My agate water bath canners and my blancher
The first thing you'll need is a canner. You don't have to buy one like I have, although I highly recommend it, any big stock pot will do. If you are using a stock pot there are two things to remember.
One, there has to be a rack of some kind to lift the jars off the bottom of the pot. If there isn't, the jars will crack because of the temperature differential between the bottom of the pot and the boiling water.
Two, the pot has to be tall enough to cover the completely submerged jars with at least an inch of water and then another couple of inches above that to prevent boil over. If the jars are not kept completely covered with water, they will not seal properly and you are not "canning" a safe product.
Go with the agate canner, they are designed for it and will make life a lot easier. I have two to accommodate the large, litre, and smaller jars, 125, 250 and 500 ml. You can do both in the larger pot, but not in the smaller.
I have a blancher just because the insert makes it more convenient. You can blanch in any stock pot. I find mine faster and I burn myself less, enough said.
The bits and pieces
The picture above is all the little bits and pieces I have collected to make things easier when I'm working.
The essentials, all the red bits in front. They are a "canning kit", jar lifter, tongs, funnel and lid lifter. Any hardware store should sell them and they are quite inexpensive. All make working around boiling water and with hot products easier and safer, something I need, clumsy.
In the back, a Chinese sieve with pestle, my eight cup measuring cup, a scale and up front on the right a food mill.
The sieve and pestle are for straining juice for jelly and I use mine for processing tomatoes as well. Not necessary but nice to have.
The large measuring cup, very handy, but again not essential.
The scale is essential. It doesn't have to be like mine but many recipes are by weight not volume so a scale of some kind is needed.
The food mill is for separating apple pulp (apple sauce) from the seeds and skins when I am making apple stock. It is the only time this gets dusted off. I must admit I find it awkward to use.
I almost forgot my thermometer. There are several ways to test the gel if you are making jelly or jam but I rely on temperature, 8 degrees above boiling or 220 Fahrenheit, about 104 degrees Celsius. It hasn't failed me yet.
Three piece sealing jar, band, jar and lid (attached to the lid lifter)
You need jars. For safety's sake, only use the modern three piece jars shown above. They are not what my grandmother used but are considered the only safe way to put up home made preserves.
Finally, and this is essential, a good cookbook or recipes that follow modern canning techniques. Because making various types of preserves depend on exact conditions being met to either "set" or to be safe, do yourself a favour and invest in a good book. There are lots to choose from but my personal favourite is "Gourmet Preserves, Chez Madelaine" by Madelaine Bullwinkel. She goes into lots of detail about the how's and why's of doing things. I have four others and family or Internet recipes so there are lots of choices out there. I have adapted most of the recipes I use a bit but very carefully and with lots of knowledge behind me about what affects what.
Terms and Procedures
Probably the most important procedure is to sterilize your jars and lids. Both need to be clean to prevent contamination or spoilage. For the jars, I use the 10 minutes in a water bath method. I already have the canner out so..... There are other methods but I don't use them so I can't comment on the effectiveness or safety. One thing I did stumble across was a dishwasher with a sterilize cycle, that would be convenient.
To sterilize the lids, I start them in warm water and bring it to a boil, then turn off the heat. I do this just before I'm ready to jar what ever I am making. If you over heat the lids, the rubber rings can separate and your jars won't seal properly. I also never re use lids.
You don't have to worry about the bands, they don't come in contact with the food, they just have to be clean.
Head space is the space between what you have made and the top of the jar. It is there to allow air to escape during processing to create your seal. When in doubt, I fill my jars to the first threads on the jar that hold the band in place.
Processing is putting your preserve in a boiling water bath or pressure canner for a specific amount of time. It does two things. It kills bacteria by bringing your product to a specified temperature for the correct amount of time and it helps to ensure the "seal".
The seal is how tight the lid of your jar is. It prevents air getting into your jars and causing spoilage. A properly sealed lid should be slightly bowed in and not move if you press it with your fingertip. As jars cool you should hear the lids "ping". When you try to remove a properly sealed lid, it should be relatively difficult to get off. If it pops off in your hand easily, chances are something is amiss.
Finger tip tight applies to how tightly the band is put on the jar before you process them. Too tight and your lids will buckle, no proper seal achieved. Too loose and water gets in and again no proper seal. Screw the bands on lightly with your finger tips and tighten them down after your jars have cooled after processing.
Hot packing refers to filling your jars with your preserve when they are still hot, just off the stove. It is to keep the temperature up and reduce processing times. For jams and jellies, this also helps prevent overcooking and breaking your gel.
One last procedure I can think of off the top of my head is removing the air from your jars. As you are filling jars, pockets of air can get trapped. Running a knife around the inside edge will usually get the worst of them. The pockets of air can hold mold spores, bacteria etc that might not process properly and can ruin all of your efforts.
There are other things I could touch on, process or techniques I know of or have heard of, but I want to keep this focused on food safety and not stray off on tangents, presenting pros and cons of things I don't do in my own kitchen.
There you have it, my quick (?) guide on canning. Did I forget something? I'm sure I did. Drop me a line or leave a comment and let me know. Feel free to share your experiences or techniques. Hopefully this will help you enjoy the fruits of the season all year long.