Learning To Can When You Don't Garden

David Trammel's picture

The question came up recently from a friend, "Should I learn how to can food?"

Just to clarify, I do not can at this time. My mother and grand mother did. I can remember sitting in the kitchens of both, helping to prepare the vegetables or wiping down the jars. The skills to can are on my list, but I probably won't get to it til 2023 or later.

What do those of you who do can think?

On the one hand, its a great way to lower your cost and provide for a storable food supply. You don't even have to be someone with a large garden to can either. Local farmer's markets provide a wide range of plentiful veggies that you can buy and can. And if you learn when the harvest times are for your favorites, you can even get them cheaply in bulk. Or you can even buy from big grocery stores, though the taste might not be as great as what you can get fresh locally.

On the other hand, the initial start up costs are substantial. A pressure cooker for canning is not cheap. Nor are the number of jars you need.

What I told my friend was to learn dehydration techniques first, since you can often pick up a used dehydrator at thrift stores. Then if they like doing the prep and find they use the ingredients on a regular basis in their meals, to consider buying the equipment, but to wait until the off season to save money.

I think on one of the other threads someone suggested starting small with things that are able to be canned with a water bath method. This is good advice. I will offer my $.02 here below.

As for the costs, a lot of the equipment can be found very inexpensively at thrift stores. I can't tell you how many jars I have bought at thrift stores and they are usually about half the cost of new ones. Unfortunately those used jars often don't have rings and rings and lids are being hard to come by these days, but I found several sources online. I have even successfully reused old used lids in 2021 when we were caught short and couldn't find them for love nor money. I have also found very intact water bath processing kettles at thrift stores at very low prices and since I had to replace my old thrift store find this year with an expensive new one, I can suggest that it is worth the time to look around for a used one. Yard sales and estate sales are other sources of good used equipment. Also, once people know you are taking up canning, they will often just give you their equipment and jars. I was gifted a really good big pressure canner that way, so put the word out. You might also find someone to teach you too.

I can't recommend grocery store produce unless you are very confident that it is fresh and local and not ripened in a gas chamber. Quite a lot of store produce has been in cold storage for up to a year and isn't worth the effort you will have to put into it to can it. Seasonal things will your best bet, but be sure to ask first as some of it is shipped and produce looses quality with every mile it travels. Farmers markets are a better bet or U-pick fields or orchards for high quality produce. You could also ask around your neighborhood for access to fruit trees and the unused fruit. There is a lot of this and if you don't mind cutting round the bird pecks or the bugs, you can usually get the fruit for free. Same is true for wild fruit, you just have to go out and pick it.

Dehydrating food is a good way to go, but there is still a lot of prep that goes into dehydrated food. I would also recommend that you make sure any thrift store dehydrator has a little fan in it. Those that don't have the fan aren't nearly as good as those with one and you could loose food to mold as it dries if your dehydrator doesn't have that fan.

As with all stored foods, don't can or dry anything you or your family won't eat. If you are trying something new, just do a small batch and try the finished product out to see if you like it. If you like it, great, do more, if not, you haven't wasted too much time, effort or materials. Once you have canned up a bunch of food you will eat, don't forget to eat it. Most home canned produce will last a couple of years without aging too much, but after four or five years, the quality really deteriorates and while it is edible, it isn't really yummy. Home dehydrated foods deteriorate after a few years as well. If you really want to have your dehydrated foods to be shelf stable, you will have to invest in a very expensive home freeze dryer.

mountainmoma's picture


lathechuck's picture

Home-made applesauce is so much better than commercial that I sometimes wonder whether the commercial stuff is made from pulp left over from cider-squeezing!

Any place that lets buyers select individual apples from a bin will find itself with cosmetically uncompetitive leftovers. I just got a half bushel (25-pound box) of "seconds" from one of my farmers'-market friends for $12.50. From it, I got 10 canned pints of applesauce, 6-8 apples good enough to eat out-of-hand, and about 5 lbs. of cores, skins, and total rejects for the compost bin.

Applesauce is acidic enough for water-bath canning, so I haven't needed to dust off Mom's pressure canner yet.

I bent a length of 1/4" aluminum rod into a spiral that fits into my tall stock pot to keep the jars off the bottom, and the pot is just big enough for a batch of five pint jars. My short stock pot, when filled with cored apple chunks, just happens to make five pints of applesauce. So the apples are cooking down on the front burner while the water bath is heating up on the back burner.

My investment for canning is just the jar-lifter tongs and wide-mouth funnel, plus estate-sale jars and rings, and dome lids mostly bought on-line. (If I see lids for sale locally, I'll buy a couple of dozen just to encourage the retailer to stock them).

lathechuck's picture

I have an American Harvest "Snackmaster" dehydrator (from a garage sale), and I use it to dry apple half-slices every fall (when I can get cheap apples, as described above). It has a thermostat, and fan. I run it at 135F for about 24 hours with 1/4" thick apple half-slices. "Why half-slices?" After I wash the apples, I cut each one vertically through the core, then make 1/4" slides cross-wise (round side down. That way, the knife doesn't need to break through the skin of the apple.) Then, I use a brass tube, about 5/8" diameter, to punch out the core. On big apples, the coring tool might need to take several bites to get all of the seed compartments, but only a shallow nibble to get the narrow core above and below the seeds.
If there are blemishes on the skin, a paring knife easily rides under the skin of a slice, but usually I just leave the skins on.
Four full trays of raw apple slices can usually be packed into a single quart mason jar for storage, after drying.
I probably dry my slices drier than the Ball "Blue Book" recipe suggests, but I want them to last at least a year (which they will do, unless my wife discovers where I've hidden them!). So what if they take a little longer to rehydrate to be eaten?

David Trammel's picture

Sounds delicious for snacks. How do you re-hydrate them though for eating?

lathechuck's picture

I put one gently, cautiously, in my mouth, and salivate!