Canning 101: How to Can Creatively and Still Be Safe

December 15, 2010(updated on October 3, 2018)

When you first start canning, one of the things you hear a lot is how important it is to stick to the tested recipes. We’re told that because canning is as much science as it is kitchen art, you’ve got no choice but to color within the lines. And to a large degree, this is true. There are rules that you must follow in order to keep your canned goods safe.

However, I often get questions from people wondering how I’ve gotten to the point where I can incorporate elements of creativity in my canning and how they might be able to do the same. Here’s what I tell them.

Stick to the high the acid products like jams, jellies and vinegar pickles.

Because botulism can’t grow in high acid environments, this is a space where you can experiment a bit. Within the structure of high acid fruit preserves, play around with different fruit and flavor combinations. My Blackberry-Apricot Jam was a happy accident that is now going on the permanent roster. I knew it would be a safe deviation from my standard blackberry jam recipe because fresh apricot puree has plenty of acid and it was a delight to learn just how good they tasted together.

As far as getting creative with pickles, check out this post on Pickled Carrot and Daikon. Those were some good pickles that were born out of the recipe triangulation method I describe below.

Add a splash of booze to enhance a flavor.

It’s well-known that peaches go naturally with bourbon, but what about an adult apple butter spiked with a jigger of applejack or rum? That could be fun. This is an easy way to take a reliable, tested recipe and give it a new kick.

Consult a variety of reliable canning sources and use them to triangulate towards the recipe you want to create.

When I want to create something new, I consult So Easy to Preserve, Complete Guide to Home Canning and Preserving and any applicable book by Linda Ziedrich. I figure out the ratios and determine whether what I want to do seems to fit within these previously tested recipes.

On reducing sugar.

Sugar plays two roles in homemade preserves. First, the addition of sugar is what allows the temperature of your product to reach 220 degrees (or thereabouts), which then helps with the set of your jam or jelly. This is particularly important when you’re working without pectin, but is also necessary even when you’re working with commercial pectin. If you’ve ever had a situation in which you’ve drastically reduced the amount of sugar in your recipe and then found yourself with a very runny product, this is why.

Second, sugar acts as a preservative. If you reduce the amount of sugar in your jam or jelly, its shelf life will not be as long. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s important to know, particularly if you’re making jam to give or sell others. It’s also good to remember that a high amount of sugar is not a substitute for the proper acid balance in a recipe. Sugar does not inhibit the growth of botulism spores.

Know your limits.

There are certain things you really shouldn’t mess with. Quite a few famously delicious fruits camp out in or above acidity grey zone. These include figs, bananas, mango, tomatoes, white peaches, dates and melons. When you’re working with those, don’t screw around. Follow tested recipes (and just so you know, not all recipes found on the internet are actually tested. Only use recipes from sources you know and trust).

Additionally, I would strongly advice that you not try to invent your own chutney recipe. They are typically a combination of low acid foods like onions combined with higher acid foods like apples, pears and peaches. If you don’t have the balance of onions to fruit/vinegar correct, you can make a product that may not be safe.

Be safe and enjoy.

I strongly believe that the act of preserving food at home is one that everyone should try at least once. It is so satisfying to create something in your own kitchen that tastes good and extends the season beyond its allotted calendar pages. Just know the rules and don’t be scared!

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78 thoughts on "Canning 101: How to Can Creatively and Still Be Safe"

  • This was quite helpful! Boyfriend and I can a good bit and our friends are always asking us about it, saying they want to make numerous things…and I always freak out (maybe a bit too much) and insist they head to the library and get a few books on the subject before they actually do it. I think it’s because I am terrified of messing something up and then poisoning whoever happens to receive it! Perhaps a bit over-dramatic… 😀

    This gives me a bit of courage to experiment and try crafting some new flavor combos based on old recipes!

  • Can you mess with sugar content in jams? I’m never sure if high amounts of sugar are to make the pectin work or if it’s for the preservative qualities of the sugar itself. I actually like to reduce the sugar in my jams and haven’t seen anywhere that this is either ok or incorrect.

    1. Try Pamona pectins. They have recipes for low sugar and sugar substitutes for jams. I made almost all of our jam with honey this year using the pamona pectin and they are great!

    2. Alyssa, I added a section in the above post about reducing sugar. Olivia’s comment about Pomona’s pectin is also correct, it allows for a good set with reduced sugar.

    3. This year I experimented with reducing sugar in my fig preserves and they set just fine . For example I made cherry and strawberry fig jam which I add cherry and strawberry jello mix and pectin which both helps with setting.

  • Although, I am not one to invent many of my own recipes (as I don’t cook…only CAN & am still figuring out great food combinations) Matt does like to mess around…which admittedly concerned me. So, we purchased a good quality Ph Meter which eliminates any doubts or questions about the acidity. Surprisingly, many things are well below 4.6.

    1. Make sure that you’re using your pH meter correctly! It’s not enough to test the pH at the time of canning, you also need to puree your product and test it again after the cooking and canning is complete. There are good instructions on how to do this in the book Putting Up by Steve Dowdney.

    1. How funny! I’ve actually had this post in the works for a couple of weeks now. That’s the first I’ve seen that article. Strange how the world works?

  • Do you test the pH of your new recipes? I’ve thought about buying a pH meter, as someone above mentioned, but I’m not convinced it’s enough. If I stick the pH meter in a chutney, for instance, it will measure the pH of the ‘liquid’ of the chutney, but certainly not inside the chunks of onion, apple, etc. Will the pH be the same across all parts of the chutney after processing or does testing have to go further? Do you know of any good resources regarding testing your own recipes?

    1. Nick, I don’t test the pH of my new recipes, but I stick to formulations I know will be safe. I don’t screw around with new recipes that could be in the pH grey area.

    2. Hi Nick, you’ve probably found the answer since you wrote this is 2010, but since I’ve recently been doing a bunch of research I thought I would give my findings.
      You’re absolutely correct, while the pH meter will give you the correct level of your liquid, the food pieces still need to be checked. The center of the chunks will not have the same pH level as your liquid. For semi-solid non consistent foods like jams and jellies, you will need to puree the mixture first and then test. If you cannot puree without adding water, you can add 1/5 water equal to the amount of mixture. So example, 50ml of chutney to 10 ml of water. You’ll also want to test the a couple times to make sure your meter is giving you an accurate reading.

  • Thanks so much for this. My husband, who recently took up beer brewing, is a bit of a germ freak, and he is helped by his guide’s (Charles Papazian–The Complete Joy of Homebrewing)) admonitions to relax. I find this post helping me do the same thing. While we must following the directions because it is a science, there is also no need to worry if you do! I just hope the blogs I have chosen to trust are following the “rules,” but I am studying many books as well and sticking to high acid recipes.
    Thanks so much for the additions about sugar as well. I find it a bit of a shame to focus on fresh seasonal produce, and then add gobs of sugar to it. Once I get more experienced, that is where I want to focus.

  • Thank you for posting this! I’ve been following the Can Jam, always wondering how people get so creative with their canning! This was only my 2nd year canning and I’m looking forward to canning more creatively next year. Thanks again for sharing and providing a bit of inspiration today. 🙂

  • i’m super new to canning (i haven’t even cracked open the case of jars we got!) and am looking for a good beginner book. what would you recommend? any thoughts on “ball’s blue book guide to preserving”?

    1. Angela, that’s a good book. I also really like Put ’em Up by Sherri Brooks Vinton. It came out this year and is excellent.

  • Your mention of figs on the unsafe list makes me nervous about some fig preserves I just made using a recipe from “Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.” It used 1/3 cup orange juice and 1 Tbsp lemon juice (to 3 cups fig puree.) Is that that used to make the fig puree acidic enough to be safe? Now I’m kind of nervous…

    1. Robin, the orange and lemon juices in that recipe should make it just fine. Figs need just a tiny of bit of acidification to make them safe. Additionally, the folks at Ball are very reliable resources, they wouldn’t have steered you wrong.

      1. Yikes! I’m a little nervous, too, now…I just made wild plum/ mission fig jam with about 3.5 lbs of fruit (2.5 lbs of plums and 1 lb of figs). I added the juice one lime and one lemon, and roughly 3 1/3 – 1/2 cups sugar. The wild plums (small yellow ones) are very, very tart….does tart =acid?

        It never occurred to me that I shouldn’t just make up a recipe….I loosely based mine on a refrigerator jam recipe I’d used before, but this batch came out so yummy, I decided to process it for longer life.

        Just mailed a jar (which had been in the fridge since I canned it) to my 89-year old mom, and now I’m afraid I’ll make her sick!

  • Terrific post! I’ve been thinking about canning a lot and I hope to start learning how to in the new year. I know there are a lot of basics to learn, but I was wondering how you could really start making canning your own. I’m bookmarking this so I can reference it later. I’m also looking forward to trying out many of your recipes because they always look so delicious!

  • I thought of a question, I get why not to reduce sugar, but I wonder why I cannot half recipes for things like pickles–when the items will be covered in vinegar, what is the harm?

  • Quick question since I’ve been toying with the idea of banana butter and don’t want as much sugar… if I get the test strips and it tests above 4.5 ph then would pressure canning be the correct approach? and if so how long would I do the pressure canning for and at 10 lbs pressure? please advise.. thanks!

    I love love love your blog!

  • Wonderful post. As usual, I always learn something over here. I was surprised by your comment about chutney! But it made sense. I always felt like the vinegar content seemed high enough, added with high-acid fruit, made it a safe bet. It’s good to keep those onions in mind!

  • For beginning canners, the Ball Blue Book is fantastic, very much science based. They will always steer youright. I love So Easy to Preserve published by University of Georgia Cooperative Extension – is my go-to book. Order online. And the Colorado State University Extension FactSheets, they are called. Lots of state Cooperative Extension Services offer the same kind of deal, online or get hard copies at your Extension office. Again, very much science based-your products will always be safe.

  • So do you have a reference suggestion for recipes for canning fruit in juice or some other liquid besides syrup. My wife cans every year in syrup but being a newly diagnosed diabetic I still do not have enough control over my blood glucose to be able to enjoy her efforts. On top of that we are about to buy a house with fruit trees, I’ve been reading too much Hunter Angler Gardener (how I found you blog btw), and I’m planning on harvesting quite a bounty via gardenening and neighborhood “foraging”. I don’t want to do the work and not enjoy the spoils!

    1. Try this site, hosted by the U of Georgia,
      They also talk about canning without sugar elsewhere on the site.
      Canning Without Sugar
      “In canning regular fruits without sugar, it is very important to select fully ripe but firm fruits of the best quality. Prepare these as described for hot-packs for each fruit, but use water or regular unsweetened fruit juices instead of sugar syrup. (For more information see additional publications for individual fruits.) Juice made from the fruit being canned is best. Blends of unsweetened apple, pineapple, and white grape juice are also good for filling over solid fruit pieces. Adjust headspaces and lids and use the processing recommendations given for regular fruits. Add sugar substitutes, if desired, when serving.”

  • Angela, that’s a good book. I also really like Put ’em Up by Sherri Brooks Vinton. It came out this year and is excellent.

  • I have been using recipes and methods in “Canning for a New Generation”. Her recipes use considerably less sugar than other recipes and does not use pectin. Her technique is to start with the fruit in, make your juice, then remove the fruit and reduce to a think syrup then add the fruit back. I’ve been using less than 2 cups of sugar for 3 lbs. of fruit. I am very pleased with the products so far. This is my first year making jam so it is definitely “new canner” friendly.

  • Wonderful blog. Thanks so much. I’ve been making condiments and chutneys from the Ball cookbook. So far they have turned out well. I am wondering about altering the spices in chutney and other things that contain onions. I like a little more of a kick. Would doing things like doubling the ginger (from 2tsp to 4tsp) or cumin in a recipe alter the acid?

    Are there any spices or foods that can (in small amounts) change acidity? I was thinking of adding caraway seed to a harissa recipe, but I did not. I recalled that my caraway is a home remedy for acid stomach and decided that would not be a good idea.

    1. Because spices are added in such small amounts, they rarely impact the acidity balance of the finished product. The only thing you don’t want to increase is the amount of garlic, shallots or garlic (any allium, really). Those are the troublemakers.

  • I am looking for a recipe for mexican hot carrots…most that I have found are for refrigerator pickles, and I really can’t afford the space in my fridge. Are these recipes safe for putting by with a boiling water bath? I plan to leave out the oil called for in most of them, and just adding some oil when I serve them….

    1. I’m not sure if this helps or not, but there is a recipe for Mexican Baby Carrots in “Tart and Sweet” that is waterbath canned.

  • This article touches on two of some of my biggest questions since deciding to venture into the world of food preserving. Regarding those fruits in the grey zone, I have a balsamic vinegar and fig spread recipe and I was hoping that I could preserve it given I’m using balsamic vinegar and the pressure canning technique. Would this be safe using pressure canning instead of water bathing? Also, my family has some chutney recipes using some very spicy peppers, etc., but I have deep reservations in using them in the water bathing canning. If I use our recipe and pressure can them, is this safer? In general, if one is unsure of the safety of something (pH levels) does pressure canning take the worry out of it?

      1. Thanks Marisa. You’ve no idea just how helpful your site is to someone new to this like me. Thank you so much for being so generous with your knowledge and time.

  • Thank you for your wonderful site, Marisa! I am new to canning and it has been so incredibly helpful. I just made a batch of your pear cinnamon jam today and am kind of in love with it already. Delicious!

    I have a question about your mention above of adding something boozy to preserves. My husband and I are huge bourbon fans, so I’m thinking of trying an addition of bourbon to your (also delicious!) pear vanilla jam. When in the cooking process would you add that? Any guesses on how much would be a good amount? Thanks so much!

    1. I would add the bourbon towards the end of the cooking of the jam. Start with a tablespoon or two, and then taste. If you like the balance, you’re done. If it needs more, add a little bit more.

  • What if I wanted to use honey instead of granulated sugar in a recipe? Is there a reliable method/proportion for making that swap? Is it easier to do that with fruit butters than it would be with jams/jellies? Since honey still has a sugar content, I would think it’d be easier to make that change than to swap to a non-sugar sweetener.

    My sister’s husband raises bees and my dad wants to get into it as well, so I know I’m going to have a lot of honey to work with. Which is why I’m asking.

    I’m entirely new to canning (I haven’t even tried it yet – reading your website has got me very interested in it.

    1. You can’t swap honey directly for sugar. I do have some success making small batches of jam sweetened exclusively with honey, but in larger quantities it is hard to get it to set up. When I do make the swap, I do so by weight, not volume. That means that if a recipe calls for two cups of sugar, I convert that into its weight (16 ounces) and then use that much honey. Honey weighs more than sugar, so if you were to swap one to one, the recipe would be way too sweet.

      1. Is the same true for jam? For example, if I have the right amount of fruit on hand, but not the flavoring recommended (i.e. vanilla beans) will the end product still be safe if I use the listed amount of sugar in a given recipe?

        1. Yes. You can always omit the flavoring without issue as long as you’re not changing the ratio of fruit/sugar/acid. The addition or subtraction of vanilla bean won’t change the safety of your recipe.

  • Is there a place I can find more recipes using my automatic jam and jelly maker? And how do I know what fruits are safe to use together? High acid with low acid? High with high and low with low? I would like to experiment a little with other fruits. Also, can I make salsa or relish in this machine?

    1. Becky, check the Ball website for more recipes that use the FreshTech jam and jelly maker. I don’t really use it, so I have no knowledge of how to develop for it. Read this post for a better understanding of what makes a preserve safe or unsafe for canning. I have no idea if the jam and jelly maker works for salsas and relishes.

  • Okay, one more sugar question: I often find most chutney recipes to be a little too sweet for my tastes. Would I be OK to cut down the sugar some (while leaving everything else alone), with the understanding that the finished product might not last as long? I was thinking “yes” until I got to your caution about inventing your own chutney recipe.

    Thank you!

    1. You can reduce the amount of sweetener in a batch of chutney, as long as you’re keeping the ratio of low acid ingredients to added acid constant.

  • Quick question or not…I have a roasted green chile jelly recipe that involves: 1/3 cup bottled lemon juice, 1 cup of apple cidar vinegar (5%), 5 cups sugar, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp red chile powder , lpkg liquid pectin and 1 lb of roasted green chile cleaned. I know that the vinegar, lemon juice and sugar create the appropriate acid level to water bath can it. My dilemma is, I want to forgo the green chile and try to add more red chile powder and red chile flake to make a red chile jelly. Is there anything I should be concerned with? Can you recommend a PH tester?

      1. Sorry to bother you. Can I ask if you are happy still with the Thermoworks meter? (I am thinking of buying the 8682 model; I know you bought the 8681 one.) Thanks.

  • When in doubt I add more when it comes to acidity…in jams with low sugar i always add a squeeze of fresh lime juice…or lemon juice…it sets extremely soft and spreads like butter…but one thing ive always wondered about tho is if fresh squeezed orange juice would work the same way…or is it not acidic enough?…any clue

  • Thank you for this great post! I have a question. Is it safe to add fresh herbs to jam recipesmformwarerbath canning?mthings like basil, lemon verbena, etc?

  • Hello,
    I like to make blackberry syrup with fresh blackberries. The recipe is 4 cups of berries, 1/2 cup sugar (I reduced this, original recipe calls for 1 cup sugar) and cornstarch/water to thicken. Do you happen to know if it would be safe to can this recipe? (cold pack) I’m concerned now after I read about pH levels and not reducing the sugar… Thanks for any suggestions!

    1. In terms of acidity, it’s probably safe for canning. Remember, sugar doesn’t play an active role in safety, but it does improve shelf life and quality retention. Cornstarch isn’t advised for canning, because it’s not heat stable ingredient. I’d consider looking into Clear Jel, which is a modified cornstarch that is better able to stand up to the heat of the canning pot.

      1. Ok well we actually canned a batch last week… THEN I was reading about canning safety and sticking to the tried and true recipes. The cornstarch and lack of lemon juice was my main concern as I couldn’t find any canning recipes that contained cornstarch. I’m just trying to figure out if I should throw it all out or if I will be able to tell if it’s safe to eat :/ Thanks for the quick response, I appreciate the help!

  • I have a huge container of Sherry Vinegar, at 7% acidity…is this safe to can with? Safer if mixed with white vinegar?

  • I have a question regarding experimenting with jam and apple sauce. There are so many different approved jam recipes, some without pectin, some with pectin, some low sugar some very high in sugar, some with no sugar.Is there any reason, if I am okay with a thinner less gelled jam to not feel free to experiment with less sugar and no pectin high acid jams? Raspberry, blackberry and blueberry types. I don’t see how sugar or pectin impacts PH level so if am willing to risk something that ends up being more syrupy is it fine to adjust sugar levels to my liking (or not add any)? I have been making apple sauce with a few cups of blueberries. Is there any reason it would be unsafe to add high acid fruit to apple sauce?

  • Hi,

    Could you please tell me if it is safe to omit onions from recipes when canning? I have read that onions should not be increased, what about omitted?

    Thanks in advance.

    Carolyn McGillivray

  • So I accidentally made a recipe for a yellow peach jam with almost 5 pounds of peaches when the recipe called for 4. It looks and tastes great, do you think it’s safe?

  • I am having trouble finding a recipe for a hot pepper/green tomato jam on a trusted site. Any suggestions?
    Thank you!! 🙂

  • Are the canning recipes (specifically your Garlic Dill Pickles) you’ve included on your website been scientifically tested to be safe?

    1. My recipes are not independently tested by a third party lab. However, I develop my recipes using the same ratios that are found in recipes from places like the National Center for Home Food Preservation and Ball Canning. The garlic dill pickles you reference use the same amount of vinegar in the same dilution as any tested recipe you’ll find out there and are safe for home preservation.

  • Can I safely omit fresh a herb (specifically cilantro) from a canning recipe (ie a tomatillo simmer sauce)? I do not intend to replace it but it has to go as we are both soap tasters!

  • Hi there! I have a trusted recipe for a low-sugar apple chili jam. It calls for apple juice but I wanted to swap the juice for apple cider. Is the acidity close enough to make this a safe swap? Thanks!

    1. That’s a totally fine swap. Apple juice and apple cider (at least in the US) are essentially the same. One is filtered and the other is not.