This post is long overdue and it’s getting super close to the end of the season, but there is still lots of canning to be had if you can get your hands on some seasonal produce. I’m going to show you how to can your own pickles!
Canning is a relatively simple process for preserving your food long term (1-2 years shelf life, usually) that has been done in the home for many decades. Canning is done by cooking the food you want to preserve until hot and ladelling it into heated and sterilized jars. The heat causes the lids to seal into place and safely store the food inside. I use a water bath canning method which is for canning high-acid foods. There is a lot of very important information available online about what you should and shouldn’t can, which I won’t get too detailed about here. ALWAYS use a tried and tested recipe for canning as there is a science to the acid levels in the food being preserved that is critical to the safe consumption of that food later. What the heck am I talking about, don’t you just put food into jars and heat-seal them? Not exactly. There are certain bacteria that thrive in an air-tight, low-acid environment, and they can cause botulism poisoning. Scary!
High-acid foods that can be canned safely using a water-bath method: jams, jellies, marmalades, pickles, sauerkraut, salsas, chutneys, relishes, and fruit butters. Tomatoes and figs are on the borderline and require the addition of acid to make them safe for canning in a water-bath, otherwise they, along with other low-acid foods like vegetables, soups, meats, seafoods, and stocks, require a pressure canner that heats to higher temperatures to ensure all bacteria has been killed.
It sounds intense but as long as you are following a tried and tested canning specific recipe safe for water-bath canning and all of your utensils and supplies are clean, you are going to be fine.
- Large canning pot with jar rack (available at Canadian Tire or other kitchen supply stores, though can also be found at second hand shops. Mine is from VV.)
- Jar lifter
- Large cooking pot
- Measuring cup
- Measuring spoons
- Smaller pot for sterilizing lids
- Optional: a magnetic lid lifter and/or a rack for easy removal of lids from hot water
- Clean dishtowels
- Flat of canning jars (size is important, if the recipe calls for 250ml jars don’t just use half as many 500ml jars; the recipe has been tested to heat the contents of the jar to a specific temperature to kill bacteria, larger jars require longer processing times to heat evenly.)
- Recipe book. (I started with a copy of Food in Jars by Marisa McClellan and strongly recommend it! She also has a huge recipe index on her website.)
Step two: Process your jars and lids. Lids can be submerged in boiling water in a small pot for several minutes then reduced to a mild simmer until they are needed (watch out for the pot boiling dry, I have done it a couple times. Oops!) Fill the canning pot with water and bring to a boil. Once boiling, use the jar lifters to load up the rack with jars and submerge them completely (at least 2 inches of water over the tops of the jars) in the boiling water for about 10 minutes. It helps when loading the rack to pour some hot water into the empty jars so they don’t float when you lower the rack.
Step three: While your jars and lids are processing, prepare your foods. In my case I chopped up our homegrown cucumbers into lengthwise chunks and put the ingredients for the brine (vinegar, water, salt) into the large cooking pot and brought it to a boil. A note about cucumbers: you can’t just pickle any kind of cucumber! They have to be specifically for canning purposes, otherwise they will go soggy and gross. Ensure you get pickling cucumbers with a thick skin to avoid a limp pickle (nobody likes a limp pickle.) Step four: Once the jars are done being processed, carefully lift the rack and remove the jars one by one with the jar lifters and place them onto the clean towel, pouring the water back into the canning pot. Following your recipe carefully, measure out the spices called for and equally distribute them between the jars. Step five: Pack your cucumber slices tightly into the jars. Seriously, fill them as full as you can without crushing the cucumber. After they soften the jars can look underfilled quickly and you want as many pickles as you can get!
Step six: Using the mason jar funnel, carefully pour the heated brine into the jars, leaving “headroom” of about 1/2″ (meaning fill the jars until there is 1/2″ of space left at the top.) Using a clean chopstick, jostle the cucumbers to remove any air bubbles and help things settle.
Step seven: Using a clean dishtowel or papertowel, carefully wipe the rims of the jars clean and dry. Using the magnetic lid lifter and/or lid rack pull the lids out of the simmering water and dry them with a clean cloth or paper towel. Gently place the lids onto the jars and screw down the ring just finger tight. Don’t crank it down, there needs to be a way for air to escape the jar during the heat process.
Step eight: Gently load the jars back into the canning rack, careful not to tip them, this can cause liquid to get between the lid and the jar which will wreck the seal. Lower the jars into the boiling water and process for the time specified in your recipe (usually 5-10 minutes.) Once your timer has gone off, use the jar lifters to bring the jars out of the canner and place them on a towel on the counter. They will obviously be really hot, so don’t try to pick them up or move them until they have cooled. You’ll probably notice that right away some of the lid ” buttons” will pop into the sealed position. This is good! If it takes a few minutes for the button to depress that is ok too. Once cooled enough to handle, remove the ring and test the seal by picking up the jar by the edge of the metal lid. If it holds then the seal is good and you can store the pickles in your pantry. If the seal breaks and the lid comes off, simply wipe down the rim and use another sterilized lid, then process again.
Always label and date your pickles so if for some reason you don’t eat them fast enough you don’t end up serving or giving away old pickles. They should be ok for pantry storage for about 1-2 years (I have read online that some people eat pickles years and years after the canning date and they are still fine. Store them in a dark and cool pantry and they could last for a long, long while.)
That’s all you need to do! Give it a try, there’s lots of other stuff you can pickle with a water-bath safe recipe like beans and carrots. Now that you’ve got the basics of canning you can also give jams and jellies a try, or make a salsa with late in season tomatoes, or even a salsa verde with green tomatoes. Again, when canning tomato sauces or salsas, ensure there is an added acid like lemon juice or vinegar to create an environment that botulism won’t survive. I’ll say it once more, ALWAYS use a tried and tested recipe. Get a copy of Food in Jars or a recipe book from a reputable source like Bernardin or Ball. Make 100% sure recipes you find online are appropriate for canning. Canning is safe, but of course we need to be clean and do things properly to avoid risk. If you have any questions please ask!
ENJOY YOUR PICKLES!