Canning 101 — How to Get Started Making Your Own Jams, Jellies and Preserves

Posted by on May 15, 2011

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When the supermarket shelves offer nothing but potatoes and spinach and your backyard garden is bare, there’s nothing quite like opening up a jar of sweet, homemade jam and celebrating the bounty of summer produce. Making and canning your own jam? Sounds like a major project, we know. But with a few quick tips and the right tools, you can get on your way to offering up delicious jars of preserves to all your friends and family. The CraftFoxes checked in with the consummate jam lady, Linda Ziedrich, author of "The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves200 Classic and Contemporary Recipes Showcasing the Fabulous Flavors of Fresh Fruits."

Tools to Get Started
If you want to make jam or jelly without canning (processing your jars in boiling water so they can be stored outside the fridge) — all you need is a pot or pan, and you can store it in the fridge for about a month. But if you want to share your homemade creation with others, and keep it for months to enjoy all throughout the year, then the quick and simple canning process is for you. 

Jars — The standard for canning is mason or canning jars. The common brands are Mason, Ball and Kerr. “The important thing is that they’re thicker at the top,” says Ziedrich. “They have a thicker rim, which makes it easier for them to seal.” If you have old canning jars, they should work fine, but it is important to check the rim for any nicks, which will prevent the jar from sealing properly. While you can use jars over and over again, each time you will need new lids.

ball jar lids, canning jar
Lids and rings — Lids are just as important as the jar for the perfect canning experience. Lids are generally made out of a variety of metals, and should be purchased new along with rings made especially for tightening. “You need new lids, not new rings, after the jar has been processed and then cooled,” explains Ziedrich. “You take off the ring and let it dry out and then you can use it again.”

Large pot or canner — Once your jam is actually in the jars, it is time for the processing — which means boiling them in a large pot of boiling water for the specified amount of time. There are several companies that sell pots made especially for canning, but you can also just use a large stock pot you already have at home. Ziedrich points out that “You want a pot big enough to cover the jar by at least an inch with water and still have an inch over that so the water doesn’t boil all over your stove.” 
canning tongs
Rack — If you buy a pot made especially for canning, it will come with a removable rack, “so the glass doesn’t get in contact with the bottom and break.” You can buy a special canning rack with handles that hook over the sides, or even use a cake rack.|

 — Special tongs made for canning are key for removing the jars from the water after processing. They’re “very inexpensive and very secure,” says Ziedrich. “I’ve never dropped a jar while using these tongs.” They are made especially to fit around the lid of the jar, and safely lift it out.

Funnel (optional) — Using a funnel for filling your jars with jam or jelly makes everything a little bit easier. “Plastic ones are very inexpensive and are sold where canning supplies are sold.”.
canning funnel, canning jar
Thermometer (optional) – Novice canners may appreciate the specificity that a thermometer gives them for double checking their jam’s gel point. Without it, there are still a variety of gel tests to use. If you do buy a thermometer, make sure to buy one that can withstand temperatures up to 400 degrees F. 

What you don’t need: a pressure canner. “It’s scary to use and time consuming,” explains Ziedrich, and simply unnecessary for the majority of canning. “You need that for things that are low in acid, say asparagus or beets or even potatoes or peas or corn … but for jam, forget about it.”

Lid grabber (optional) – Before you seal the lids onto your jars, you have to simmer them in hot – but not boiling – water until they’re ready to be used. You can find small plastic sticks, with little magnets on the top, that are sold as lid grabbers. They’re relatively inexpensive, but you can also just “push down on lids with chopsticks or a wooden spoon, and they’ll pop up,” says Ziedrich


Fruit — Sounds pretty obvious, right? And it is: almost every jam, jelly and preserve you make at home will start with fruit. Summer is the peak activity time for home canners, as strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, peaches and other warm-weather fruit are the simplest for preserving. But even the fall and winter months can produce some sweet goods — apples for apple butter, even citrus curds or banana jams are great products to can. 

Sugar — Sugar serves a dual purpose in jam making — it sweetens your final product, but it also works as a preservative in your homemade jam. Cutting down on the sugar in your preserves may reduce the calories, but it can also significantly shorten the shelf life. Sugar used in jam making is generally ordinary white sugar. 

Acid — In order for your jelly to “gel” there has to be a certain amount of acid present. Some fruits, especially citrus, have enough of their own acids without need additional inputs. Others require an added boost, which can generally be accomplished by adding a splash of lemon juice. 

Pectin — Here’s where things get slightly more complicated. Pectin is crucial to making jelly set correctly — and luckily, it’s found naturally in fruit. But, says Ziedrich, “You need to know your fruit. Some are higher in pectin than others” — like apple, quince, oranges and plum. “If your fruit is low in pectin” — like strawberry, cherries and grapes — “you can combine it with one that’s higher,” or, you can buy commercial pectin, which generally comes with instructions on how to use with different fruits.

How to Get Started

Pick a project — First decide what you’re making — jam, jelly, preserves, syrup? Jam is the simplest things to make, and a good idea for a first homemade project — mashed fruit, sugar and a little lemon juice, cooked for a few minutes, and you’re all set. Jelly is a little more complicated. “For jelly you’ve got to turn fruit into juice,” says Ziedrich, so you cook the fruit long enough for it to break down, strain it and boil it with sugar until it gels. Preserves are pieces of fruit in a gelled syrup. Then, of course, there are marmalades, conserves, pastes and syrups — but there’s more time for that another day. 

Work in small batches — When you make your first preserving project, it’s a good idea to start small. Then again, it’s also a good idea to keep things small even when you get more experience. “You never want to double recipes because the bigger the batch, the harder it is to get a gel,” explains Ziedrich. A small batch is generally about a pound of fruit to start with. 

Check for gelling — It’s important to know when your jelly is gelled and ready for canning — and it’s not when it looks like jelly. “You have to remember that it gets thicker as it cools.” Instead, there are several tests you can do, either with a thermometer –—219 degrees F (but may be different in higher altitudes), or by putting a drop or two into a chilled bowl (frozen for several minutes), and seeing if it “mounds” — doesn’t run around the bottom of the bowl. 

Sterilize your jars — The USDA recommends that you sterilize all of your jars before filling them — which means that there is much less risk of your jar growing mold or not sealing properly. Simply boil them in your pot or canner for 5 minutes and then remove. When they’re still warm, fill them with your warm jam, seal and return to the water for processing. 

Don’t be scared — Sure, canning can seem like a daunting process for a first-timer, but you’ll get the hang of it quickly and you’ll really enjoy the rewards. Before you start, check out our troubleshooting, tips and tricks page to avoid some rookie mistakes.

Photo Credits (top to bottom): Thinkstock, Brad Calkins/Dreamstime, and Jupiter Images / Thinkstock.

cover of The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves
Excerpted from The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves by Linda Ziedrich, published by ReadHowYouWant

Amy Spiro is a reporter, writer and editor based in New York with a focus on food writing.

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(1 comment)
  • by beccag
    User profile

    I've only made pickles in the past but jellies are definitely next on my list - they make great gifts!