Adventures in Home Canning

It took a cross-country flight, a ferry ride, a two-hour drive and a lady named Midge from Indiana for me to learn the fine art of canning.

While planning my trip to Seattle earlier this summer, I asked my friend Kate, a self-proclaimed hippie who's done her fair share of homesteading and living off the land, if she could teach me how to can. Much to my surprise, Kate was equally in the dark as this home-canning rube, so we agreed to embark on this adventure together.

A view of the Olympic Mountains from Kate's front yard in Port Angeles. (Leslie Silverman)

It was decided that the canning extravaganza would take place at Kate's house in Port Angeles, Wash. About 90 miles northwest of Seattle, Port Angeles is a funky Olympic Mountain town known for Dungeness crabs, endless lavender fields and its close proximity to Victoria, B.C. It's also where the short story writer Raymond Carver is buried and lived with his wife, Tess Gallagher, before his death in 1988.

In preparation, Kate bought a set of wide-mouth quart and half-pint jars from Velma at the Serenity House thrift store, and my Seattle houseboat pal Leslie and I picked up a case of peaches and a flat of irresistible-looking raspberries from the Ballard farmers' market.

In a perfect world, we would have roadtripped to Port Angeles the night before and been fresh for a morning of canning, but alas, we got a late start and did both the drive as well as the canning all in one day. We also were short on lemons, sugar and additional canning supplies such as a rack, seals, wide-mouth funnel, but that meant a visit was in order to Swain's, the coolest general store on the planet, a blast from the sawdusty hardware-store past. (I bought a fab pair of purple galoshes in the midst of the madness.)

Yours truly in the midst of canning madness. (Leslie Silverman)

Back in the kitchen, we begin to peel through various books, including "Joy of Cooking," an antiquated copy of a canning guide from jar manufacturer Kerr's and two cookbooks from Seattle-area chef, cookbook author and preserving aficionado Greg Atkinson.

While I perused Atkinson's books for simple recipes using peaches and berries, the girls studied the other books for canning technique and safety. We were feeling a bit overwhelmed, particularly by the process, but then Kate announces there is a backyard resource in our midst available for consultation. She rings up Midge, a neighbor's mother-in-law visiting from Indiana, who grew up canning in North Dakota, and has continued the tradition as a married lady for the past 47 years.

Midge lent us a special set of tongs to help with jar extraction from boiling water and an extra wide pot (think lobster pot) and wished us luck.

While I blanched, peeled and pitted the peaches, Kate brought up three huge pots of water to a boil, outfitted us with aprons and cranked up the tunes on her record player. Yep, that's right, we canned to vinyl from the 70s, a mix of Earth, Wind & Fire, Aretha Franklin, Doobie Brothers and Santana to keep us on our canning toes.

For the next several hours, we played with boiling water, jars and seals, an incredibly gratifying experience that requires not two, but three people to do the job without feeling overwhelmed. Everyone had a job, which required our full attention and precision, not to mention a constant supply of boiling water.

After two projects, we were tuckered out, hungry and ready for wine. In the morning, we called Midge and asked her to verify our seals and we got gold stars of approval. Unfortunately, our jam was more like "syrup" or compote that you'd use on pancakes or waffles, but it was delicious nonetheless.

Below, the recipes we used, followed by a few pointers e-mailed from readers with canning experience. And by all means, share your canning tales, tips and tricks in the comments area below.

And yes, I'll be canning again. We three have agreed to make this an annual tradition, back in Port Angeles. Kate says she's been invited to a canning party this month, and I'm thinking I could use more practice; I just need to find a few eager kindred spirits. Tomatoes, anyone?

The canned fruits of our labor. (Kim O'Donnel)

Home-Canned Peaches With Vanilla Beans
From "In Season" by Greg Atkinson

16 freestone peaches
6 cups water
3 - 3 ½ cups granulated sugar
4 vanilla beans

To sterilize jars: In a canning kettle or large stockpot filled with boiling water, submerge wide-mouthed, quart-sized canning jars and allow them to simmer while peaches are being prepared. Make sure the jars are completely covered with water.

"In a separate pot of boiling water, blanch peaches for about 1 minute to help loosen skins and ease peeling. With tongs, extract peaches and place in an ice bath to cool. Peel peaches and slice in half; remove pits.

In a large saucepan, combine water and sugar. Stir until dissolved and bring mixture up to a boil. Cook for a minute, then remove pot from heat and allow to rest.

With canning tongs, remove jars from simmering water and place on a table lined with an absorbent towel. Empty jars of water (do one at a time) and place 7 or 8 peach halves and 1 split vanilla bean in each sterilized jar.

Using wide-mouthed funnel, pour syrup over peaches, leaving ½ inch headspace at top of each jar. Seal jars according to manufacturers' instructions (available in canning guides or on packaging of canning seals).

Dip one corner of a clean towel into boiling water and wipe lips of jars to remove dirt, remaining food, etc. You want a pristine lid environment.

Place sealed jar back in boiling water (rack is useful( and allow to boil for 30 minutes. Lift out of water bath and allow jars to cool, undisturbed, for several hours or overnight.

Note from Midge: Jars will "ping" on their own telling you that they have properly sealed, or you can test jars the next day, tapping the center of the jar tops with a knife (or something metal). If the jar "sings," the seal is good; if the sound is dull and hollow, the seal is incorrect. Those jars must be refrigerated and used within a few weeks. Properly sealed jars can store in a cool, dark place for up to one year.

Makes 4 quarts.

Backyard Raspberry Jam
From "West Coast Cooking" by Greg Atkinson

4 cups raspberries (we used a combination of raspberries and blackberries)
½ cup lemon juice
4 cups sugar


To sterilize jars: In a canning kettle or large stockpot filled with boiling water, submerge wide-mouthed, half pint-sized canning jars and allow them to simmer, while fruit is being prepared. Make sure jars are completely covered with boiling water.

Meanwhile, mash berries over high heat with lemon juice in a saucepan. Bring up to a boil, then add sugar and return to a boil. Cook until mixture has reached a temperature of 220 degrees. Take off heat.

Ladle jam into sterilized jars.

Dip one corner of a clean towel into boiling water and wipe lips of jars to remove dirt, remaining food, etc. You want a pristine lid environment. Seal jars according to manufacturers' instructions (available in canning guides or on packaging of canning seals).
Return jars to boiling water for 5 minutes.

Lift out of water bath and allow jars to cool, undisturbed, for several hours or overnight.

Makes 5 half-pint jars.

Reader Tips:

Erin from Rochester, NY writes: "For inspiration about canning that doesn't require you to turn your kitchen 
into a factory, I recommend reading Laurie Colwin's essay "Jam Anxiety" in 
More Home Cooking. Then check out Edon Waycott's "Preserving the Taste," a
 short book that gives a fine basic overview of basic preserving projects and 
includes recipes that aren't unpleasantly sweet

Yvonne from Fort Wayne, Ind. suggests canning in a dishwasher: "Process your tomatoes into juice or whatever, put hot juice into hot jars, add hot lids and rings [follow package directions]. Put in dishwasher without soap. Put on normal cycle with hot drying. By the time the jars have run through the cycle and cooled they are sealed.) Excellent when you have a bonanza of tomatoes because you can can everything in one batch instead of standing over a hot stove all day with multiple batches."

Sarah from Long Island, NY , who canned as a kid with her mother recommends" "super strong magnets on an extending arm. They collapse into a pen size/shape, but you can make them longer, and they make it really easy to get the lids and seals out of hot (but not boiling!) water. Here's a picture of one from amazon - they often have them at hardware stores. " ( )

"They also sometimes sell something similar with canning supplies for 4 times the price, but it's not always extendable - I really like having the extra length, when I have 3 or 4 kettles going on the stove."

By Kim ODonnel |  September 7, 2007; 10:54 AM ET Backyard Cooking , Canning/Preserving , Discoveries
Previous: Pie Auction 101 | Next: The Time Is Now for Ratatouille


Please email us to report offensive comments.

there used to be a cannery in herndon, va; next to the intermediate school. i remember in the 70s going with my mom & canning the veggies we grew from our garden.
the cannery has closed. i don't even know if the building is still there anymore.

Posted by: quark | September 7, 2007 12:37 PM

Adding some grated lemon peel to the raspberry jam might help to solidify it a bit more -- around 1 lemon's worth of peel per pint of berries. Apparently there's a pectin-like chemical in a lemon peel that will help make the jam thicker.

Glad to see you had a fun time canning! I'm glad it's making a comeback.

Posted by: frecklelentil | September 7, 2007 2:19 PM

I canned orange marmalade earlier this summer (with added pectin), and it too is very syrupy. Although the recipe did mention that it should "set up" for at least two weeks before use.

I've also been wondering about canning tomatoes...we've got a TON of them in the garden, but I've read both that you should not process them in hot water (use a pressure canner instead) and that you can. What's a girl to do? I've been making sauce and freezing it (I don't have a pressure cooker), but I think the next batch I'll just can as plain tomatoes in hot water. Anyone know if you can can tomato soup, or would that be better frozen too?

Posted by: Anonymous | September 7, 2007 2:37 PM

I'm not surprised that your "jam" was more like syrup without any pectin. The only berries I have found that have enough natural pectin to set on their own are cranberries and blueberries.

Posted by: Jasmine | September 7, 2007 4:01 PM

Ack! Canning in a dishwasher is really asking for botulism. Very, very bad idea, I'm sorry. Yes, the jars will seal, but you won't have the temperature necessary to kill the bad things.

But Kim, if you get to Pittsburgh, I'd be happy to can tomatoes with you!

Posted by: CC | September 7, 2007 8:10 PM

Tomatoes are very high acid and can be done in a hot water bath just fine. I just canned a batch of tomato soup and it came out great! You'll find the recipe if you search the phrase: "Mennonite mother's tomato soup." Strange, i know, but the recipe worked out very well.

Posted by: ScoutOut | September 7, 2007 11:06 PM

Even at the age of 54, I can remember late Augusts canning with my mother and grandmother. What I remember most, aside from the comaraderie, was the excruciating, never-ending heat.

A row of canning jars can be exquisite with all the beautiful colors, but I am now a confirmed "preserve by freezing" fan.

To make a basic sauce which simply sings of summer, put tomatoes through a food mill, cook briefly with lots of fresh basil, and freeze.

Posted by: Judi Hershel | September 8, 2007 10:00 AM

Tomatoes can certainly be done in a hot water bath, but a dishwasher still doesn't qualify, I'm afraid. Yours may very well get hot enough for long enough, but there's no guarantee that every dishwasher will. The bottom line is, in order to be sure you're canning safely, you have to do it in such a way that you can monitor the temperature and time at that temperature, and you just can't guarantee that in every dishwasher, everywhere.

Posted by: CC | September 8, 2007 10:42 PM

Canning 101. I can still see us rocking as those berries came to a rolling boil. After years growing, processing and freezing food for my family, I found canning easier than I thought although laborious. Having a group of friends to do it with makes it easier and something to look forward. Now, we have a whole year to plan for Canning 102!

Posted by: Kate | September 9, 2007 1:53 AM

This morning (Sun, 9/9/07) I read Kim's blog article on canning, and in the afternoon I came across an article about the CALLAWAY CANNERY, a community cannery in the Blue Ridge mountains, near Roanoke. The article appeared in the September/October 2007 issue of GRIT magazine ("America's Rural Lifestyle Magazine"): . (Strictly coincidental - I had never heard of this magazine before today when I found it in a grocery store while visiting in Massachusetts - the rural part of western MA.) You can read the article by going to the site.
Thanks for sharing your experience.

Posted by: MNC | September 9, 2007 11:46 PM

Use Sure-Jel or Certo to get your jams/jellies to be the consistency you were anticipating. Follow the directions included in the package.
If you want to become a serious canner, invest in a Pressure Canner, (Wal-Mart has them, they run around $70) and it will last for decades and your canned products will be safe. Follow the directions included with it as well. My original Pressure canner is 40 years old and is still going strong, and I bought a second one about 5 years ago so I could process twice as fast. The new one is thinner walled and cools much faster. You cannot
reduce the steam in a steam pressure canner by running water over the lid, the
rapid cooling pulls the juices right out of the jars and will result in some not sealing properly. Try canning in a Pressure canner, you only have to wash & rinse the jars, scald with hot water if desired, but the steam in the canner will sterilize them and their contents.

Posted by: Steubenville, OH | September 10, 2007 9:59 AM

I'm a proud New Jersey canner - I've only ever canned tomatoes but they are awesome! I learned from watching my mother and grandmother can. I feel very Laura Ingalls Wilder every time I do it!

Posted by: Coulkatnj | September 10, 2007 3:12 PM

Hah, I had the opposite problem when I canned raspberry jam a few weeks ago -- mine ended up very...solid. I canned blackberry jam a few days later, and it was a lot better, though. I've also had a canning frenzy this summer -- I've done tomatoes (and have 7 more pounds to be canned tomorrow night) those jams, and I'm planning on peaches soon. And I've done it all by myself, but in my kitchen with a good amount of space. The key was to go slowly and give myself plenty of time for everything, but so far everything except for one small jar of raspberry jam has sealed up perfectly!

Posted by: Jasmine | September 11, 2007 5:49 PM

Kim - I've been dying to learn the art (and science) of canning for years. If you want to have a local canning party - I'm in!

Posted by: MBinDC | September 12, 2007 1:37 PM

I remember canning with my parents as a small child. We'd go pick the peaches and pears, and then my brother and I would stand on chairs at the sink. After the peaches were blanched and put in cold water our job was to rub the skin off. For the pears we were given teaspoons to remove the cores of the peeled and cut fruit. We were also responsible to stuff fruit or cucumbers into jars. I'm single and in a small apartment and it's no longer cost-effective to can so many things unless you grow the produce yourself or have a good cheap farm source. Because of space considerations, I limit myself to jam and jellies, and right now I have 4 cases of half-pint jars of miscellaneous varieties in the pantry. Since that's more jam than I could eat in a year, I've found that homemade jam and a loaf of bread is a very popular gift.

For people interested in preserving the Ball Book is essential. This summer I also found The Complete Book of Small Batch Preserving. It is a quirk of this book that not everything comes out in convenient quantities (like 3 3/4 c instead of 3 or 4) and they don't seem to have intended everything to be canned or frozen. But a good read when you want to be inspired.

Posted by: Marianne | September 12, 2007 2:26 PM

I have been canning tomatoes for more than 10 years. I buy my tomatoes from the farmers market by about 25 lbs each box. I have a starter tomato sauce recipe that I received from our American mother. I have done 80 canning jars of tomatoes this year. I use them for soup, stew, sauces and anything that needs tomatoes. We usually finish them up by the time the next season of tomatoes become available the following year. We love them because they are very healthy, organic and no preservatives. It's a lot of work but it's worth the work.

Posted by: rumer4864 | September 13, 2007 11:45 AM

I can on my own all the time! Of course it would be fun to do with someone, but with a little organization and the right tools, it's not so daunting, even in my small kitchen. Last summer was the first time I tried canning. After seeing me struggling using my biggest pots, my mother gave me a Ball canning set which really makes things much simpler!

Last night I finally canned peach jam (or is it a preserve?) and peach chutney. I followed Amanda Hesser's recipe and technique for peach jam with ginger from her wonderful seasonal cookbook, The Cook and the Gardener, and Martha's recipe for peach chutney with cumin from her magazine last summer. The thing that always perplexes me is the suggested cooking times to reach the desired gel stage. I do the freezer plate test to see how the liquid sets up and it always takes twice as long as recommended to get to that point, though I cook on medium to prevent scorching. One tip of Amanda's to reduce the foam is to add a pat of butter to the boiling liquid. Calms down the bubbles every time.

Posted by: Sean | October 3, 2007 1:31 PM

My mother in law inspired me to start canning this summer. I did bread and butter pickles and applesauce so far. It is a lot of hard work to do it yourself, but to me it's the learning curve. What helped me was to figure out where in my kitchen everything should be placed so that it would be convenient. When I fooled around with different setups and finally stumbled upon the right combination, I drew a map of our kitchen and where I placed everything. This will be handy for future reference.

We plan on making organic blueberry jam as Christmas gifts for our friends and neighbors this year. I also glad to see the comeback in this. It is enormously gratifying!

Posted by: Therese | November 4, 2007 7:35 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company