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The ins and outs of safe food canning

Posted 7/23/2009

Two summers ago I had more tomatoes that I knew what to do with. They were spilling out of boxes, shoved into bags and pilling up on top of the kitchen counter. I was frustrated about having so much abundance without a plan for making use of it. There was only so much gazpacho I could eat, and it seemed like a huge waste to let it all go into the compost. I decided to start canning all of my tomatoes.

My mother was not a canner, so I would have to learn this thrifty craft all by myself. Or so I thought. I discovered that right down the hall from my office, Kerry Seymour, our Nutrition Specialist, also helps folks with canning and food preservation. How great is that? Kerry gave me some excellent information to help get me started. She also suggested I visit the Washoe County library. Turns out those fantastic librarians keep the best classic and modern canning books on the shelves.

Canning, I discovered, is relatively simple. I heard stories all of my life about hot kitchens and exploding jars. It turns out that canning is as basic as cooking. You follow a recipe to cook your food, place the cooked food into hot sterilized jars, put the jars in boiling water and then, after a certain amount of time, remove the jars from the boiling water. Yes, my kitchen gets hot, but I have not experienced any exploding jars.

I find canning to be richly rewarding. I have saved quite a bit of money as I don’t buy canned tomatoes, pasta sauce, pickles, jams, jelly or preserves at the store anymore. I also made some really cute labels, and I’m geekishly happy every time I open the pantry to see neat little rows of glass jars with my homemade labels. I am so sure every modern gal needs to know how to can that I have convinced some of my very cosmopolitan friends to preserve their summer bounty too. You can now open pantries in some Somerset and Arrowcreek homes to find lovely glass jars filled with homemade caponata, tomatillo salsa, peach-lavender jam, and bread and butter pickles.

If you are interested in learning this very useful and thrifty craft, you can visit our office at 5305 Mill St.

-- Leslie Allen

Keeping it fun -- and safe

Canning your own food. The whole concept runs counter to our culture of five-minute meals, meal-in-a-bag, eat-while-driving, and lowest-common-denominator fast food. Canning takes planning (“Did you remember to buy the metal lids and pectin?”) and patience (“I don’t think the peaches are ripe yet.”). But there’s also an unexpected sense of excitement that such a quaint activity might be risky, even deadly, if not done correctly (“What are the odds there’s botulism in this under-processed salmon? Feelin’ lucky, pa?”)

The point is to can safely, and to get the maximum flavor and nutrition out of what you, a neighbor or a local farmer has grown. There are lots of how-to canning primers available so I’ll focus on tips to keep you safe and give you the most nutritious product.

Advance work

High-acid foods may be processed in a boiling water-bath. If you plan to can low-acid foods such as vegetables or meats, you’ll be using a pressure canner. Check the rubber gasket and replace if needed. Make sure the safety valve, vent and canner edges are squeaky clean. Just how long has it been since you got the pressure canner gauge tested? Do it annually and replace it if it’s off by more than two pounds of pressure.

Safe preparation

Gather all your equipment, canning jars and a fresh supply of metal lids. Inspect the jars and discard any with cracks or chips. Carefully sort through the food you’re going to can. Discard any produce that is damaged or shows signs of mold. Wash the harvest in small batches in a clean sink of cool water. Use at least two changes of clean water and drain well. Make sure any meat, fish or fowl is absolutely fresh and came from healthy stock.

Wash all jars and lids in hot soapy water, rinse well and keep in hot water until ready to pack. If you’re using a water bath canner in Reno and will be boiling the jars less than 15 minutes, you’ll need to sterilize the jars and lids by boiling them for 15 minutes.

Safe processing

Our Reno-Sparks altitude means our processing times will be longer than if you were canning in San Francisco. This applies to both water-bath and pressure-canning, so double-check that your processing time is correct for your altitude as well as for the type of food and jar size. After processing, remove your jars from the hot water and place them on a counter protected by a thick layer of kitchen towels away from cold drafts. Don’t be tempted to tighten the jar rings or you risk dislodging the seal.

The day after

Press down on the jar lids to make sure that all jars have a solid seal. If you find some that don’t, you have the choice of refrigerating those and eating them within 3 days, freezing the contents or reprocessing.

Safe storage

Label and date your canned goods. Find a dry, dark, cool location for storage. Canned foods will be highest in nutrients when eaten within one year if stored properly, but they can be kept as long as five years.

Canned foods and nutrition

Canning does allow foods to retain most nutrients fairly well (though not quite as well as when eaten fresh or frozen). The fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, minerals (such as potassium), and the protein in meats will all survive the canning process. However, heat-sensitive vitamins like C and some of the Bs will be reduced. In general, the more acidic the food, the better the nutrients are kept. Some of the nutrition from the food will be in the canning liquid so make sure to use this. In the case of vegetables or meats, save the liquid to make soup, stew or cook rice. The liquid from fruits can be mixed with fruit juice, added to smoothies, or frozen in ice cube trays to sweeten and flavor ice tea.

For more information

You may also want to check out two great canning Web sites at The National Center for Home Food Preservation and Ball Canning.

For more information on horticulture and gardening, contact University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, 775-784-4848.

-- Kerry Seymour

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