Learning to preserve had long been on my bucket list. No one in my family or the neighborhood had taken me under their canning wing, and it seemed that none of my peers knew much about this mysterious art, either.

My education came just 12 years ago, when I was new to Seattle with few friends to my name. I threw caution to the social media wind and put a call out on Twitter, asking if anyone out there shared my curiosity for canning. To my surprise, there were other like-minded neophytes, so many in fact, that within hours we formed a group in Seattle and called ourselves Canning Across America. We were cooks, gardeners, artists, writers, united by this unbridled passion to, at long last, learn to put up seasonal produce, and make sure this life skill never misses a generation, as it had ours.

Over three years, we gathered and taught each other the ins and outs of water bath canning, from salsa and dilly beans to cherry ketchup and blueberry jam. We spread our newfound knowledge throughout the community, leading what we referred to as a “Canvolution.” In the lead up to our Can-It-Forward Day at Seattle’s Pike Place Market in 2011, we made national headlines and appeared on the radio show the Splendid Table. It was one of the most joyous times in my life putting food in jars with these women, many whom I still think of as sisters. And learning to preserve is a gift that I promise to share for the rest of my days to anyone who, like me at 43, is curious. It is never too late. So let’s start with pickles.

Canning beauty shot

Pickled carrots, cucumbers and green beans from Kim O’Donnel’s preserved pantry. 

Kim O'Donnel's Step-by-Step Guide to to Pickling

Prepare a water bath:

  • Use a pot that is deep and wide enough for a canning rack or basket. which holds the jars in place. (See details in box titled The Rig.)
  • Place the jars in the rack. Add enough cold water that covers the jars by at least 1 inch. Cover the pot and bring the water to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and keep the jars in the water bath until you’re ready to process.

Prep the lids:

Place the lids in a small saucepan. Heat some water in a kettle or ladle some of the hot water from the water bath and pour over the lids. The hot water helps to soften the rubber seal, readying it for processing. Cover until ready to use.

Canning headspace

For upright vegetables like green beans, trim as needed to leave 1 inch of headspace. 

Prep the produce and make the brine:

  • Thoroughly wash produce and cut into desired shapes. For green beans, cucumber spears and other vegetables standing upright, trim as needed to fit inside the jar, leaving 1 inch of headspace at the top. I like to use an unheated jar as my “dummy” to check the height. (You will have another opportunity to resize vegetables later.)
  • Place vinegar, water and salt (amounts vary by recipe) in a saucepan and bring just to a boil, making sure that the salt is dissolved. Reduce heat to low and cover until filling jars.

Fill jars and process:

Canning filling jars

Fill the jars so that it’s snug inside but not bulging. 

 With canning tongs, lift the jars out of the pot one by one, emptying hot water back into the pot. Transfer to a kitchen towel or wooden work surface. (Be careful with granite or other temperature-sensitive surfaces; the shock can crack the jars.)

Be sure to keep the water bath covered and the water simmering.

Lay each jar on its side and pack with vegetables and seasonings. Contents should be snug but not bulging.

Rest a wide-mouth funnel on top of jar and ladle in the hot brine, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Run a non-metal chopstick or other flat-edge utensil along the inside edge of your filled jars to help remove any air bubbles. Trim any vegetables that are bobbing to the top and make sure that they are completely covered with brine.

With a damp kitchen towel, wipe clean the rim of the jars. Place the lid on top, then gently twist the ring tight.

Canning water bath

Filled jars waiting for a rolling boil; that’s your cue to cover and set the timer. 

  • Using the canning tongs, return the jars one by one to the water bath. Bring the water to a rolling boil, cover and set the timer. Times vary depending on jar size; 15 minutes for pint-jar pickles; 10 minutes for half-pint jars.
  • Transfer the jars to your staging area and listen for the “ping” of each jar, a sign that you have a proper seal. Let cool for 12 hours. Remove the rings. Label and date and store in a cool, dark place. Sealed jars keep for 12 to 18 months.
Canning removing jars

Carefully lift the jars out of the water bath, one by one, and transfer to a staging area to “ping” and completely cool. 

The Rig

Canning rig

In addition to glass jars with two-part lids (left), these tools come in handy for water bath canning, shown clockwise: canning tongs; wide-mouth funnel; air bubbler; ladle; and canning rack. 

Jars

The USDA recommends jars with the two-part lids (metal ring and flat lid with rubber gasket) sold by Ball and Kerr brands. The lid covers the jar and the ring holds the lid in place as it seals during processing. Jars come in various sizes, with two “mouth” options: regular and wide. For beginning picklers, I recommend regular mouth pint jars, as the shoulder helps contain bobbing vegetables.

Canning rack

Keeps jars from rattling around in rapidly boiling water, and allows air to circulate underneath the jars while they process. Traditionally, it’s made from collapsible metal, but Jarden Home Brands has designed a basket from heatproof plastic, tailor-made for small-batch canning (and perfect for small spaces).

Deep pot with a lid

Make sure it’s both deep and wide enough to accommodate the rack (with the lid on) and also deep enough for at least 1 inch of water to cover the jars.

Jar lifter

Also known as canning tongs. My favorite is the “secure grip” jar lifter from Ball that is so sturdy that I call them “turbo tongs.” Retail price is about $11.

Wide-mouth funnel

Rests snugly in the mouth of a canning jar, keeping things tidy as you fill jars. You can find one for maybe $2 at your hardware store or supermarket. Highly recommended. Non-metal is best (metal can possibly chip the glass of the jars)

Kitchen towels

You need at least one towel to wipe clean the tops of jars after being filled and possibly another to use as a staging area for hot, processed jars. (Plan B: A wooden cutting board.)

Ladle

Not absolutely necessary, but a ladle helps keep things tidy while filling jars.

Air bubbler

This gizmo is often included in canning kits, but you can use a non-wood chopstick or non-metal flat-edged utensil instead. Since the goal of water bath canning is to remove as much air as possible from inside the jar to create a seal, this tool helps remove any air bubbles before processing.

Lid lifter

Magnetic wand-like contraption that places lids directly on top of jars after they’ve been filled. Great for nervous beginners, but not necessary.

Garlic-Dill Green Beans or Cucumbers

This simple brine and seasoning combination is a good introduction for canning newbies

who want to try small batches of either snap beans or pickling cucumbers.

A note on pickling spice: Because pickling spice is a blend of several herbs and spices, it’s a good introduction to seasoning pickles. After some practice, you can tinker with individual whole spices. Pick a brand you like, but do make sure the spice mixture has not been collecting dust in your cabinet. Spices do fade with age!

Makes 4 pints.

Ingredients:

  • 2 pounds green or yellow snap beans or 1 quart of pickling cucumbers 2 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar or white vinegar
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons fine sea salt (or 2 tablespoons pickling salt)
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 tablespoon pickling spice
  • 2 to 4 fresh dill heads or 4 teaspoons dill seed

Directions:

Heat 4 pint jars, as outlined in the Pickling Step-by-Step Guide.

In a saucepan, whisk together the water, vinegar and salt. Bring just to a boil over high heat, stirring until the salt dissolves. Cover over low heat until ready to use.

Thoroughly wash the vegetables. Trim the beans so that they fit in a dummy pint jar, with about 1 inch of headspace. For cucumbers, remove each end and cut into rounds, about 1/2-inch wide.

Following the directions for filling and processing, pack each jar with the vegetables leaving 1 inch of headspace. Add 1 garlic clove and 3/4 teaspoons pickling spice to each jar. Cut dill heads in half as needed and remove any tough stems. Tuck 1 dill head into each jar (or 1 teaspoon dill seed). Ladle the brine to cover, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace. As detailed in the step-by-step guide, remove any air bubbles and make sure that the vegetables are completely covered in brine. Wipe clean the rim of the jars. Place lid and ring on top and process pint jars for 15 minutes, as per the Step-by-Step Guide.

Transfer the jars to the staging area and let cool for at least 12 hours. Store for at least 2 weeks to cure and let flavors develop before opening. Store opened jars in the refrigerator.

Lucy's Pickled Jalapeño Peppers

Excerpted from “The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations” by Kim O'Donnel.

Makes 4 pints or 8 half-pints.

These pickled peppers have become a mainstay in my preserved pantry, figuring into beans, nachos, grilled cheese, egg sandwiches and all by themselves. They pack medium heat but are not as spicy as you might think, perhaps mellowed by the brine. As with the other recipe, the brine is straightforward and each jar gets a whole clove of garlic. The big difference is in slicing a few pounds of chile peppers.

A note on handling chile peppers: I highly recommend wearing disposable gloves when handling chile peppers, especially for the amount called for in this recipe. The capsaicin found in the seeds and veins can irritate the skin. Wash all work surfaces and tools thoroughly and be careful not to touch your face — or any other part of your body, for that matter. You may also want to open a window for ventilation.

Ingredients:

  • 2 pounds jalapeño chile peppers, washed (16 to 20 large or 40 small)
  • 1 cup water
  • 3 cups distilled white vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt or 1 3/4 teaspoons fine sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole

Directions:

Heat your jars, as outlined in the Pickling Step by Step Guide.

Put on a pair of disposable gloves. Slice the peppers into thin rings, about 1/4-inch thick, and transfer to a bowl.

In a saucepan, whisk together the water, vinegar, salt and cumin. Bring just to a boil over high heat, stirring until the salt dissolves. Cover over low heat until ready to use.

Following the directions for filling and processing, pack each jar tightly with the pepper slices and one garlic clove each, leaving 1 inch of headspace. Ladle the brine to cover the pepper rings, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace.

As detailed in the step-by-step guide, remove any air bubbles and make sure that the vegetables are completely covered in brine. Wipe clean the rim of the jars. Place lid and ring on top and process following the Pickling Step-by-Step Guide. For half-pint jars, process for 10 minutes; for pint jars, 15 minutes.

Transfer the jars to the staging area and let cool for at least 12 hours. Store for about 3 weeks to cure and let flavors develop before opening. The peppers will turn a dull shade of green.

Store opened jars in the refrigerator.

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