Small space, small batch water canning
Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot. The five Rs of zero waste are pretty well known, and it’s important to keep in mind that they should be employed in that order. While I’ve been using glass jars to collect my trash for a long time now, I still depend heavily on recycling; I live in an area with limited package free options, so recycled and recyclable packaging are the next best option even if recycling is pretty far down the list.
There’s no need to make everything from scratch to be zero waste, but plenty of us find ourselves doing so anyway, out of affordability, necessity, or lack of access any other way. At home food preservation seems to be a lost art these days, but it was a skill most everyone used to have. It may seem intimidating at first, but home canning (even pressure canning) isn’t that hard.
While long canning sessions in early September with garden vegetables might sound like a relaxing afternoon for some, it doesn’t look like that for plenty of people. Small batch canning can happen anywhere with a soup pot and a stove, and it’s an easy way to ensure food doesn’t spoil and is stored without the use of further resources like electricity needed to keep frozen food cold. Even in small living spaces, small batch canning is an option.
In other words, a big pot you might use to make soup. The most important quality of the pot is that it is tall enough that your jars can be entirely covered with water when sitting in the pot; it also needs a lid. If you’re living in a small space or aren’t sure you want to make canning something you do frequently, a pot that has other uses is ideal because it won’t require more space in your home and is a preexisting resource you have. There is no difference in the process of water canning with a giant canning pot and canning with a smaller pot.
As much as I love talking about the positive environmental impacts of vegetarian and vegan diets, an old fashioned meat rack is pretty indispensable for canning in a soup pot because the jars shouldn’t sit directly on the bottom of the pan. If you don’t have one or can’t find one secondhand, there are other alternative options to replace a canning rack. Here you can find more suggestions for how to get around having a canning rack.
Almost any glass jars with metal tops are suitable for reuse, even when it comes to canning. For ease of knowing if they’re sealed, I suggest reusing tops which pop up when the seal is broken rather than those with a ring and top or with a rubber gasket.
Before you begin canning, clean your jars thoroughly. If you have a dishwasher, cleaning them there should be sufficient because the heat will sterilize the jars. If you’re concerned about what may be lurking within your jars, you can boil lids and jars for a few minutes before filling them.
Unless you’ve already used your jars and lids many times for canning and they no longer seal, there’s no reason to buy jars for canning. Glass jars from salsa, pasta sauce, or pickles will reseal without issue. Occasionally, jars break during the canning process anyway, so it’s better to not have invested in them. Reuse comes before recycle, so reuse the preexisting resource you already have- old jars.
While it certainly looks nicer to have perfectly clean jars without leftover paper or glue on the outside, that won’t affect the canning process or the safety of the food that you’re preserving. There’s no need to fully remove stuck on labels or glue unless you want to.
Water canning is perfect for vegetables and things made of plants, like applesauce or tomato juice. I have successfully preserved a pumpkin sauce that contained dairy, but when it comes to what you choose to actually put in your jars and can, be sure to check that it can be water canned safely and doesn’t need to be pressure canned; other than that, it only must be boiled for an appropriate amount of time.
Fill about an inch from the lip of the jar with whatever it is you’re canning. Depending on what you’re preserving, your experience, and the jars you’re using, you may find this much room isn’t necessary, but it’s better to be on the safe side. Some foods, like tomatoes, may can best with some lemon juice or salt added to the bottom of the jar, but that can be easily looked up prior to canning.
While many products we buy in cans are suspended in some kind of liquid, you don’t necessarily need to add liquid to your jars in order to ensure they preserve well. The jars of tomatoes I canned last summer, in fact, are on the dry side, but they preserved perfectly.
3. boil water
If you chose to sterilize your jars by boiling, you will already have water ready. If you chose not to, I suggest placing your jars, lid on, in the pot and filling it with water over the jars. There needs to be at least half an inch of water that clears the lids on the jars because the seal is made by the lids. By filling water around the jars, you ensure that you don’t overfill the pot, causing overflow when you add the jars later, and you ensure there’s enough water that you don’t have to try and add more once the jars are already submerged. Be aware that some of the water will boil off.
Regardless of how you determine the amount of water in your pot, be sure to boil the water before adding the jars. Add your meat rack, or whatever you are using in place of a canning rack, and then the jars should be gently added to the boiling water. Once all jars are added, put the lid on and begin your timer when the water returns to boiling.
Depending on what you can, you may not need to boil your jars for very long at all. Unless you don’t want the food in your jars to cook in there, it’s usually better to let them boil a few extra minutes rather than take them out early.
As your jars boil, there will probably be noise coming from the pot. Some rattling is normal and may be a sign that your water is boiling too much; air bubbles can push the cans around and make them hit each other. You should hear a few pops, as well; when the lids form the seal, a small bubble of air may escape, which is why when jars are sealed the lids are pressed down, but pop up when opened. A very large pop, however, may mean one of your jars cracked. This won’t happen every time you can, but if you do it often enough, you’ll lose a jar. As for which jars break the most frequently, all of the jars I’ve broken were Ball canning jars intended for many uses, not reused jars.
5. Finishing up
Once your boiling time is up, the canning is finished! I recommend using a wooden spoon or other utensil to press gently on your lids while the jars are still in the pot. If you can push down and the center of the lids pops up and down, the seal wasn’t made and you may want to continue boiling the jars. If the lid doesn’t pop, the seal was successful. Even if the jars aren’t all sealed, there’s still a chance that they will seal in the next hour or two after canning, even if removed from water, so don’t despair.
You can leave the jars in the hot water while it cools or carefully remove them with tongs.
Water is, as always, a precious resource. As of March 24th, 2019 there are over 4 million people in the US living in drought. Try and reuse the water from your canning to wash dishes, water plants, or for your next batch of canning.
What do I can?
My favorite thing to can is vegetable broth. It’s the perfect zero waste project; save veggie scraps from the week, boil them to make a stock, and can the stock in reused jars.
If you’re not interested in that, you could can leftover sauces or fruits and veggies. Canning during harvest season makes the most sense because you’ll have access to more fresh food, but canning can take place all year as part of how you limit food waste in your own home.
Even in small spaces and with repurposed materials, there are options to make at home and be more zero waste. Happy canning!