Home canning combines a few of my favorite things: making a mess in the garden, making a mess in the kitchen, and making a mess of pickled foods. It’s also an Earth-friendly way to preserve seasonal, organic produce to enjoy months later.

This year, I set up my home garden to grow most of the ingredients I need to make my own organic pickles and pickled green beans. Let me tell you, there are few things more satisfying than hearing the “pop” of a sealed jar in October filled with cucumbers I started growing in April.

While my briny Norwegian blood prefers pickled veggies, canning can also be used to preserve fruit, fish, sauces, unpickled veggies – you name it. It’s a great way to make bulk farmer’s market purchases last through the winter, cut down on packaging and regain some of the self-reliance we’ve lost in the last century.

Getting started

The process begins and ends in the fall. In the garden, as you harvest and remove summer crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and green beans, apply a layer of compost or sow cover crop like clover or rye to replenish the nutrients in the soil and choke out weeds.

Most pickling recipes call for garlic, which should be planted in October, harvested in summer, and ready for canning in as early as mid-August. Click here to find out how.

For the canning process, I suggest buying a Granite Ware 8-piece canning set, or piecing together a similar set. It has all the tools I need and boasts that it will “last a lifetime.” I’ll let you know how that ends up…

You’ll also need jars and two-piece lids. Most grocery stores sell 12-packs of mason jars with rings and lids. Keep in mind, the rings can be reused, but the lids are only good for one seal and should be recycled afterward.

I just made five quarts of pickled green beans or “Dilly Beans” using this recipe, so we’re going to use those as an example but I’m calling mine “Sammy Beans.” The recipe makes 2 quart jars (or 4 pints), which I doubled because I thought I had enough beans for four quarts. Turns out I had enough beans for a fifth quart, so I cut the recipe in half to make a single batch.

I’ve tried and tweaked several pickled beans recipes and this one is my favorite so far, although I do tweak it quite a bit based on availability and taste. For example, I double the garlic, ignore the coriander and use fresh cayenne peppers from my garden. The brine I use as is.

Preparing the ingredients

Start by gathering ingredients from your garden or grocery store, choosing organic when possible. I like to over-buy because frankly, as shown above, I’m terrible at judging how much produce I have on hand and I’d rather not make a second trip to the grocery store.

With ingredients in hand, fill the canner about a quarter full with water and turn that on high heat. The canner holds about 21 quarts of water, which takes a long time to get boiling. I find boiling smaller batches of water in a separate saucepan and adding those into the canner is much quicker. The canner will need to be about 3/4 full with boiling water to process the jars.

Quick Tip: Use one of these small batches of boiling water to sterilize your rings and lids.

While the canner is heating up, mix together the vinegar, water, salt and sugar to make a brine and bring that to a boil, stirring occasionally. As the brine is heating up, wash and prepare the produce. Trim the ends off the green beans and cut them to a length 1/2 inch shorter than the jar. I like to peel the garlic cloves by flattening them with the flat side of a knife. This make the papery skin fall right off and opens the clove up to release more flavor. Save the trimmed bits for the compost pile.

Packing the jars

With the produce prepped, pack the jars with beans, garlic, dill, peppercorns, mustard seed and peppers, tweaking the recipe as you see fit. Lay the jars horizontally to pack them tightly, The ingredients will shrink during the canning process, so squeeze in everything you can.

With the jars packed, ladle-in the hot brine to within a 1/4 inch of the top of the jars. This 1/4 inch is called the headspace, which differs for each canning recipe. Have the jars on a cutting board or dry towel while filling with brine to avoid damaging the surface you are working on.

Now, using the bubble remover or a similar tool, work the edges of each jar to release bubbles. This will lower the brine level, so you’ll need to top the jars off to regain proper headspace.

With the jars filled, wipe the rims of the jars with a wet paper towel or napkin. Any little mustard seed or pepper flake on the rim will ruin the seal and take away the satisfaction of a well-deserved “pop.”

Once the rims are clean, place the lids on top and finger-tighten the rings on. There is no need to use Hulk-strength to tighten the rings, as the lids need to be able to release air during the canning process.

Time for a bath

With the lids on, the jars are ready to take a bath. Hopefully by this time you’ve managed to bring the water in the canner to a boil. If not, I suggest enjoying a 1% for the Planet beer, like a Fat Tire Amber Ale, while you wait.

If the canner is boiling, lower in the jars using the jar rack. The Granite Ware canner I recommended holds seven quart jars at a time. If you have a makeshift set up, make the sure the jars are NOT sitting directly on the bottom of the canner because the boiling water causes them to rattle and move around, which can break the jars.

When the jars are lowered, the temperature of the water will likely drop below boiling. The canning water should be an inch above the top of the jars. Add water if necessary, and wait until the water returns to a boil, then set a timer for 10 minutes. This is the “processing time,” which will vary from recipe to recipe. After 10 minutes, use the jar lifter to bring the jars out of the canner and set them on a cutting board or layer of dry towels.

Click here to see how the canning process works.

Quick Tip: Keep the canning water boiling, or at least warm, in case some of the jars don’t seal.

Space the jars at least an inch apart to let them cool evenly. Within a few minutes, the lids will start popping (an incredibly satisfying sound) which means they are properly sealed. Give the jars a half hour or so to seal. If some of them don’t pop, which happens nearly every time in my experience, remove the lids and try again from the rim-wiping step while the jars are still warm.

The most common reasons for a failed seal are messy rims, over-tightened rings and improper headspace. Trust me, I have plenty of experience with failed seals, but I’m usually able to get a good seal on the second try. If one or two just won’t seal, store them in the fridge AFTER they’ve cooled.

Congratulations!

According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, the sealed jars can store in a cool, dry, dark place like a pantry or garage for up to a year. Most pickle recipes recommend letting the product sit for 2 or 3 weeks before opening.

Canning equipment, except for jar lids, can be used over and over, making it a relatively cheap process. The jars can get a little spendy if you aren’t able to recoup them, so don’t be afraid to ask for them back!

Here’s the best part. If you are a twenty-something that doesn’t have a signature Thanksgiving or holiday dish, bring canned goods! For as easy as the process is (it gets easier with every batch), people are simply amazed by the final product, especially if you use homegrown produce.

Don’t forget to share!