - even in a properly sealed jar. If the jar is otherwise properly processed and sealed, the contents are sterile - regardless of whether or not there are air bubbles in there. But if the jar isn't properly sealed, it's probably not because of the air bubbles, but rather to a lid that wasn't set right, or was damp, or a jar that was overfilled.

                      bottom line - leave the right amount of headspace, and try to get the bubbles out. not sure we can ever get them ALL out, but the fewer we have, the less discoloration we'll get.

                  2. re: kaleokahu

                    1 or 2 pea-size bubbles in preserves is one thing -- they'll probably work their way out.

                    A big honking air pocket in canned whole tomatoes can spell ruin for the jar.

                    1. re: kaleokahu

                      Kaleo,
                      To answer your question about the air bubbles- I never stir them out of jam, ever. When I can pear chunks, cherries and green tomato or pickle chunks, I do stir out the bubbles that get trapped around and under the fruit. Then I can add a little more liquid up to the recommended depth of air space. It also jiggles the fruit around so I can sometimes fit a couple more pieces in the jar than I could before I added the liquid.

                      I don't think I've ever heard of the need to de-air the jam.

                  3. re: JoanN

                    It is going to change your canning life:). Seriously, it's a great gadget!

                    1. re: JoanN

                      My small-batches-only canning minimizes the amount of that fiddling around with tongs, but I still thought it would be handy to have a jar lifter.

                      So I rigged up one by gluing an ex-fridge magnet to a handle. But it wasn't strong enough once in the water. I promised myself I'd try again with another magnet, but now I see Melanie's point about there being such a thing as *too* strong. Hm.

                2. My experience is mostly with canning vegetables rather than jelly and jam. Tongs, lid magnet and funnel are very handy and cheap. Not sure how useful the jar wrench would be... If the bubble remover is what I think you are talking about, it is a .29 piece of plastic that I doubt is adding much cost to the kit.

                  I think you can use a dish towel in the bottom of your canner instead of a rack.

                  This deal is worth ten bucks.
                  http://www.amazon.com/Ball-1440010720...

                  1. A good cookbook on canning is in order. I have a very large pot, rack, glass pots, new lids and rims, tongs for lifting. I have also used a round rack for cooling foods as a substitute. You also need some pickling spices, coarse salt, vinegar if you are doing vegetables. Watch out canning is addictive................

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Ruthie789

                      A good book is a great idea--I started with the Ball Blue Book and have since acquired several other books. You don't need to buy special pickling spice (can make your own), but it's nice to have a mix at the ready.

                      Books I have used repeatedly--the Ball Blue Book (like a thick magazine and about US$7, the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, and Put 'Em Up, by Sherry Vinton Brooks (or Sherry Brooks Vinton--not sure which).

                    2. In late summer my wife does quite a bit of canning. She makes and cans 35 to 40 qts of tomato sauce with vurtually all of the ingredients from our garden, and that's great since they're fat free and handy. She also does a lot of pickles: dills. spicy, bread and butter, and spicy-dilly green beans which I love; and then relishes like corn, and pear. We have a big old enamel pot/canner with a seven section rack in it so we've never had problems. It's not a terribly expensive process but it is a very careful one. Each particular food has to be processed for it's particular time, and after those jars come out of the canner we listen carefully for the seven "pops" indicating that the seven jars have sealed properly. If something doesn't seal, it gets put right into the fridge to be used asap.

                      1. I have one of those Granite-ware canning sets--the big pot (11.5 qt, in my case), jar lifter (necessary to me--regular tongs don't work well), lid magnet, funnel, and special rack. I rarely use the special rack--it doesn't work for the small (4-oz) jars and for the pint jars (the largest that I use), I can can (ha!) only about 4 pints at once, even though there are slots for 6 or 7 jars. What I use instead of a special rack for the 4 and 8-oz. jars is a round cake cooling rack. It keeps the jars off the pot floor and permits circulation of water.

                        I don't even know what a jar wrench is.

                        1. This is a very good resource. Maybe more useful for safety and technical issues than for recipes...
                          National Center for Home Food Preservation.
                          http://nchfp.uga.edu

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: kengk

                            that and www.freshpreserving.com -- the website for Ball canning jars.

                            Pick up a copy of the Blue Book (available at Walmart, Target, hardware stores, etc) -- it's the indispensable bible of canning.

                          2. Hi, Ariel:

                            I have all you've listed but the lid magnet, wrench and specialized bubble remover. Don't omit the tongs and funnel or you will burn yourself.

                            I think the racks are very useful if you can in larger batches. Mine (and I think most) have notches in the lifting loops which allow you to suspend the rack above the water level for loading and unloading an entire batch at a time. The only problem I have with my rack is that the wire spacing is too wide for smaller jam-sized jars, so they can tip over and the smallest can even drop through.

                            Have fun, canning is easy.

                            Aloha,
                            Kaleo

                            1. here's my two cents - first of all, if you're doing anything but fruit, tomatoes, or pickles, invest in a pressure canner - it's the only way to safely and reliably can non-acid foods [like my mom's soup veggie mix].

                              Never used a bubble remover [they have a name for that????], and have used regular tongs - and was very happy to get a tong-like lifter. much safer. never used a funnel but sometimes wish i had one [but never enough to actually go out and get one!].

                              I don't have a rack, and i use kitchen towels in the bottom of the pan, but sometimes things shift, with less-than-pleasant results. Lid magnet??? good grief.

                              also, make sure you have extra flat lids - sometimes you just need them, especially since you can't re-use them when the jar is empty.

                              We no longer have to put up foods in order to survive the winter, so i just do tiny batches of things that i really love and will use. having said that, i have A LOT of stuff to finish up on my shelves before produce starts really coming in!

                              1. In my experience, the funnel and lifter are the most important aids. It's really hard not to drip over the rims using a ladle or spoon without a funnel. Ingredients and glass are hot and it's important that the glass be clean for a good seal. The funnel speeds things along. Getting the jars out of boiling water without the lifter is a challenge.

                                For a rack, use a cake rack or tie/wire together several jar rings and put that on the bottom of the pot. It's important to have hot water circulating all the way around the jars.

                                Use plain tongs to get your lids out of the pot, or tie a magnet to a string.

                                1. If you have one of those pasta pots with a colander fitted to the inside, it works well as a canner and rack for smaller jars.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                                    That's what I use for half-pints and quarter-pints; five of them fit in the pasta strainer (stainless with holes) that sits in the 8-qt stock pot. Keeps batches small and manageable for jams and fruit butters.

                                    Putting up tomatoes is another scale entirely -- and I'd urge anyone starting out to get the general routine down with small batches of jam before taking on that project. Or, as suggested above, hook up with a group that includes some experienced canners.

                                  2. Made a yard sale find (graniteware maybe?)... combo "crab" cooker (big insert with holes ini bottom to steam), rack for jars, funnel and ladle. Already had banged up funnel my grandmother always used. A jar lifter is essential IMO. Don't even try to lift even a half pint out of BOILING water with tongs... even ons with rubber tips.

                                    Before I made this find, used a BIG stock/soup pot, but the real thing holds more jars better.

                                    Some supermarket products (like pasta sauces) come in jars market Ball. Have had success reusing them along with their lids... one with that little "button" that pops up when opened and rubber seal built into lid. I often reuse lids to canning jars, as long as NO dents they'll reseal just fine.

                                    Wouldn't spend money on a lid magnet??

                                    Bought a pressure cooker/canner a few years ago when sister told me I'd like make myself SICK (or worse) if I canned anything with meat (chili, soup, etc) like I do pickles, tomatoes and other high acid stuff?? NOT a high end model, one with that weight thingie that jiggles while working, only holds 4-5 jars at a time.

                                    Definitely check out Ball jar site for tips and safety info.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: kseiverd

                                      I've used the pasta jars too, without a mishap, but have often read that those jars, though marked Ball, are NOT made of the same quality of glass and are not intended to stand up to the canning process.

                                    2. I don't do any pressure canning, but lots of jam and pickles. I rigged my stuff up with an old lobster/stock pot and a round cake-cooling rack. If I'm doing little jars, I put a kitchen towel over the rack to prevent tilting. It just needs to be deep enough to get a good inch of water over the top of the jars.

                                      My essentials are my jar tongs and a funnel. I use a chopstick to get bubbles out. (my chowpup uses my bubble remover thing from my kit for play-dough!)

                                      The Ball Blue Book is a great reference - but they do update it frequently, so get a new one. Should be right next to the cases of new jars and supplies in Walmart.

                                      I love my jar magnet, but it came in the kit (same one kengk linked upthread) - probably wouldn't have bought it separately, but I wouldn't give it up.

                                      Have fun! Oh, you might get to the point where you're giving jars of treats to your friends as gifts. My rule with my good friends is: return my empty jar, and you'll get something from the next batch! I dislike having to keep buying jars.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: tacosandbeer

                                        I agree -- the funnel and the jar lifter are essential.

                                        The lid magnet -- if you have one, great, if you don't, you'll live.

                                      2. One more thing from me learnt the hard way. Start small. Canning is fun but it takes time and you need to assess how much time you have to prepare. The first year I made tomato chow I was over zealous and bought too many tomatoes. I was chopping all weekend. I scorched one of my pots of chow, I was just too tired at the end of it all and would have been better off with a smaller batch. I still canned the scorched batch, it did get gobbled up.

                                        4 Replies
                                        1. re: Ruthie789

                                          and...canning is best as a group effort.

                                          By yourself, it can quickly become a grind...none of it's difficult, but it's a LOT of work....with two or three people talking and laughing, the work passes quickly, and everyone ends up with a pantry full of homemade goodies for only moderately more work than you'd expend on your own. Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother, her two sisters, and one of the sisters' daughters, all crammed into a tiny kitchen, but turning out commercial quantities of canned vegetables for four families for the winter.

                                          Last summer my BF and I packed 30 pounds of tomatoes into salsa and canned tomatoes for sauce. When her husband commented on how much we'd made, we were actually pretty surprised at how much we'd accomplished -- it was "well, no wonder we're tired!"

                                          We were having fun talking and laughing, so it didn't seem like work.

                                          1. re: sunshine842

                                            It is fun in a group and a good way to learn how to can. In Montreal, there is even a group think its called the Preservation Society? to learn this.

                                            1. re: Ruthie789

                                              check with your local county extension services, too -- in some areas they have commercial canning kitchens - you pay a small per-quart or per-pint charge (minimal) and they're there to help you through the steps.

                                              This could easily become a pretty big girls' day out.

                                              1. re: sunshine842

                                                It certainly has made a comeback.

                                        2. Thanks everyone! My friend recommended this kit:

                                          http://www.fishseddy.com/browse.cfm/4...

                                          Know it has a few things I probably don't need, but it's fairly cheap (not as cheap as the amazon ones but only a few block walk from my office so worth the extra $5 for the ease of obtaining it) so whatever. If I don't use the jar wrench I'll just get rid of it eventually. Not sure why there are two sets of tongs but I'll figure it out.

                                          As for the rack, I'll try using my steamer basket and if that doesn't work I'll rig something else. Always can use a folded up towel if necessary. Glad to hear it's not necessary to buy a special rack, though!

                                          Thanks everyone for the helpful tips!!

                                          1. Something else to think about. Most likely, you'll be getting ready to can your fruit/veggies at the HOTTEST past of the summer. You'll have a MASSIVE pot of boiling water on the stove for quite a while.

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: kseiverd

                                              I have seen some canners rent a boiler for outside and cooked all outside. It's not a bad idea, as the house does get hot and the spices etc linger for quite awhile. You really have to do this on a nice day.

                                              1. re: kseiverd

                                                definitely a point to consider.

                                              2. I think jar wrenches are worse than unnecessary, if they're intended to be used to tighten the bands on the lids -- it's important for the seal that those be finger tight but not tighter, so that air can escape during processing. Using a tool rather than your hands seems as if it would risk tightening the bands too far.

                                                3 Replies
                                                1. re: ellabee

                                                  I thought the wrenches were supposed to be for getting the lids off rather than tightening them.

                                                  1. re: JoanN

                                                    Yes - those warm lids contract a *lot* when they cool down, and while I'm not there yet, folks whose hand strength isn't what it used to be need a wrench to get the bands back off.

                                                    1. re: sunshine842

                                                      Good to know; I'm reassured that they're not for tightening.

                                                      That's another incentive for me to stick to half-pints and smaller! I'm one of those people whose hand strength isn't what it used to be, but my hands are large enough to conquer the smaller lids.

                                                2. I have been canning fruit and making jams and jellies for over 30 years as I have been fortunate to be given so much free fruit. The canning kettle I bought many years ago has a rack that is flat on the bottom. The ones I see for sale now have raised places to make a "slot" to place the jar in, I guess so it won't bump against the neighboring jar. I much prefer my older style rack. If I am only going to use pint or half pint jars I use my smaller 6 quart cooking pot with a couple of cake cooler racks in the bottom. I remember being told to not put the jars directly on the bottom of the pot or the heat could crack them, so I have never done so.

                                                  I taught someone how to make jam a few years back and in thanks she gave me some canning tools I had never used before. The magnet stick is so much easier to use than grabbing the lids and rings with tongs, I wish I had had one of those years ago. I like the bubble freer too, my mother never used anything like then when I used to watch her can when I was a child. The jar lifter is a must for canning, my mom didn't use one and I don't remember how she managed but it must have been awkward.

                                                  Just like someone else mentioned, when giving away canned items I always tell the recipient to return the jar so they can get it back later with something else in it. That usually works!