Where I live a backyard garden is a common thing, but even here, I've noticed many new gardens go in this spring. Many existing gardens have also been expanded. Pressed by rising fuel prices and the rising food prices that are following, people are stretching their grocery dollars by raising some of their own food.
My garden is just starting to produce, and soon it will be time to break out the canning equipment to put away some of that harvest for the winter. I know many of you have expressed an interest in canning. I am no expert. The real experts are the folks at the USDA, but I am happy to try and help. Let's start with the basics.
There are three very basic items you need to begin canning. You need jars with sealing lids, a large pot for processing, and canning tables that tell you how long to process the jars.
Jars with Sealing Lids You can find jars in a variety of sizes. The most common used are quart and pint jars. I find quart jars to be the most useful for my large family. I use pint jars mostly for hot peppers and pickles, though it is nice to have some pints of tomato sauce too.
Jars also come in wide mouth or regular. In my opinion, wide mouth are much easier to work with. They also are easier to clean, but they are more expensive.
Some people use recycled jars from spaghetti sauce or other items they have purchased at the store. I personally do not do this, and it is not recommended by the experts. I believe the logic behind this is that Mason jars are made to last the stresses of canning repeatedly. Jars used in the food industry may or may not be made as strong. Yet, I know people do can with them.
The most common type of lid is actually a two part lid. It is a lid with a ring. You have to buy new lids every year, but the rings can be used over and over. They are easy to use. There are other types of sealing systems using reusable rubber rings. I've never canned with those before, so I can't offer too much information on those.
Processing Pot When you are canning there are two ways to process the jars. You can simply cover them with boiling water and boil for the recommended amount of time. The other way is to use a pressure canner. It is not recommended that low acid foods, like beans, be processed using the boiling water method. All foods can be canned in a pressure canner. I use both methods.
When canning with boiling water any heavy pot that is large enough to fill with enough water to cover your jars can be used. A water bath canner with a rack is much more convenient to use. They really aren't very expensive. I think a canner is a worthwhile purchase if you are planning to do a lot of canning that can be done without pressure canning.
Canning Tables You need a resource to consult for how long to process your jars. If you buy a new canner, chances are there will be instructions with timing tables included. One of my older cookbooks also has tables. There are whole cookbooks devoted to canning. The most famous is probably the Ball Blue Book. Though a canning cookbook isn't necessary, it is nice to have as a resource. Besides basic instruction and time tables, it gives you recipes for different items. It can help when you are at a loss for what to do with the excess your garden is producing. Of course all canning tables are created based on the guidelines put out by the USDA. Their advice is available for free online.
These are the bare basics of equipment you need to begin canning. There are lots of tools and gadgets designed to make things easier. Before you run out and buy any equipment and gadgets, check around for used supplies. There are lots of people with shelves and boxes full of jars that they don't ever plan to use. Let family member know you are looking for canning equipment. Check on Cragislist. Ask on Freecycle. Look at yard sales. You may find all you need for free or a fraction of the cost of new.
I hope that was helpful for those who are new to canning. If you have nay questions, I'd be happy to help if I can.