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Top 5 Canning Tips For Newbies And New Kitchens

Using best beginner canning tips yields, from left, homemade apple butter, sweet pickles, rose water marmalade, tomatoes, and green beans even on busy days in cramped kitchen quarters. Credit: Susan Lutz

Using best beginner canning tips yields, from left, homemade apple butter, sweet pickles, rose water marmalade, tomatoes, and green beans even on busy days in cramped kitchen quarters. Credit: Susan Lutz

The process of canning food can seem daunting at first. There’s a long list of equipment to assemble, complex instructions to follow, and the nagging feeling that if you do it wrong you may inadvertently spoil the fruits of your labor. I’ve done my fair share of canning, but after moving four times in the past five years, I’ve been repeatedly thrust back into beginner mode. Even for an experienced food preservationist, canning food in an unfamiliar kitchen is like being a newbie again.

With each move and each misplaced box of Mason jars, I have returned to basics. And nothing is more basic to a well-stocked kitchen than canning. I enter my new kitchen like all first-time canners — open to many possibilities as I begin to work in unfamiliar territory. With these tips and strategies you’ll stay organized and ready to preserve that bushel of fragrant peaches you couldn’t resist at your local farmers market.

5 best canning tricks for beginners

1. Create a canning center somewhere in your home.

Nothing will derail your project faster than an inability to find your tools. The location for your canning center doesn’t have to be large or fancy. It doesn’t even need to be in the kitchen. For the past year, I’ve kept my canning supplies in two giant plastic storage containers. One container corrals my canner, various small tools and my favorite canning recipes. The second container is full of canning jars stacked in their original storage flats or carefully wrapped in packing paper. Choose any color you like for your system. (My containers are bright blue — unlike any other storage container I own.) Just make sure that you can identify your canning supplies at 20 paces, even in a crowded storage room or basement.

2. Be a jar hoarder and an equipment re-gifter.

I hesitate to tell anyone to be a hoarder, but it is necessary to have a  selection of jar sizes on hand if you want to can a variety of foods. Whether you’re new to canning or you’ve purged your home of jars before a cross-country move as I did, you’ll need to stock up on jars. Look at your favorite recipes — or recipes you want to try — and see what kind of jars (and how many) the recipe requires. I hoard every canning jar that comes my way. I also watch for sales at my local hardware store and big box stores. Canning jars start going on sale in late summer, especially in stores that consider canning a summer-only pursuit.

You can free up space for your jar stash by purging your home of unnecessary kitchen equipment. I get rid of any tool I haven’t used in two years and generously gift my friends and neighbors with tools I no longer use.

3. Test your equipment before you want to use it.

If you don’t use all the burners on your stove on a regular basis, check them to make sure they’re operational — especially the largest front burner. Check all glass canning jars for nicks and cracks. Be sure that metal rings are free of rust. It’s easy to break a thermometer or discover that the batteries have corroded inside your favorite kitchen timer since you last used it. The time to discover these problems is before you have a flat of ripe strawberries sitting on your kitchen counter. If the tools and jars look OK, wash them in hot soapy water (except electronic devices, of course) and let them dry thoroughly before starting your project.

4. Allow twice as much time as you think you need for the process.

It’s amazing how long it can take to read directions, especially for a beginner. Recipes are usually written for experienced cooks, and I’ve found that they often underestimate the time required. Read the amount of work time suggested by your recipe and double it. This will give you time to hunt down missing tools and still finish your project before you need to pick kids up from school or make dinner. If you finish early, congratulate yourself and use the time to make yourself a cup of tea after all your hard work. The dirty dishes can wait.

5. Conduct a test run.

I do a dry run of every canning project as I start to boil water in my canner. (This is yet another reason to double the time required for any recipe.) It may seem silly — especially if you’ve already read the directions once — but it’s easy to make mistakes or take the layout of your kitchen for granted while working under pressure. You won’t realize how far away your stove is from the closest available countertop until you try to unload a dozen boiling jars from a steaming canner. And potholders always seem to run away just as the timer goes off. A dry run will help you work out the kinks in your process and put the tools you need in the place you’ll need them.

Main photo: Using the best beginner canning tips yields homemade apple butter, sweet pickles, rose water marmalade, tomatoes and green beans, even on busy days in cramped kitchen quarters. Credit: Susan Lutz

Zester Daily contributor Susan Lutz is a photographer, artist and television producer. A native of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, she lives near Washington, D.C., where she is writing a book about heirloom foods and the American tradition of Sunday dinner. She also blogs about the subject at Eat Sunday Dinner.

  • Hamilton 8·12·14

    The canning tips are really helpful, but I’m a complete newbie. Even this information seems a little beyond me. What’s the best beginner’s manual for a new canner? And do you think you can learn canning from a book or should you really learn it in a class or from someone else?

  • Linda 8·12·14

    My plan for the day is to can the sweet pickles in the 2 crocks. Then with a kitchen full of our ripe garden tomatoes, I must can those today. I agree that organization is the key.

  • Jane 8·12·14

    A wonderful article for beginners. Back in my day I never made more than jam because the “real” canning process seemed so intimidating. And it is true that it always takes twice as long as you plan, and then (sob) you have to clean up the kitchen and utensils and the blobs of jam in odd places.

  • susan lutz 8·12·14

    Hamilton- This is the perfect season to become a canner. I recommend that you start by reading the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning, which can be downloaded here. By all means, take a class from a reputable source. Sometimes this comes from a friend or neighbor, but do double-check their process against the USDA’s canning guide just to be safe. If your state has a Master Food Preserver Program, look for classes in your area. (Perhaps I’m biased because I was trained by the MFP program, but I think this is your best best.) Your state’s cooperative extension office is another great resource. Check out this link to find a food safety specialist in your state.

  • susan lutz 8·12·14

    Linda- I hope you enjoy the process. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the canned pickles and tomatoes (as will your family!)

  • Winston 8·12·14

    A home garden full of produce doesn’t hurt

  • susan lutz 8·12·14

    Winston- You’re right. Garden produce can’t be beat. I didn’t grow anything besides container plants this year, but I hope for a garden full of tomatoes next summer.

  • susan lutz 8·12·14

    Jane- I completely understand your hesitation. But it’s worth the trouble, at least most of the time. It helps to have a kitchen partner who doesn’t mind scrubbing the kitchen cabinets in exchange for a season’s worth of homemade jam. (My husband is good that way.)

  • Danielle 8·17·14

    This is great advice – I will save this article in case I ever get brave enough to do some canning. I have certainly never tasted any commercial jam as good as your mother’s!

  • susan lutz 8·17·14

    Danielle- The homemade stuff is almost always better. Give it a shot! (And let me know how it goes…)

  • Jessy Shaw 7·24·15

    My mother always did canning when I was growing up and I decided that I want to get started myself. I would really love to do some different jams and other things. I have been thinking about getting a can seamer to help me do hot chocolate mixes. I will definitely be following these tips. Thanks for sharing!