The Complete Guide to Canning (Plus 4 Other Ways to Preserve Your Garden Harvest)
Canning isn’t just something the old folks do anymore. In fact, canning and the myriad of other food preservation techniques are making a comeback in popularity as more and more people take up homesteading.
Preserving food from the garden is a great way to reduce food waste and enjoy nutritious homegrown produce year-round. It also has the added benefit of reducing food miles, plus is a great way to save on grocery bills.
Canning might be the most well-known way to preserve food, but it’s far from the only way. Freezing, dehydrating, pickling, and fermenting are other common forms of food preservation, and each method results in a slightly different shelf life. Some kinds of produce are better suited to certain preservation methods than others.
Keep reading for a summary of why fresh produce is so important, as well as a synopsis of each preservation method, plus when and how to use it.
Why bother preserving fresh produce?
Putting up extra produce, whether through dehydrating, freezing, pickling, fermenting, or canning, is a great way to reduce food waste, save money, and eat nutritious homegrown produce year-round.
We’ve all been there: overwhelmed with such an abundant harvest that you can’t eat it all fresh. Rather than add all that nutritious food to the compost pile, preserve the excess so you or someone else can enjoy it later (cans make great Christmas gifts!). Regardless of which preservation method you go with, preserving produce will maximize the use of your garden's bounty and reduce the amount of food that gets thrown away.
We all know how the cost of groceries keeps going up, and it’s never been a better time to grow your own food and put it back for a rainy (or snowy) winter day. If you have the time and space, growing your own food and preserving it can result in significant savings on your grocery bill.
Seasonal eating is essentially eating produce when it is available locally. We live in a world where you can buy tomatoes at the supermarket in winter, but it’s better for the environment to only buy local produce when it’s in season. This cuts down on “food miles” that certain tropical foods like tomatoes and peppers undergo from tropical areas to more temperate climates.
Although food is generally at peak nutrition content when fresh, preservation is a great way to preserve most, if not all, of that nutrition. Some forms of preservation retain more nutrition than others—freezing is best, followed by dehydrating and then canning.
5 common methods of food preservation
Dehydrating is essentially the process of drying or removing moisture from fruits and vegetables, and although having a food dehydrator makes the process easier, it isn’t necessary. You can also dehydrate most foods in the oven and even in the microwave!
Dehydrating foods preserve much of their flavor and nutrients, and once dried, most moisture-rich foods and vegetables have a shelf life of between six months and a year. Vacuum-sealing dehydrated foods can extend their shelf life even longer.
Dehydrating is suitable for berries, apples, herbs, root vegetables (potatoes and beets), and even tomatoes. Cut your fruit or vegetable of choice into slices and place on a dehydrator rack or on a sheet pan in the oven, and cook on the lowest setting for two hours, checking every 30 minutes.
Check out this blog post for a primer on dehydrating herbs (the process is very similar to dehydrating fruits and veggies).
What we love about dehydrating: compact storage, intense flavors, and no refrigeration needed.
What we don’t love: it’s a time-consuming process with limited rehydration options.
2. Blanching and freezing
Certain fruits can go straight from the garden to your freezer (like blueberries) but most vegetables benefit from a process called blanching.
Vegetables are prone to break down, even in the freezer, and blanching slows and halts the enzyme activity responsible for decomposition, preserving the color, texture, and flavor of the vegetables.
- Fill a pot with a couple of inches of water (for steaming) or fill the pot with one gallon of water per one pound of prepared vegetables (for boiling).
- Place rinsed vegetables in a metal basket or strainer, and cover them with a lid.
- Set a timer and briefly boil or steam the vegetables. The time varies based on what vegetable you are blanching and how much; reference this chart from the University of Minnesota Extension for specifics.
- Remove the vegetables from the water when the timer goes off to avoid overcooking them. Transfer to a clearly labeled freezer-safe container and place in the freezer.
Blanching and freezing are suitable for beans, broccoli, carrots, and especially leafy green vegetables. You’ll need a large stock pot with a lid for boiling, a colander, and freezer bags or containers. Blanched and frozen vegetables will keep for eight to twelve months in the freezer.
Why we love freezing: the process is easy, retains nutrients, and frozen vegetables can be used in a variety of recipes.
Why we don’t love freezing: Bags of frozen veggies require a lot of freezer space and have a different texture when thawed.
Pickling is one of the most flavorful and fun food preservation methods and is suitable for cucumbers (obviously) but also peppers, red onions, okra, and even beans—any vegetable you like!
One method of pickling involves canning so that the jars are self-stable (more on that later) but there’s another method of pickling that anyone can do today—quick pickles! Quick pickles involve preserving food in a mixture of vinegar, salt, and spices and must be refrigerated. Quick pickles have a short shelf life of about two months—if they last that long!
Pickling creates tangy and flavorful vegetables that make a fun snack, especially with kids. All you need to make quick pickles at home are jars, lids, vinegar, sugar, Kosher salt, plus your favorite spices (we love using dill and garlic, but coriander and mustard seeds are also great options).
A basic but easily customizable pickle brine involves equal parts water and vinegar and equal parts salt and sugar.
- To prepare veggies for picking, wash and chop vegetables into bite-size slices.
- Make the pickle brine by adding water, vinegar, sugar, and salt to a saucepot and bringing it to a boil.
- When all ingredients are dissolved, remove from the heat and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
- Once cooled, pour the brine over the vegetables in the jars and seal each with a lid.
- Let the jars sit for at least two days for maximum flavor.
Pros of pickling: The tangy taste! Plus you can modify the basic brine recipe with any spice you like.
Cons of pickling: Pickles have a higher sodium content and shorter shelf life.
Fermenting is an age-old practice of preserving food through the activity of beneficial bacteria. Sauerkraut and kimchi are two types of fermented vegetables that you may have already had (or at least heard of). Fermentation enhances flavor and has health benefits too—the good bacteria produced from fermentation actually promotes gut health.
All you need for fermenting are mason jars, lids, salt, spices, and the vegetables of your choice. Fermenting is suitable for most vegetables, including cabbage, carrots, broccoli, beets, and cucumbers.
- First, wash and chop vegetables into slices.
- Add the vegetables and spices to the mason jars, leaving an inch of space at the top of each jar. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of Kosher salt to 2 cups of water, and stir to combine.
- Pour the salt water over the vegetables, filling the jars to the neck, leaving about half an inch of empty space.
- Place lids on the jars and place the jars out of direct sunlight, storing them at room temperature.
- After two days, the jars will start producing bubbles as the vegetables ferment. Burp the jars by opening the lids twice a day to let air bubbles escape.
- After four days, the vegetables are ready to eat. Do a taste test, and if you want the veggies to be a little more tangy, allow them to ferment another day or two.
- Once you’re happy with the taste, place the jars in the fridge to halt the fermentation process.
Fermented veggies will last up to two months in the refrigerator.
What we love about fermenting: The probiotic health benefits, unique flavors, and longer shelf life.
What we don’t love: Fermenting requires a good bit of patience and careful monitoring of the jars.
Finally, there’s canning. You’re familiar with it, but do you know how it works?
Canning works to preserve food by heating the food hot enough to kill the bad bacteria and removing any air pockets, then creating an airtight seal that protects the food in the jars from spoilage by the outside environment.
There are two types of canning—hot water bath canning and pressure canning—and which method you use depends on the food that you’re preserving.
Hot water bath canning is suitable for high-acid foods like fruit, tomatoes, and pickles, while pressure canning is ideal for low-acid foods like potatoes and other vegetables.
Both types of canning provide long-term storage without refrigeration.
Of all the food preservation methods, canning requires the most equipment and the most diligence. You’ll need a canner, jars, clean lids and bands, and a pressure cooker if your goal is to pressure can. You might also find it handy to have tongs, a jar lifter, and a funnel for filling the jars.
It’s best to use a detailed recipe and stick to it when canning, as one slip-up can result in a batch of spoiled jars and botulism. Many folks swear by the Ball Book of Canning and Preserving, which has hundreds of canning, pickling, and other recipes to preserve your summer harvest.
These are the basic steps, which vary slightly depending on which canning method you use:
- First, disinfect the jars, lids, and bands by boiling them in hot water, or running them through the dishwasher.
- Prepare fruits and vegetables by rinsing and chopping them if needed.
- Next, fill the jars, leaving about half an inch of space at the top. Wipe the top of the jars clean.
- Place lids and bands on the jars and carefully lower them into the boiling water, setting a timer for the specified time for that recipe.
- After the timer goes off, carefully remove the jars from the hot water and allow them to cool. Listen and watch for each jar lid to pop up—this signifies that a proper seal was made.
(For pressure canning, modify Step 4 by placing the cans in a pressure cooker at the specified pressure for that recipe)
When prepared properly, canned foods will last for a year or more without refrigeration.
Why we’re obsessed with canning: Canned jars have a long shelf life and there’s no need for electricity to store them, plus most vegetables and fruits can be canned.
The annoying thing about canning: Canning requires a lot of equipment that can be expensive, and the process is very time-consuming with little room for error.
Canning and other food preservation techniques are becoming popular as people return to homesteading to reduce food waste, save money, and enjoy nutritious homegrown produce year-round.
Dehydrating, blanching and freezing, pickling, fermenting, and canning are five of the most common food preservation methods, and each method results in a different shelf life and is suitable for different types of produce and results in a different shelf life.
Now that you know the basics of how and what to preserve, try out some of the preservation methods at home! Use the information in this blog post to serve as a starting point, and do a little more research on canning before attempting your first batch.
Not that you need another chore to do this summer, but every minute you put towards preserving your garden harvest will come back tenfold in fresh-tasting, delicious food that you can eat all winter long.