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Tips & Hints

A Beginner’s Guide to Canning

All About Canning + Pickles

Now is the time of year when people start talking about canning food. And I really want to be one of those people. I do! But I fear I will give myself and everyone around me botulism. Not the sexy kind of botulism that keeps you looking young and permanently surprised either. No, I’m talking about the poison kind of botulism! If you try a new recipe and it doesn’t turn out right, dinner might not taste good, but it’s not the end of the world. But if you try canning and it doesn’t work out right: botulism. I guess you might say I’m a little bit intimidated.

I do love the idea of canning and pickling and all that good stuff, so I decided to ask my Uncle John, the canner in our family, some questions about canning. (And botulism.) He and my Uncle Todd are much more successful at gardening than I am and every year, John cans the harvest–pickles, tomato sauce, you name it, he does it! (If only we lived closer, maybe I could take some of those spare veggies off their hands…)

Canning Pickles
So, will I give my loved ones botulism? How can I know I’ve canned everything correctly?

That was a fear of mine also–my mom always assured me that if I followed all of the sterilization procedures while canning that everything should be fine–and so far, so good. That is why I think getting a guide book about canning is so important, because it will tell you about all of the steps and procedures for each thing you are canning.

Are there some things that are easier to can for beginners like me?

Yes, there are some things that are easier–refrigerator jellies and jams, for example, or pickled beets that are stored in the refrigerator. It is the preparation of the fruit or vegetable for canning that is the most time-consuming. The canning process is pretty quick and easy.

What are the advantages of canning over freezing?

I only can to make certain things–like sauces (tomato, apple, etc.), relishes (like corn or pickled) or sauerkraut or jam and jellies (like grape or strawberry). And by canning these things, I can control what is in them and the quality of the ingredients. If I want just to have, say, a certain vegetable like corn or kale, I will just freeze it. Canning is to make a certain product like applesauce or dill pickles. It isn’t really used to just preserve fruits or vegetables.

There’s a little bit of a stigma against store-bought canned foods, particularly veggies. Can you avoid some of that loss of flavor and texture by canning at home?

By canning things yourself, you are controlling the quality of the end product (for example, organic vegetables from your garden, the amount of salt, etc.), which you can not do with store-bought products. The stuff I can ends up as Christmas presents in baskets of goodies, and the feedback I get is that they are all much better and more favorable than anything that the store has to offer.

How did you get started with canning?

My interest and love of canning comes from my mother. We had a large garden when I was growing up in Fort Collins, Colorado – a necessity to help feed six kids, and also to keep them busy during the summer, weeding, tilling, cleaning and helping with all the canning. My mom canned everything from pickles to fruit and also froze many of the vegetables that were not canned. It was all organic, pesticide-free, and local, all unheard-of terms in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.

Since you’re famous for making pickles, let’s say I wanted to start out with that recipe. What equipment would I absolutely need to buy before starting?

Essentials for Homemade Pickles1. A boiling water bath canner [23-Quart Pressure Canner from Raw Rutes]
2. A jar lifter for removing jars from the water bath [Norpro Jar Lifter from Amazon]
3. Alum
4. Wide-mouth pint- and quart-sized canning jars [Ball Mason Jars from Amazon]
5. Canning and Pickling Salt
6. A canning rack, which can be used in conjunction with a kettle instead of a water bath canner [Stainless Steel Canning Rack from Amazon]
7. Pickling Spices
8. A jar funnel, for filling the jars

I know it’s probably a coveted family secret, but can you share your pickle recipe?

For the dill pickles, you will need the following:

1. Pickling cucumbers – either home-grown or from a farmers market. If I’m buying them, I usually get a half-bushel, and that makes about 17 quart jars of pickles.
2. Jug of white vinegar
3. Bag of sugar
4. Box of canning salt
5. Jar of pickling spices (in spice section)
6. Bay leaves
7. Several garlic cloves
8. Small hot red peppers (dried)
9. Mustard seed
10. Jar of alum
11. Green or dried dill (one head per jar–also at farmers market)

Pickle Jar
To start, you need to make the brine.

1. In a pot, add:

1 quart white vinegar
1 quart water
3 tablespoons pickling spices
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup salt

Bring this to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes. This makes enough brine for 7 pints.

Making Brine for Pickles
2. Fill the water bath kettle with water–about 3/4 full–and bring to a boil.

3. Tip from my mother: wash your jars and lids in the dishwasher. This cleans and sterilizes them.

4. Put the following in each jar:

1 bay leaf
1 clove of garlic
1 hot red pepper
1/2 teaspoon mustard seed
1/2 teaspoon alum
1 head of dill or dill leaves

Then pack the jars with your clean cucumbers–slice in half and quarters if needed. Leave 1/4 inch from the top of the jar as head space.

Once the jars are full, using a funnel and a ladle pour your hot brine mixture over the cucumbers–fill to about 1/4 inch from the top. Wipe the lid of the jar with a clean cloth. Place the lid and ring on the jar and tighten down.

The jars are now ready to be placed into the hot water bath. Using the jar lifter, place the full jars into the hot water bath. If needed, remove some water from the kettle, but all of the jars should be covered with water. Bring back to a boil, and boil for 15 minutes.

Making Pickles
When the jars have been in the hot water bath for 15 minutes, remove them with the jar lifter and place them on the counter. Re-tighten the rings on the jars to make sure they seal. You will know when the jars seal by a popping sound they make as the lid is sucked in and sealed. The center of the lid is solid–no give is also a sign.

You have now made your first jar of dill pickles. I usually put them in the basement on shelves until Thanksgiving (if I’ve made them in September) to let the magic work and turn them into pickles. Enjoy!

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  • Reply
    Kiran @
    September 22, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    Great info on pickling, thanks for sharing! I’ve always been skeptical of canning and this has definitely nudged me towards trying it!!

    • Reply
      September 22, 2013 at 8:24 pm

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who was nervous about canning! 🙂

  • Reply
    Erin @ Texanerin Baking
    September 25, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    So funny. I just finished writing a few comments on my latest FB post about how I’m terrified of canning and how scared I am of botulism. Then I come over here and see this. Will be sharing later today. 😉

    • Reply
      September 25, 2013 at 7:41 pm

      Ha! At least I know now that I’m not the only one out there paranoid about botulism. 🙂

  • Reply
    Mary @ Fit and Fed
    September 25, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    Thanks for this very comprehensive post, it was sweet of you to interview your uncle and share his family recipe. I too have a fear of canning (and of picking my own mushrooms, too). All I have ever made is jam and chutney. I think being cautious is reasonable, but making my own pickles is on my bucket list so I will have to plunge ahead. Thanks for the nudge to try it!

    • Reply
      September 25, 2013 at 7:39 pm

      Oh, I’m with you on the mushrooms too! I could never do that. I love the idea of it, but in practice? No way!

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