Canning 101: Allow Your Process to Evolve

November 14, 2012(updated on October 3, 2018)

jam berries

Over the years that I’ve been keeping this blog, I’ve written at length about my personal canning practice and the many jam, pickles and other preserves I’ve cooked up. And because this site is as much my personal record as it is a collection of recipes, you’ll start to notice something interesting if you dig back through the archives. As I’ve canned my way through season after season, my approach has gone through a gradual series of shifts.

Where I was once devoted to minding the temperature of my jam to determine set, these days, I’m more apt to listen, look and feel my way to the gel point. There were years when I felt fearful to deviate from my three favorite spices, but now I infuse jams and chutneys with lavender, thyme and the occasional pinch of fiery chili flakes.

My style of recipe development has changed in other ways too. I use less sugar (I realize it might not look like it, but really, I do). I rarely add water to jam (in the early days, I didn’t understand that in most cases, there’s plenty of liquid in the fruit). I try to fill just as many jars with savory foods as I do with sweet things. And I make smaller and smaller batches.

apricot jam

One of the things I’ve heard many times over since my book came out is how liberated people feel when they discover that canning doesn’t have to be the hot, sweaty, day-long  process that they learned from their parents. I’m here to say that you can have the canning liberation each and every year.

You see, this is the time to take stock. To evaluate what worked for you this season and what didn’t. To decide that you might just want to let go of a few recipes or techniques that don’t happen to fit into your kitchenlife anymore. And to realize that just because you’ve always done something one way doesn’t mean that you’re locked into that method for all eternity

As we head into the time of year when the emphasis is more on the emptying of jars than it is filling them, pay attention (and even take a few notes). Observe which jars go first. Are there jars languishing in your fridge, open but unloved? And are there particular preserves that were so labor-intensive that they end up feeling too precious to open (I’ll confess to having a few of those)?

How has your canning practice evolved?



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30 thoughts on "Canning 101: Allow Your Process to Evolve"

  • Funny, I’ve gone the opposite way from you. I used to make smaller batches of more things, but now I’m all about volume: a zillion jars of applesauce one weekend, a bucketfull of jam another. Having three fruit-loving kids is a great motivator. 🙂 I’m with you on the savory stuff, though–I still do more sweet, but I also love pickles, chutneys, and of course your tomato jam!

  • Hi Marisa,
    I feel the same way. When in my early canning days, I tried to make a lot of everything and ended up throwing so much away, because it didn’t taste the way, we wanted it too, today I use to make only two or three jars first, to taste. Also I LOVE one of your last sentences: yes, sometimes you think- no don’t open this, because we have to save this for a special occasion. So pretty much potential to work on, still 😉 Thank you so much for this post, it hits me totally…
    Warm greetings from “jar to jar”,

  • There are some time and work intensive recipes I could never part with: green tomato mincemeat, Meyer lemon marmalade, apple-lemon marmalade, fiery hot salsa, salsa verde and my own homemade jellied cranberry sauce which is so much better than store bought. I still make large batches of some recipes that my family loves so much. The Meyer lemon marmalade is one of the few things my father-in-law can still taste, so it is a labor of love. I usually get one jar and give him the rest over a few months time.
    I am still leery of developing my own recipes. I fear that if I don’t put the full amount of sugar that a recipe calls for, that it will spoil or get bacteria in it and I will have to throw it out or it will make my family sick. I wish there was some kind of formula that I could use. Perhaps I will try to find a class that studies the science of home canning. Is there any such thing?

  • I’ve never felt like I should save anything. Mostly I can to preserve things from the garden so the challenge for me is to eat it all up before the next gardening season hits. I never succeed with cucumber pickles. I eat so many over the summer when it is hot out so I can a lot thinking I will want them. Then I don’t eat them over the winter. Well the dills at any rate. For some reason I like bread and butter pickles and relish over the winter, but eat dills during the summer. I should know this by now and quit canning dill pickles.

  • Great post, thanks for your reflections. After more than several years of canning, mostly self-taught, I became a Master Food Preserver through the UMaine Cooperative Extension. I thought it would help me feel more confident in writing about the subject and teaching others, and came away with so much more. Mostly, it’s made me more aware of food safety. With the time and effort involved, I’m also now more conscientious about using tested recipes, and less apt to use exotic ingredients and flavor to taste once the jar is open. I’ve also learned to be more patient with pickles, and wait at least until Thanksgiving to open them!

  • I love your Canning 101 posts. I haven’t been canning long so it’s always helpful when someone goes over the basics again. And the reminder that things will get easier and I’ll start to be able to try new things as I get better and practice more is nice!

  • I started canning when my garden grew ever larger and I started having more produce than I could eat. This year with the drought our garden was lackluster, and I had to adjust my process–smaller batches, and (gasp) buying produce. I realized there were some fun recipes I had been missing out on because of my narrower focus, and it’s okay just to can for fun, not just practical purposes 🙂 I do struggle with using things up (especially specialty items) and not hoarding things we don’t have much of, but I’m working on it!

  • I’m definitely guilty of the “jars too precious to open.” To me this implies that I need either 1) more bulk or 2) to can with more frequency…sometimes I’ll make special preserves for gifts, but when they’re around the house, they don’t get eaten. Does that mean they’re languishing in pantries where I’ve given them as gifts, too?

    It’s nice to remember that canning is about practicality and being able to use things—not to keep them hidden away indefinitely. thanks for this, Marisa!

  • This was the first summer that I dived headfirst into making some serious canning efforts (thanks to your book!). I did a lot of reading last summer, and made pickles that failed (texture-wise, not food safety-wise) for all sorts of reasons that I now understand. I’m savoring each evening that I can use a can of tomato sauce for soups. Loving being able to pick out a jar of rhubarb strawberry orange preserves (not quite jam) for a guest gift, and planning gourmet inspired meals around the special preserves like tomato jam.

    I too agree whole heartedly with the poster above who recommended eating the dill pickles over the summer and not saving them. Will open those for the kid table for Thanksgiving.

  • I loved discovering small batch canning. . .it had just never crossed my mind. Living full time in our RV. . .it fits perfectly into our lifestyle.

    Thank you for the eye opener. . .I ordered your book, and love it!


  • I always used “Surejell” and didn’t know you could do it another way. Now I rarely use added pectin, I make jam out of various fruit combinations, I have a lot more fun! I went to your demonstration in Portland, which gave me the knowledge to do this!

  • I’ve been canning for more than 20 years (with a several year hiatus when my kids were little) and have also found that I’m becoming more flexible in my process. I love canning small batch preserves with whatever fresh fruit is around during the summer. I find I’m willing to experiment more with flavors when it’s not such an investment in time and amount of fruit. That’s how I discovered blueberry preserves absolutely ROCK with a little basil in them. 🙂

    I’m also canning more in smaller jars, so I have gifts to bring when a friend invites me to lunch, etc.

  • I have just started canning, and with the gift of your new book, can not wait for next summer! There are so many recipes I want to try I think I will just put up a cot in my kitchen. This past summer I did manage to make a few batches of jam, including 4 lonely 4 oz. jars of apricot jam. I want to eat them so badly, but I am so afraid to open them and eat them, because I will have to wait 8 more months for more!

  • After years of jam fail and giving up on ever making a decent jam, your book inspired me to try a small batch, starting with the stone fruit jam one Sunday afternoon in July as I was cleaning out my fruit drawer. I yielded exactly 1 half pint jar, but it was the first time ever that I’d had jam turn out just right. Thank you. Since then, I’ve felt much more confident in my jam skills and even made your cantaloupe jam (which is divine!).

    If that wasn’t enough evolving, I’ve realized that I’ve started experimenting with pickling recipes, writing my own pickled peach recipe. As I type this, I’m roasting peppers in my oven to try a roasted pickled hot pepper. I started teaching canning and pickling classes this summer and noticed that I was improvising as I taught those too.

  • Since finding your blog a year ago ( wow, where did a year go?) I have embraced small batch canning. I still do the occasional marathon bulk canning. I have a small pressure cooker that holds 4quart jars just fine. I have branched out to things like chicken stock and savory chipotle cherry jelly (yum). The plan for the coming year is to make supplies easier to get at, maybe a cabinet devoted to canning supplies. Last December I even made my first ever batch of marmalade, mandrin marmalade, my son (he was 11) loved it and asked if he could make a batch to give as gifts! His teachers where very happy! He noticed mandrins in the store the other day, and asked… when?

  • I’m definitely trying a lot more recipes and getting innovative instead of just making lots of tomato sauce! Although tomato sauce is obviously a big player on the scene too. 🙂 I also am getting into larger batches–I think in a few years I’ll be able to meet a goal of 100% home-canned tomatoes all winter.

  • Hi Marisa,
    I love this post. This is my second year of canning and it has been so much fun. Your book has been an inspiration. I too have some favorites that I am keeping for special friends and family (Apricot Jam and Strawberry Vanilla Jam) – I wish I had made more! They are so yummy.
    Your book has given me the freedom to experiment with flavors and I am feeling more confident in my canning techniques.
    This summer I made Strawberry Vanilla Jam, Blueberry Jam, Apricot Jam, Spiced Plum Jam, Peach Jam with Star Anise, Pear Vanilla Jam, and Grape Jelly made from fresh Concord grapes. I also did your Zucchini Pepper Relish. I still want to do something with apples and cranberries. I just received some organic Meyer lemons and I hope to make your Lemon Curd and Preserved Lemons.
    Happy Thanksgiving to you!

  • Well, this year’s hits were all savory – carrot escabeche was a massive hit, so was the peach chutney (although it turns out so different every year). The chutney is super labor intensive, but I have a friend that loves it so much, I have to practically hide the jar I keep for myself. I thought about crying when I broke into that last jar. I may have a chutney problem, and worse, I’m the chutney pusher to friends!

    My son also eats ALL of the strawberry jam, no matter how much I make – so clearly, I should just go long on that one. But I have more apple butter than I’m going to use. The pickles simply did not work – too mushy. Got to rethink there, and I’m making relish out of this year’s. I’m thinking of going fermented on the pickles instead of genuinely “canned.”

    I need to make a batch of mint jelly or I’m facing the winter without any.

    Basically, I feel like some things genuinely you can’t make too much of – like strawberry jam – but the problem is that the season is so short, and I usually only make it out to pick once. That means one batch of 4-6 jars for the whole year. I need to think about how to get more out of my picking run on years when the harvest is good.

  • I make smaller batches of everything unless I already know I’m going to want or need it in large quantities (like chicken stock. I always can at least 7 quarts). That way I have room for a wide variety and I’m not stuck with something I don’t like if it turns out I don’t like it. 🙂

  • We joined a CSA in the spring, and this summer was the first time I had canned anything! And now I’m hooked on small batches! I’ve tried dill pickles, strawberry vanilla jam, chunky fig jam (figs from our backyard tree), spiced applesauce (apples from my parents’ heirloom tree), and one precious half-pint of honey-sweetened ginger cherry butter. I can’t wait to try it, but I also want to savor it! 🙂 My kids love the applesauce, so it’s been hard to keep around. The jams I’ve made so far have been over-set but still taste good – I just heat up a scoop in the microwave with a little juice so I can spread it. Haven’t figured that out yet. Likely making a fall jam this weekend – I have apples, pears, and fresh cranberries at the ready – and I’m wanting to try mustard and chocolate sauce for the holidays!

  • I have just made some really, really good cranberry orange marmalade – it is the first time I have tried marmalade in years, so am feeling braver! I find we never have enough pickled beets or cucumbers (of any variety), but we are a bit jam rich. I admit to hoarding the precious few jars that are left of my quince jam, and the sour cherry jam was so work intensive to pit and produced so little that I am reluctant to even open it. Sigh.

  • Refreshing, thought provoking words Marisa! I started concerned with safety most, fearful of something unknown happening. And I didn’t give anything away as I wanted to savor everything. I’ve since learned giving things I make away gives me great pleasure. Experimenting with less sugar, flavor items, and as you say, filling jars with savory vs. sweet are more common these days.

  • I started canning in 2010 and I’m still afraid to deviate too much from recipes. I learned to can from reading books and they warn against changing recipes – like your life depends on it! I’ve added my own flavors here and there and once or twice I’ve made recipes I found on blogs, but I’m so worried about unsafe canning that I’m afraid to use less sugar or completely make my own recipe. I need more confidence!

    My favorite thing I’ve ever canned is roasted red pepper spread. It’s so labor-intensive (and expensive this year because my red pepper yield was low and I had to purchase them all late in the season). I made a double batch with a friend and we split it.

  • Marisa – when I click on the link for “Canning 101: Testing Jam Doneness Using the Sheet Test” (within the page for Canning 101), this page come up instead. Maybe the link needs to be fixed?

    Thank you!