Imagine it’s January, there’s snow outside and the temperature is below freezing. Wouldn’t it be nice to go to your cupboard and pull out a little bit of summer? Perhaps a big jar of vanilla pears or snap green beans or even some mango salsa?

If the thought of canning your own produce scares you half to death, know that I used to feel the same way. The whole process seemed too daunting, too large. But one day I took the plunge, and I’m so glad that I did.

How to Begin

Getting set up for canning would be expensive if you bought all of your supplies brand new. The good news is that you don’t have to do that. You can find canning equipment at garage sales and thrift stores. If you have elderly family members or friends, ask them if they have any equipment or supplies to pass down to you. More than likely, they will be thrilled to find someone who wants to carry on the art canning and pass it onto her children. Almost all of my canning equipment, including a large selection of jars, came from older acquaintances. I simply mentioned that I wanted to learn the art of canning to a few people and, before I knew it, my cupboards were full. All I pay for is labels and lids. Sometimes I forgo the labels and write on the lids with permanent marker.

Basic equipment that you’ll need for the Boiling-Water Canning Method (for high-acid foods such as fruits, including tomatoes):

There are other goodies that you can acquire, but these will get you started. If you’re going to can jellies or jams, you’ll want to add pectin and Fruit Fresh to your grocery list.

Once you’ve been canning a year or so and feel ready to can low-acid foods, such as vegetables and meats, then you will need to add a steam-pressure canner to your list of basic equipment. At that time you can look to acquire more specialized equipment, such as a food sieve, apple peeler/corer/slicer, or lid wand.

Finding Produce

The first place to look for produce is, of course, your own garden. Keep canning in mind when you plan your garden. For example, if you want to can a year’s worth of salsa, you’ll need to plan on planting plenty of tomatoes and peppers.

When your friends find out that you’re canning, they’ll bring their garden surpluses to you. I’ve been given full bushels of green beans as well as bags of tomatoes, peppers, and more. The children and I have also been invited by friends to pick pears and strawberries on their property.

Farmers’ markets are another great resource. Not only do you get fresh produce, often picked that morning, you get the wise counsel of the farmer. Don’t be shy and ask as many questions as your heart desires. I have found farmers to be wonderfully friendly and happy to share advice. They can tell you the best variety of apples for applesauce versus apple pie filling versus apple rings. They can tell which variety of peaches are best for eating fresh and which are best for making jam. They may even have a recipe or two to share.

My children can for 4-H and the county fair. The farmers especially love answering their questions and helping them choose their produce. In fact, upon finding out that we’re canning for 4-H, the farmer will usually give the children a little break on price or a few free samples.

Another resource is universities. We live close to Michigan State University, which has a degree program in agriculture. For this reason, they have several big produce sales at the end of harvest season. Also look into community gardens, co-ops, and city markets.

What's Next?

Now that you have your equipment and your produce, you’re ready to get the real work. I highly recommend finding an experienced canner to help you with your first canning attempt. She can help you get over any little bumps and answer last-minute questions. Most of all, she can give you peace of mind. There’s nothing like having a friend close by when trying something new.

Plan ahead for canning day. Check the recipes that you have chosen and make sure that you have all of the equipment, supplies, and produce needed. Borrow anything that you don’t yet own. For example, if you’re attempting apple rings for the first time, you may need to borrow your friend’s apple peeler/corer/slicer.

If the children are helping, write out a list of everyone’s assignments and the order they will take place. Even the youngest of children can help with simple tasks, such as rinsing off produce or handing Mom supplies. Older children can slice and dice. My children’s favorite job is turning the crank of the sieve when we make applesauce or tomato sauce.

The kitchen should be clean and uncluttered. Everything should be laid out and ready to use. You’ll be less stressed and everything will go smoothly if you take care of these things in advance.

Next sterilize everything, following the instructions in your Ball Blue Book of Preserving. While waiting for everything to sterilize, you can start your prep work. Wash, peel, slice, dice, etc. As you prepare your recipe, get your water bath canner on the stove. After checking your jars for any cracks, fill them according the directions and seal. After removing them from the canner, put them onto a dry, clean tea cloth where they can sit for the next 24-hours. Check to make sure they do indeed seal and then put them up to enjoy come winter. Or enter them in the county fair!

Canning is not only thrifty, but it is very educational for your homeschooled children. My children love helping and they’ve learned a tremendous amount about food safety and food preservation. An additional benefit is that the food you preserve will taste better and be healthier than anything you can buy in the store. To learn more about canning, check out the following books and websites:

For recipes:

Food preservation websites from 4-H for homeschooling lessons:

Copyright 2009 Maureen Wittmann