As I explain in the opening chapter of my new book, The Complete Guide to Pickling, space is the primary reason I process pickles. Many pickles taste better and stay crisper, and fermented ones keep their probiotic goodness, when you don’t subject them to a boiling water bath. But some pickles hold up well to high heat, including beets, snap beans, and (when handled properly) cucumbers. Other pickled foods are ideal for canning, including many of the chutneys, sauces, relishes, and sauces in my book.
If you already can jams, jellies, and fruit in a boiling water bath, you likely have everything you need in your kitchen to can pickles. But if you’re new to canning or have been using some tool hacks to process your jars, a few tools will make your home canning easier, safer, and more reliable.
Although you might not think of it as a “tool,” the first thing you need to safely can pickles is a recipe specifically designed for canning. I’ve made it easy for you in The Complete Guide to Pickling: just look for a “Can This” label at the top of the recipe. All of the recipes with this tag have been calculated to ensure bacteria will not grow in jars that have been properly sealed in a boiling water bath. The ratio of the acid (vinegar) to the other ingredients kills any existing bacteria—including the spores that cause botulism.
Properly sealing the jars is a process, but it’s not a mysterious one: If you can follow directions, you can get it right. I walk you through each step in Chapter 1 of the book, but you can learn plenty more about canning safely in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Complete Guide to Home Canning. I also give you a canning primer here on the blog.
The Jars and Lids
Home canning requires jars designed to handle high heat and lids that provide an airtight seal. The glass jars are generically called Mason jars and can be used year after year as long as they’re free of chips and cracks; I still can with some of my great-aunt’s jars. The most common lids have two pieces: a tin-plated ring and a flat lid made of layers of steel, tinplate, and BPA-free coating with a plastisol sealant on the underside of each lid. You can reuse the ring until it starts to deform and rust, but the lids can only be processed once.
The market is dominated by Newell Brands, the global giant that manufactures both Ball and Kerr products, along with everything from Sharpies to Rubbermaid containers and Coleman stoves. But changes to their lid design in 2017 have been blamed by home canners for increased seal failures (although Ball has denied an increase in complaints) and prompted some home canners to look to other brands. The switch was compounded this year by a nationwide shortage of lids and jars.
The shortage has unfortunately led to some unsafe practices, including attempts to reuse single-use lids (which I don’t recommend because they could fail to seal during processing or months later on the shelf) and attempts to reuse jars and lids from store-bought salsas and pasta sauces (which are made of glass that might not hold up to the bouncy bubbling of your boiling water bath and lids that won’t reliably seal at home-canning temperatures). Some online sellers have also been taking advantage of the shortage by sending out shoddy imitations under the Ball name. But on the upside, it has seen some of the market share shift to other brands. I’m still in the testing phase with some of these, but here are my recommends so far:
- Ball and Kerr. These sister products are still the most prevalent and most well tested. If you order online, be sure you’re purchasing the real deal.
- Anchor Hocking. My local hardware store started stocking these this year, and I’ve used them to can some tasty jams and syrups. They work like the Ball and Kerr brands, initially sealed without failure, and have been storing nicely.
- Tattler. This brand is known for its reusable canning lids, compatible with but sold separately from Mason jars. I’ve been using them successfully for several years. These and similar lids, like those by Harvest Guard, work differently than 2-piece canning lids, so be sure to follow the instructions. Also be aware that although the National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) began testing reusable lids back in 2013, they have yet to release any results or recommendations.
I’m just starting to test some of the other options, including those from Le Parfait and Weck. For most American canners, the primary downside of choosing these European brands is their metric sizing: You’ll be investing in a brand that isn’t compatible with the more common imperial-sized Mason jars.
The Canning Kettle
As I explained last week, you can likely get by with your largest stockpot for small-batch, small-jar canning. But if you’re canning pickles to save space, dropping large batches into a boiling water bath will speed up the process. This means acquiring a giant pot—most canning-specific kettles hold 7 quarts and up to 9 pints. You have several options:
- Classic kettles. I still use speckled graniteware canning kettles that I inherited from my mom and great aunt. The design has stood the test of time and is still readily available.
- Stainless steel kettles. Modern designs have gone to stainless steel, which are sturdier and less inclined to rust but have a higher price tag.
- Steam canners. In 2015, the NCHFP and USDA approved steam canners as a boiling water-bath replacement. This is a boon for anyone with a glass-top stove, which won’t heat a full-size water-bath canner (I know because I’ve tried). If you have an electric glass-top range, you’ll still need a flat-bottom model, and currently only the stainless-steel multiuse steam canner from Roots & Branches (formerly Victorio) fits the bill. If you aren’t constrained by a glass-top surface, you have a few more options.
While pressure canners are useful for low-acid foods, don’t invest in one for pickling; it would turn pickles and relishes to mush. Multicookers, even those with a canning setting, have not been approved by the USDA.
The Must-Have Accessories
- Rack. A canning-specific kettle will come with a rack, but if you’re canning on the cheap with a large stockpot, you’ll want something to keep the jars off the bottom and thus reduce breakage. I prefer a low-profile silicone trivet to a metal rack.
- Jar lifter. You can buy a complete canning kit with a half-dozen tools, but the key component is a jar lifter. Tongs or other less specific tools for grabbing jars from boiling water can be frustrating, messy, and possibly unsafe.
I don’t own many of the other accessories that come in a full canning kit. Bubbles I remove with a bamboo chopstick, and headspace I judge from the jar’s thread.
The Nice-to-Have Accessories
If any of these items are not already in your kitchen, don’t hesitate to try your first “Can This” recipe in The Complete Guide to Pickling. But consider these if the tools you’re using are frustrating or inadequate:
- Wide-mouth funnel. These come in canning accessory kits, but the math may work out to just buy one separately if you have everything else you need. I’m a fan of RSVP stainless-steel funnels, so their wide-mouth version will be my next upgrade. But until then, my mom’s plastic version is holding up just fine.
- Kitchen scale. I use a kitchen scale almost daily: for canning, for freezing, for sourdough baking, and more. In The Complete Guide to Pickling, I give cup or piece measurements in each recipe—but when I give a weight, you’ll get the most accurate results if you use a scale. Choose one that measures both grams and pounds and holds at least 10 pounds for the best versatility (the ones I own are no longer available, but this is the closest equivalent).
In the “Can This” recipes in The Complete Guide to Pickling, I mention a few other food-prep tools that are particularly useful when canning. These are the ones I use:
- Mandoline. Mandolines produce uniform slices safely and efficiently, particularly when you’re processing pounds of produce. If you get one, I recommend a cut-resistant glove for at least your slicing hand—mandolines are wicked sharp.
- Immersion blender. I no longer own an upright blender and rely on an immersion version for everything from salsa to falafel. I burned through several cheaper models in a season but adore my Breville model.
- Cheesecloth and butter muslin. Closely woven fabric has myriad uses in the kitchen: spice bags for relish, a light weight for ferments, draining bags for cheese. My go-to version is typically sold as butter muslin: Its close weave holds up to many uses and washings.
- Zester. I have a microplane and a bar-style zester, and I reach for both when pickling: the former when I want a fine zest that melts into a chutney and the latter when I want larger pieces to flavor a pickle.
- Fine-mesh colander. If your only strainer is designed for pasta, one with a finer mesh will serve you well when making pickles, relishes, and shrubs.
Twice as Tasty
Hopefully the tools I use will inspire you to can pickles. Check back on the blog next week: I’ll be sharing my favorite tools for fermenting pickles, along with a link to a new Recommendations page that complies my favorites in one place.
Once you get the basic tools for canning pickles, you’ll find them useful for all of your other water-bath canning. There’s a large collection of recipes already on the blog, and I’ve been experimenting with others to share for next canning season. Follow the blog to be sure you don’t miss a post—it’s free!
Get a signed copy of The Complete Guide to Pickling and the The Pickled Picnic, available exclusively through Twice as Tasty. Click here to order.
The recommendations here are for the tools I use; they are not intended to be an exhaustive review of all available products.