This article is part of a Don’t Throw It Out! series on how to preserve fresh foods and avoid food waste.
Have you ever wanted to get started with canning food at home, but were put off by the cost? We’ve put together a cheap canning equipment list, detailed below. For around $15, you can get started with boiling water bath canning by using equipment you probably already own. For safe, tested, free canning recipes, download the USDA Home Canning Guide from the Internet. To preserve food in jars, you must use bona fide canning jars, screw bands, and new lids — a dozen will cost about $10. Keep reading to find out what equipment and tools you need to safely preserve food, including jams, tomatoes, salsas, fruits, relish and pickled vegetables.
Essential equipment and tools
The essential equipment includes a stockpot or canner with a cover, canning jars, lids and screw bands or rings. The one other tool that I consider essential is a jar lifter. There is simply no safer, easier way to add and remove jars from a BWB canner. (The canner is filled with hot water, and the jars are hot before filling and after processing.) A basic jar lifter costs between $2 and $5, making it well worth this small investment. The only other safe option is to use a jar rack that is designed to rest on the edge of the pot — this type of rack is typically included with the purchase of a BWB canner. A ladle and funnel complete the necessary tools, along with canning recipes that have been tested for safety.
Instead of a BWB canner with jar rack (about $19 to $50 and up, depending on size and material), use a large stockpot, such as a crab/lobster pot, pasta pot, tamale steamer or pressure canner. For pints, which are about 5 inches tall, the pot needs to be a minimum of 7½ inches high. For quart jars, which are about 7 inches tall, it needs to be a minimum of 9½ inches high. With the jars on a rack inside the pot, there needs to be at least 2 inches above the jars, to allow for at least 1 inch of boiling water above the jars during processing. Ideally, any pot you choose should be large enough to hold at least 4 jars, with enough space to allow boiling water to surround each jar.
Instead of a jar rack (about $7 to $10 when purchased separately), use the rack from a pressure canner if you have one, or a thin cotton or flour sack dish towel — thicker and synthetic towels often float and get in the way. Another option is a round trivet, steamer rack or cake cooling rack (if it’s sturdy enough) that fits the bottom of the pot (usually 10 or 12 inches in diameter). Still other home canners report using a layer of regular screw bands, stainless flatware (knives and forks) or bamboo chopsticks to cover the bottom of the pot — lashed together with cotton string or paper clips, if desired for stability. Another alternative is to fashion a rack made from strips of aluminum foil, rolled into lengths and weaved together into a network.
Instead of a jar lifter (about $2 to $5 purchased separately) , use a canning rack that rests on the edge of the pot, or regular tongs with heavy rubber bands wrapped around the bare metal to increase the grip. However, as a safety measure, consider a jar lifter, even if you buy nothing else.
Instead of canning jars (when new, they average 75 cents each, including lid and screw band) — there is no substitute. You must use tempered glass “mason” jars manufactured specifically to accept the two-piece canning lids. They come with either regular or wide openings, in several sizes ranging from 4 ounce to 32 ounce (1 quart). Which size to use is specified in a tested recipe. New jars average $9 to $12 per dozen, including lids and screw bands. If you find jars at garage sales, they should be free of cracks and chips around the rim. To ensure that used jars are not re-purposed from commercially prepared foods, buy only jars that are embossed with the name of a jar manufacturer, such as Atlas, Ball, Kerr, Presto and/or Mason. Some “Mason” canning jars are not embossed, such as jelly jars embossed with a diamond-pattern but no manufacturer name. (American John L. Mason patented the threaded screw-neck jar that helped make the canning process easy and reliable. Many glass companies proceeded to manufacture the “mason” jar.) Canning jars last a lifetime.
Instead of new lids (about $2 to $4 per dozen) — there is no substitute. You must buy new lids for each use. Used lids are not designed for a second use. Attempting to re-use lids may result in jars that don’t seal or produce an incomplete, unsafe seal.
Instead of screw bands or “rings” (about $3 to $7 per dozen, including lids — there is no substitute. However, screw bands can be used over and over, until they become either rusted or bent. Most people can get by with just 1 or 2 dozen rings; rings are removed from jars after the contents have cooled for 24 hours and before storing the canned food in the pantry.
Instead of an 8-ounce ladle (about $6 to $15), you can use a large serving spoon, but will want often want to use something larger and heatproof, such as a coffee mug, for pouring hot liquids into the jar. An eight-ounce ladle is ideal for filling half-pint and pint (16 ounce) jars, as well as making quick work of quart (32 ounce) jars.
Instead of a wide mouth canning funnel (about $3 for plastic and more for stainless), you can simply use a large ladle, pour carefully, and clean off any spillage thoroughly. For a makeshift funnel, you can use a heavy-duty paper plate, cut through one edge to the center, and then overlap the cut edges to form a funnel and secure with tape. Or, use a disposable hot cup and cut off the bottom.
Instead of a canning recipe book, check out books from your local library or download free, safe recipes from the National Center for Home Food Preservation (HFP), including the free publication from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Complete Guide to Home Canning. It’s best to use canning recipes and books published after 2009, when canning instructions were last updated by the USDA.
Other helpful canning tools
Many other tools are available, and are often included in canning kits. While many of these tools are helpful, they are not required for safe canning. In fact, I have been canning for 50 years and do not own any of the tools listed below.
Instead of a headspace measuring tool (often combined with the air-removal tool, about $1 to $5 when purchased separately), use a common ruler. Alternatively, you can create markings on a chopstick or flat piece of wood for the common headspace measurements (¼ inch, ½ inch and 1 inch).
Instead of an air-removal tool (often combined with the measuring tool, about $1 to $5 when purchased separately), use a thin plastic knife or swizzle stick, or a wooden chopstick.
Instead of a magnetic lid lifter wand (about $1 to $3 when purchased separately), use regular kitchen tongs. Tip: Nest each lid inside of a screw band; the band is easy to grasp with kitchen tongs, removing the lid and ring together from the hot holding water.
Instead of a jar wrench, ask someone in the household stronger than you to open a jar, or use a flexible (flat rubber) jar opener. The jar wrench should only be used to open jars, never to screw on the band after filling. Screw bands only until they are fingertip tight. However, leakage during processing can make the band stick and difficult to remove after the jar is cooled.
How to save money when buying canning equipment and tools
Nationwide, some of the best prices and availability on canning equipment are found at Wal-Mart stores and Ace Hardware. Online, the major suppliers focused on canning equipment are Kitchen Crafts and Canning Pantry. Tools and equipment can also be purchased through Amazon. Seasonally, the lowest prices are at the end of the season, beginning in August or September; however supply becomes very limited as retailers run out of stock.
If you are planning to do pressure canning in addition to boiling water bath (BWB) canning, purchase a pressure canner (about $75 for a weighted model) and use it for both methods. For BWB canning, leave the vent open and remove the pressure gauge or weights. Before attempting the pressure canning methods, becoming efficient with BWB canning. Read about taking the leap into pressure canning.
Instead of buying a canner and tools separately, purchase a complete canning kit, including the canner, jar rack and essential tools.
Instead of buying canning tools individually, purchase a 4- or 5-piece kit (about $8 to $11) containing essential canning tools, plus other tools you might find helpful. More deluxe and more expensive kits (up to $19) may contain additional tools such as a jar wrench, lid sterilizing rack, timer, cleaning brush, and kitchen tongs.
The least expensive book on food preservation is the Ball Blue Book “Guide to Preserving”, around $10 at canning supply retailers. The Ball Blue Book includes instructions for three preserving methods: canning, freezing and drying of fruits, vegetables, meats and fish. My new book, The Home Preserving Bible by Carole Cancler (New York: Alpha Books, 2012, around $20) is a practical guide that describes the techniques for eight food preserving methods for all types of foods. The Home Preserving Bible includes more than 300 recipes and is one of the most comprehensive books about food preservation. Canning, freezing and drying foods are the most common methods for preserving foods at home today. However, other methods may be easier and less expensive, such as fermenting, pickling, curing, sealing, and cellaring. Purchase the Home Preserving Bible at Amazon as well as other booksellers nationwide.
Purchase equipment and supplies at the end of the season beginning in late August or early September, when retailers typically put remaining stock on sale, including canners, jars, lids, rings and tools. As the supply dwindles, be aware that many retailers do not restock equipment and tools until the next season, beginning in April or May.
Peruse garage sales for canning equipment, including canners, jars with screw bands and other tools. Purchase only canners that are not rusted or damaged, canning jars that are embossed with the name of a manufacturer and are free of any cracks or chips around the rim, and screw bands that are not bent or rusted.
For other food preservation tips on Living On The Cheap, see these articles:
- 6 ways to stop wasting food
- 8 easy ways to use stale bread
- 5 cheap ways to preserve food
- How to preserve and avoid wasting fresh fruit
- How to keep spring veggies fresh to avoid food waste
- How to keep summer veggies fresh to avoid food waste
- How to keep autumn veggies fresh to avoid food waste
For more information about food preservation methods and recipes, see The Home Preserving Bible by Carole Cancler.
Photos by Carole Cancler, all rights reserved