Canning 101

Every summer growing up I would watch my mom put up several batches of fruit and jam from local produce. It was an exhausting process, but I don’t think we ever ate store-bought jam. Instead, we were able to enjoy delicious produce all year long because my mom knew how to can. As I entered my teenage years I started helping her more and developed a love (or obsession, depending who you ask) for canning myself.

Canning is a great skill to have, especially if you have access to produce (from neighbors or your own garden). It is not that hard to do and only requires a few pieces of equipment. I love it because we often get power-outages at our home due to wind, and while I worry about our frozen foods spoiling, I never have to worry about the jars of food I have preserved. I also love knowing exactly what is in my foods and being able to make healthy foods for my family with my home-grown produce.

All the colors of these canned goods will give us a rich and varied diet through the bleak winter months.

Canning comes in basically two flavors. There is regular water-bath canning, arguably the most common form, where jars are submerged in boiling water. There is pressure canning, where jars are placed in a pressurized vessel for a particular amount of pressure and time. (There is also freezer canning, but this does not produce jars that are shelf stable.)

Why choose one method over the other? It is not really a choice, it all depends on what you’re canning!

Fruits, fruit spreads, and pickled goods are suitable for water-bath canning. This method capitalizes on a few features for preserving the produce: acidity (generally in the form of vinegar or lemon juice) and heat. By heating the jars up to boiling temperature and adding an acid, enzymes and other microorganisms are killed. The heat creates a vacuum when the jars are removed from the bath and food is kept preserved for years.

Foods like vegetables in plain water (not pickled) and meats don’t have enough acid to be safely canned in a water-bath canner so they must be pressure canned to get to the appropriate temperature to make the foods safe. I am not as familiar with this method (despite my wonderful brother-in-law getting me a pressure canner as a wedding gift, but it’s something I’m going to look more into in the future. It’s important to have your pressure canner checked yearly to ensure the gauge is working correctly.

In water bath canning, the acidity of the food kills the microorganisms that can cause illness or spoilage, along with heat to remove oxygen and create a vacuum. For foods with low acidity, the temperature needed to kill these microorganisms CANNOT be achieved in a water bath canner, so a pressure canner must be used to make these foods safe. You can use a pressure canner to can both high and low acid foods, but water bath canning is exclusively for high acid foods.

It is critical when you’re canning for food preservation to follow the correct steps of a tested recipe. This is not the time or place to experiment. The National Center for Home Food Preservation has a great free guide that goes into more detail here. I myself only follow recipes from cookbooks produced by companies such as Ball. These have been tested for safety and they have a lot of other good information in them including troubleshooting issues.


How We Canned Our Tomatoes

This is meant to be a general overview of canning, please follow an approved recipe when canning your own produce.

As you may have read in one of my other posts, we had a delightful bumper crop of tomatoes this year. I planted these with canning in mind (nothing beats homemade chili from homegrown tomatoes in the winter!), so I picked two varieties of Roma tomatoes. These are known for being good sauce tomatoes with their great flavor and lower water content compared to other regular tomatoes.

When enough tomatoes were ripe, I enlisted my husband to help start canning them. We canned halved tomatoes and some tomato sauce.

Before prepping the food, I like to get my water bath started. Check jars for chips, cracks, or scratches on the rim. These will, at best, not seal and your food will spoil, and at worst, break in your canner getting glass everywhere. Toss any jars with these flaws (or at least relegate them to a non-canning task. I had a beautiful bluish jar with a faint scratch on the rim that wouldn’t seal and now it’s storing oats for my rabbits.) With hot water and dish soap, clean enough jars for the amount of produce you’ll be preserving (recipes typically have an estimate for you, I always add one extra just in case). Rinse the soap off of the jars and put them in the canner with ~1 inch of water over their rims. Bring this to a gentle boil for at least 10 minutes before starting to can your produce.

Also set a sauce pot of water on low heat for your lids. You don’t need to include the rings, but I find putting the lids in the rings helps keep them separated. This water shouldn’t boil, but be hot enough to get the rubber seal around the edge of the lids soft. Buy new lids every time, don’t reuse lids. Rings are fine to reuse.

For any recipe, make sure your produce is clean and free of blemishes or rotten pieces. Always wash your produce thoroughly before canning!

I had two recipes for canned tomatoes to try, one with the tomatoes in their own juices and one with water. I found, at least with my Roma tomatoes, that canning them in their own juices doesn’t work that well. They don’t have much juice to begin with, so you have to push pretty hard on them to get any fluid accumulated. Ultimately they were packed too tightly and lost fluid during the canning process.

So for the rest of them we went for tomatoes in water.

Our recipe indicated that 2-3 pounds of tomatoes would fit in a quart jar, so we weighed out 5 lbs of tomatoes at a time hoping to get 2 quarts.  We washed our tomatoes then cored them. We set a small pot of water to simmer on the stove and when it was hot, dropped a number of tomatoes in. After no more than 40 seconds (or as soon as we saw the first skin starting to split) we removed all of the tomatoes from the boiling water and put them in a cool ice bath. This stopped their cooking and sped up how quickly we could handle them. With this process, the skins slip right off.

We did 25 pounds of tomatoes this way. Once skinned, halving the tomatoes, removing their seeds, and putting them in a big sauce pot.

My little helper is always there to catch anything I drop… (this photo is actually of our tomato sauce adventure where the skins are strained out after cooking.)

By the way, save all of these scraps if you have chickens or pigs, they’ll love you for it!

After all 25 pounds of tomatoes were done (limited by the number of quart jars that fit in the canner), I added just enough water to cover the tomatoes. I then heated them up, simmering for 20 minutes.

You can raw pack or hot pack a lot of fruits and vegetables. While hot packing (heating up the produce before putting it in the jars) is annoying and sticky, it does make the finished product look nicer. The fruit won’t float to the top as much as it does when it’s raw packed. Just a preference thing.

When the tomatoes are ready, pull the jars out, draining the water in each jar into the sink. If you leave all of the water in the canner, it will overflow when the full jars are put back in. Set the jars on a clean towel on the counter. Add two tablespoons lemon juice to each quart jar (you can add salt too, I usually forego it since I’ll be adding salt to whatever dish they’re going into). Then add your tomatoes. I try to separate as much fluid as I can initially, getting only tomatoes in the jars, then adding water from the tomato pot back to the jars to get them to the right level. We’re looking for 1/2 inch head space here.

When all the tomatoes are packed, take a moist paper towel and wipe the rims of each jar. Take your time here, because one little speck of tomato will prevent the whole jar from sealing and that sucks. When the rims are all spotless, use your magnet wand to grab a lid, placing this on the jar, then a ring. When tightening the ring, only make it finger tight, don’t try to put muscle into it to seal it. It needs a little room to breathe out air while in the canner.

When all the jars are lidded and ringed, place them back in the water canner. You should have enough water to cover the jars by at least one inch, but if you’re short you can add back the hot water from the sauce pot that was holding your lids. Process as described in your recipe, for us it was 45 minutes of a rolling boil (start counting from when the water boils again, not when the jars are added!). Be aware that processing times change with altitude, so make sure you take that into account!

When the time’s up, turn the heat to the canner off and let the canner sit without its lid for five minutes before removing the jars. Take the jars out, keeping them level, and place them on a towel on the counter with at least 2 inches of space between jars. You should start hearing the “pings” of jars sealing soon. Don’t mess with them! I know it’s so tempting… All jars should seal, the button on top should be sucked in and not move if you push on it with a finger, within two hours. If any hold out, put them in the fridge to eat soon or reprocess as described in your canning book.

After 12-24 hours, you can remove the rings. Grab the jars by the edge of the lid and lift the jar off the counter an inch or so. If the lid stays intact, the jar is sealed well and can be labeled and stored. If the lid comes off the jar was not sealed well and should be put in the fridge to be eaten. Growing up we always left the rings on the jars with no issues, but a good point was made to me recently that if you take the rings off you can spot spoilage quicker. It also prevents the really sticky fruits from seizing the rings to the jars, if you didn’t clean them up after canning… like you should’ve…

First batch of quarts, I have at least twice this on my shelves now with at least 10 more pounds of tomatoes waiting for me to get my act together.

I label my jars pretty simply, with the year they were processed and what is in the jar. I can tell tomatoes from applesauce without a label, but sometimes it’s nice to know which batch something came from or if there’s added salt in one.

I place all of my sealed jars a cool dark pantry where they will keep for over a year. But there’s always more to can next year, so I try to make sure we eat everything through the winter!

Raising a Puppy while Working: Our Schedule and Housebreaking

I had a puppy once. When I was 10. I will get into all of the things I did wrong with that one in another post, but suffice it to say I knew when I got my next puppy, things would be different.

13 years and a B.S. in Animal Sciences later, that day finally came.

I am a research junkie and before I make any decisions I typically browse the web to see what other people have done, how it worked out, and what I could do for best success. Having my puppy was no different, especially since I was also working a full-time job which involved me being away from home for about 12 hours a day.

My research uncovered that basically, if you get a puppy with a full-time job, you are Satan and should be shot. People were all super passionate that if you had a full-time job, you should not get a dog, let alone a puppy.

I read all the arguments: potty training nightmares, hiring help, separation anxiety, general destruction and mayhem, the puppy’s well-being, etc. I found almost no success stories without people shelling out huge sums for daycare and drop in walkers or taking weeks off from work. Anyone who asked about getting a puppy with a job on forums was quickly roasted to a little charcoal crisp. I realized that I probably shouldn’t get one at this point in my life.

Nevertheless, when I happened to stumble across a sweet little Golden Retriever/Labrador pup, the logic part of my brain went out the window.

Forget “probably shouldn’t”, we NEED him.

I was determined to prove everyone wrong and even more determined to prove to myself that I could raise a well-mannered wonderful dog. I re-read (for at least the fifth time) Dr. Ian Dunbar’s book Before and After Getting Your Puppy. I got a good sturdy crate (or three, is that excessive?) and a plethora of Kong and stuffable toys. I scheduled four days off from work. Then we brought little Jackson home.

After work on a Thursday, I drove down to pick up Jackson as an 8-week-old pup. I had put a deposit down when he was about 3 weeks old, and we had already met him when he was 5 weeks. He was the cutest damn thing.

But cute or not, we couldn’t cuddle him all day. We knew that in a couple short days he would be left home alone for over 8 hours, and we had to start preparing him for that, stat.

Determined to crate-train, and on a tight timeline, we did not have the luxury of clicker training him to the crate or easing him into it. He had to know this was how it was and that the crate was the best place in the world!

As soon as I got home with him on the first day, he got a potty break, 30 minutes of play, then he went into the crate with a food-stuffed Kong. He did not go in quite willingly, but didn’t put up much of a fight once he saw the food in there. He didn’t cry much, but any noises he did make fell on deaf ears.

After about an hour we went out for potty and lo-and-behold he went! He got lots of praise and treats immediately for eliminating. That was our routine for the rest of the night, 30 minutes supervised (like a hawk supervises) play then in the crate for an hour. By bed time we had one last potty then we brought the crate to our bedroom next to the bed and he went in for the night. He cried for about 15 minutes, then went into a dead sleep.

At about 12:00 I heard some whining and got my slippers on for a potty trip. Without a word, I took him out of his crate, carried him to the door, grabbed some treats and went straight outside. “Jackson, go potty” was met with elimination. He received treats and quiet praise, then was carried back to the crate. He cried again for about 10 minutes, then heavenly silence. Again at about 4:00, at his soft whimpering, we repeated.

The next day, we repeated the schedule of 30 minutes of play, 1 hour of crate time with and without food in the crate. When there wasn’t food, he cried for a while before falling asleep. If he was asleep after an hour went by, I woke him up to take him to potty. He went nearly every time. If there was no potty, it was back to the crate for 10 minutes before another try.

At night, we repeated the same thing as before with roughly the same wake up times. He didn’t cry when we put him in his crate anymore. I think the reason for his quick transition was the fact that he was the last puppy to go home, so when we finally got him he had already been sleeping alone but now he got to sleep in a crate next to us so it was actually better.

The next day, Saturday, we started getting him used to his playpen, or what Dr. Dunbar calls his “long-term confinement area”. He quickly shredded the puppy pad and hated seeing us leave the room, a reaction he never had while in the crate, but he eventually settled down. We made an effort to consciously look away from him when he started making a fuss and would only take him out when he was quiet and sitting. In retrospect we probably should have played with him and fed him more in the pen to make it less scary, but he got it eventually.

A stuffed Kong: the ultimate distraction

He would stay in the play pen when we went out to do yard work or farm chores, but no matter what, we took him outside on the hour to potty. Then he got his treat and well-deserved play session.

So hard to refuse that little face!

We also interspersed a few crated time-outs for food and our own sanity.

That night we gave no more food or water after 8:00. We only got up once to potty.

The next day was more of the same, but the intervals were closer to 1.5 hours in his play pen. He received lots of stuffed toys before we left the room, which he did not mind in the least. When we sat down to eat dinner, he was making a fuss, trying to climb over the wire playpen. Then we heard shrieking that made my husband and I both jump up, he had gotten his paw stuck in the gate of the pen and could not free it.

Our plan had been to keep him in the playpen the whole day we were at work, however if he could injure himself in it or get stuck, it was a plan that had to be rethought.

We decided to keep the playpen for day-use when we were home, and use our bathroom for a puppy room when we were gone at work. We knew in either case, he was not going to be able to hold his bladder until we got home, we knew there would be a mess. We also hated our bathroom and knew a remodel was not so far down the road.

The first day back at work was terrifying for me. I stuffed all of the Kongs we had and picked up everything in the bathroom that he could get into, including the shower curtain! Then we shut him in and left.

While we were gone, I constantly wondered what he was doing and if he was okay. When we finally got home, the house was dead silent. I was certain he was dead.

He wasn’t. Opening the bathroom door I found a happy wiggly puppy thrilled that we were back. There was somewhat of a mess in the bathroom, but he kept it all to one corner. We went out immediately to go potty and then played the night away.

And that was our routine for months. On weekends when we were home, we didn’t play with him non-stop. He had a lot of time in his crate and in his playpen. We had to have him know that we weren’t everything in the world, that he’d be perfectly okay while we were gone, and that we’d always come back.

As far as chewing went, Kongs and nylabones were our go-tos as they were the least destructible. I would measure out his kibble each day and stuff about 3/4 of it into his Kongs for while we were gone. He would get the last bit as training treats or in Kongs when we got home.

As he was able to start mastering a tightly stuffed kibble Kong, we added in wet food, trickier treats, and started freezing them. I don’t know exactly how long it took him to get through all of the Kongs we gave him each day, but he seemed content. He started with a medium puppy Kong, a large puppy Kong, and a Kong activity ball. I would also give him a piece of carrot or apple to chew on and a frozen cube of yogurt, oatmeal, or wet food. After about a month I added in a Kong tire and a dense hollow rubber bone, and then around five months he got two more large adult Kongs. He did chew a little on the trim in the bathroom, but considering how much time he had every day to be destructive, I’m okay with it!

Jackson was officially potty-trained at about 3 months old. He had a total of maybe four accidents in the house (all our fault for not following the crating schedule). The magic happened suddenly when we had friends over one day and one of them said, “hey, your dog’s scratching at the door, does he need to go out?” Jackson must have thought he was king of the world with all of the praise he got for telling us he had to go outside. And to us, he was. It was like a switch was flipped. He never had another accident.

Raising a puppy while working full time is possible!

Now at nearly 6 months old, Jackson seems quite comfortable with his schedule and has excellent house manners. In the morning he knows that the bathroom is a wonderful place full of yummy stuffed toys and he runs straight there after his morning potty break.

I know we still have a long way to go, but I think we’re on the right track and things are going great!