Friday, July 21, 2017

Time Saving Canning Hacks From Prep to POP!

A "light load" in 2017 with chocolate black raspberry
dessert spread, blueberry pie filling, strawberry-lemonade
concentrate, and black raspberry vinegar.  
     Have you ever had someone see a picture of your canned goods and think you're nuts and that you must never have a chance to sit down, like ever?  

     For us, it's not uncommon to make sure by the end of canning season anywhere from 700 to 900 jars of canned goods are filled to last us until we can those particular products again (and yes, we plan to eat them all before you ask).  To do so, it could easily mean a couple dozen jars done in a morning or evening, or 100+ jars done over a long canning weekend.  We've noticed that a lot of people seem to think that doing this will take FOREVER, but it doesn't have to!  There's certainly places that you can "cut corners" to save time and still safely can your garden's bounty for out-of-season use.  

Step 1. Sterilizing canning jars 

Washing canning jars in my husband's
apartment kitchen in 2012.
     Jars right out of the package or off your storage shelf (even though they've been cleaned in the past) are not considered sterilized.  Did you know that according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation you don't have to sterilize your jars if you'll be processing them for more than ten minutes in a water bath or pressure canner?  Since we can everything for more than ten minutes, we do an abbreviated "sterilization" by washing our jars with a clean washcloth in a scrubbed out sink in hot soapy water.  Then they get loaded onto cookie sheets and placed in a 200 degree oven to keep them warm.  We heat them for at least ten minutes in the oven prior to use so the jars are hot when they come out, and therefore hot when the hot lid/food hits them as well.  We've found this assists in keeping the jars from breaking when different temperatures meet.  

     Tip: Any water drops that are left on them when they enter the oven are usually gone by the time the jars come out, and therefore we don't bother drying them off between the two.

     Tip: We found that however many jars your recipe calls for, always have an extra one or two ready to go because it'll likely make more, not less, than what your recipe says.  So think like a Boy Scout, and Be Prepared for that to happen.  

Step 2. Heating lids

     I've watched some people skip this step altogether, but along with it being more sterile for your soon-to-be processed canned goods, it also really helps get the wax on the standard canning lids heated up.  There's multiple ways to heat lids including just piling them all in a pot on the stovetop, but we use two handy gadgets - a canning lid rack and canning magnetic lid lifter - that make quick work of heating and using the lids.

      A canning lid rack holds twelve lids vertically, and can be submerged in a pot of water.  It keeps the lids separated so they don't accidentally stick together when the wax begins to heat up.  New these cost between $9-20 depending on the brand.

     A canning magnetic lid lifter is simply a magnet on the end of a stick.  Complex I know!  In the early days of us canning we used a pair of tongs to lift the lids out of the hot water, but now with a magnet, there's no more having the lids accidentally slide back into the pot, and seemingly hours of fishing around in the bottom of the pot for the last remaining lid.  New these cost between $2-8 depending on the brand.

     Tip: Heat an extra lid or two in case you drop one during the processing.  They can always be cooled down and reheated again at a later time.  

Step 3. Prepping your canned goods

Prepped recipes during Peach Season 2015.
     Ask yourself, "How many recipes worth am I planning on making today?" before you get started.  We don't just prep one recipe at a time, but at least two.  If you're planning on doing a lot of canning, you never want to have a stilled canner as a stilled canner means wasted processing time.

     I had started pre-prepping multiple recipes during peach and apple processing a few years ago because it just made more sense to get it all done while your hands were already sticky, and you could sit and watch television.  In that case, I chop all the peaches and other produce that is needed for a particular recipe beforehand, label them and stick them in the fridge so whenever I need to refill the canner with something other than what I was previously canning, there's a recipe more-or-less ready to drop into a pot and heat up.

Pizza sauce (back left), sweet 'n' sour sauce (front left) and tomato sauce
(front right) cooking down on the stove in 2016.

     When doing jams or tomato sauce-based recipes, I like to have one pot on the front burner, and one pot on the back burner, spaced evenly apart time-wise so that when one set of jars is ready to come out of the canner, a new set can easily go in.  I've found that it takes me approximately 10 minutes to take the jars out of the oven, fill them on the cookie tray so any drips and spills are easy to clean, and secure the lids and bands.  Usually, right as I'm putting on the last band, the previous load of jars is ready to come out of the canner.

     Tip: Gallon pickle jars, half gallon canning jars, and 8+ cup plastic containers make great options to store pre-prepped goods before you're ready to use them.

     Tip: To keep your fruit looking fresh and the proper color, place in a container of cool water with some Fresh Fruit powder or lemon juice.

Step 4. Heating your (water bath) canner.

      Fill up your canner with water before you need it.  We even get the water in our water bath heating about thirty minutes before we need it so that the hot jars won't touch cold water when they go in.  Then, even if you have to adjust the water level of the canner, it won't take nearly as long to heat back up once you've filled it with canned goods. 

     Tip: Keep a mixing bowl filled with water in your kitchen sink so you can level off the water of the water bath canner to at least one inch above your jars once they are in.

    Tip: If you want to keep your jars (especially those that go into a pressure canner) from getting water spots, add a little bit of white vinegar into the water as you are heating it.

Step 5. Filling the jars

     Splish!  Splash!  I think I need a bath!  This is by far the messiest part of canning for us because you're on a tight timetable to get the hot jars out of the oven, the hot ingredients into the jars (we don't do a lot of cold pack), and the hot lids on the jars, and then everything quickly and effectively into a canner.  I found the most effective way to do this is make sure you have a fully prepped "fill space" next to the stove (if possible).  Imagine that you're prepping a surgical area, so you want to have everything laid out in easy reach.  Here's the big three that you need to remember:

  • Gather everything you need to fill the jars: ladle or deep spoon, funnel for easy filling (we use a plastic collapsible canning funnel that costs around $5), small metal spoon to skim off foam or change volume in the jars, butter knife to remove air bubbles.
  • Keep the lids and rings at close reach.  This sometimes includes putting a potholder out for the lids if they are located on a burner too far away on the stovetop, and having a basket full of clean rings handy.  Make sure you have your magnet handy if you are using it!  
  • Hot pads are your friend.  We put out two potholders for our cookie tray to balance on with the hot jars from the oven.  You'll also want to have an oven mitt or glove to remove the cookie tray, take off the hot water bath lid, and also to tighten any rings on the jars once they are filled.  

     For me, it's always easiest to work in a grid pattern when I fill the jars then, leaving those furthest from the canner for last so nothing gets dripped into the otherwise empty jars and they can either be filled with another load, or cooled and put away without having to clean them.

     Tip: Think of this process as an assembly line.  Fill all the jars first, so you have the chance to adjust their volume easier if need be.  Then put all the lids on.  Then put on the rings and tighten them as you go.  Once they are all ready to go, open the canner lid and place them in.  

     Note: Even if a lid pops once the ring is screwed on, process it anyways.  Processing is not used just to seal the jar, but to heat whatever is being canned to a high enough temperature to make it shelf stable.  

Step 6. Removing the jars from the canner

Removing jars from the canner in 2012.
     CRRRRAAAACCCCKKKK.  It's bound to happen at least once in your canning career; a jar cracks either in the canner, or once it's removed, and makes what could be considered one of the stickiest canning messes you'll ever see.  To try to prevent this from happening, take some precautions:

  • DON'T remove the jars immediately from the (water bath) canner, but turn off the burner, remove the canner's lid, and set the timer for five minutes.  The jars not only start to cool down during these five minutes, but the lids (at least in our experience) are more likely to pop within the first minute or two of the jars coming out.  
  • DON'T remove hot jars from a canner into the direct flow of an air conditioner or fan, or cool them in that air flow.  The change in temperature is likely to make them break.  DO keep those cooling devices on until it is time to remove the jars or otherwise it'll be hot, hot, hot in your kitchen!
  • DON'T knock the jars against the side of the canner when removing them.  
  • DON'T drop the jars back into the canner.  Actual jar lifters designed for the purpose of lifting canning jars make a world of difference to the safety of your jars.  They cost anywhere from $3-$13 new depending on the exact style and brand you choose.  
  • DO slightly tip the jar to drain most of the water off the lid before you move it to your cooling location.  The last thing you'll want is a burn from the very hot water.  

Canned pineapple, apple pie filling, apple butter, and hot
pepper jam cooling on the table in 2013.
     Make sure you have a place prepared to let your jars cool before they need to come out of the canner.  You can use cookie trays with dish towels or cookie racks on, turkey roasters with their roasting racks, dish towels or bath towels laid out on tables or counters, or also cookie racks with towels or foil underneath to catch any overflow that might occur.  Although we started off just using the cookie tray and racks to cool them on, as our batches got bigger, we quickly ran out of racks.  We now remove all of our jars to a cookie tray to then carry them over to their cooling location on a large bath towel set on either a table, desk or trunk away from any direct air flow.  
  • DON'T check your lids too early.  This may result in a false seal, and therefore a ruined jar of canned goods.  Within about an hour or two all the lids should have popped.  Any canned goods with lids that have not popped should be stored in the fridge.  Wait at least eight hours to pack up your canned goods for storage.  
  • DO label all your canned goods before storing them with both year and their contents.  Trust me... you won't remember which kind of jam it is when you're looking at a sea of reds and purples without having a label on it.  

     I hope some of this is helpful in making your canning process a little easier!  What time saving tips do you have in the canning kitchen?  

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