Canning 101: How to Make a Recipe Yours

July 20, 2011(updated on October 3, 2018)

potluck pickles

They say that there’s nothing new under the sun. And when it comes to canning recipes, that’s doubly true, particularly since it really is important to stick to tested recipes when you’re putting things in jars. I know that lots of you wonder how it’s possible to develop a canning recipe that feels like your own when you’re working within these confines. As I come to the end of my cookbook process, I have a few things I’d like to share about my own process and the steps I go through in developing recipes that feel uniquely mine.

First off, copyright law states that it’s impossible to copyright a list of ingredients. That means that essentially, a recipe becomes your own in the introduction and instructions. This is particularly true with things like jam and pickles, where the possibilities for grand scale deviation are fairly limited.

That doesn’t mean that you can copy and paste someone else’s ingredient list into your own blog or manuscript, rewrite the instructions and call it yours. You need to make it. Tinker with the seasoning levels. Adjust the volumes slightly to better fit the ingredients you have available*. Those incremental tweaks eventually lead to a new recipe, that coupled with a headnote and instructions written in your voice, becomes something you can call yours.

Of course, even after you’ve worked your way through a recipe, massaged the ingredients and fine-tuned the spices to fit your palate, it’s still always good manners to indicate where your inspiration was found. In my cookbook, there are two recipes that were heavily inspired by the work of other canning bloggers. Even though the recipes I sent to my editor were markedly different from the ones I had originally seen, I felt that those items still bore the fingerprint of the original writers and so I stated that in the head notes of those recipes.

When I head into the kitchen to make something new, I will often cast around for a bit of inspiration. I’ll look at cookbooks and blogs to see how other people have treated the ingredients I have on hand. I look for themes, various techniques and where the similarities and differences are. Then I close the books and browser windows and head into the kitchen without any of those sources. That way, I can allow myself to be guided by the produce but with a framework of solid technique and understanding about how ingredients will come together.

Sometimes the results are magical. Those are the recipes I post, publish and share.

For more on the attribution of recipes, make sure to check out this post that Sean wrote on Punk Domestics last week.

*Always take care to ensure that if you’re reducing volume levels, that you keep the proportions of acidic ingredients the same, so as to maintain safe levels of acid.

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40 thoughts on "Canning 101: How to Make a Recipe Yours"

  • Thanks for the post! I am so paranoid about accidentally posting something belonging to another author, that even if I think I saw something similar in a cookbook or on a blog somewhere I double check. I can’t imagine with canning recipes yet, because I am a newbie. I have problems sometimes dealing with baking recipes, because although I know there are a million ways to make clafoutis (on my mind now since I made one last night) I am sure someone’s made it similar to me before.

    By the way, I love your blog. (Not sure if I’ve commented here before, but I certainly visit often.)

  • Thanks for the info! I am a stickler for recipes myself, so I am very careful when I change anything. Am finally comfortable with changing up the fruit. And I always give credit to the original, even if its only a repost.
    The info on making a recipe your own is great! I want to eventually sell my product, so am thankful to find a way to “own” it. 🙂

  • I am interested in learning more about how to know if your canning recipe is safe. I would love to hear your advice on this topic. Thanks!

  • thanks for the tips! I have been canning for a few years but have stuck religiously to recipes in fear of wiping out my family. I have been making a lot of jam this week and was wondering if I can significantly alter the amount of sugar in a recipe without compromising the safety? Love your blog!

    1. Joanna, the sugar in recipes doesn’t play a role in safety. It serves as sweetener, gelling helper and preservative. So you can reduce the amount of sugar in a recipe, but it may not set at well (or at all) and it won’t last as long on the shelf.

  • I love your website. I enjoy canning and preserving, and I have people ask me “is it safe to can that?” which of course sort of freaks me out…and the FDA is quite vague about things when it comes to canning. I am excited to point people to your website.

  • Hi, I have only recently discovered this blog and I am truly glad that I have. Last night after a serious day at the office, I made a batch of Gooseberry Jam inspired by a recent post & link. It was my very first time making gooseberry anything. It came out great. Thanks!

  • Marisa – I think your link to archives is broken. When I click”Archives” at the top of your page I see two comments, but not the archives. As I recall before I saw a variety of topics that would then take me to relevant posts.

  • Hi Marisa! I have spent a good bit of time today reading your posts here – great job! I have a question for you that I hope you can answer. I made raspberry jam about 3 weeks ago. I canned it with a hot water bath. This morning I opened it up and there was a circle of mold on the top. The jar had been sealed. I threw the whole thing away – so very sad. What happened? Suggestions? I’m still new at this and don’t want to poison the family!

    1. Cindy, I’m so sorry to hear about your jam! Well, obviously the hot water bath didn’t kill the bacteria in the jar. Did you have it at a rolling boil for a full ten minutes? And did you check your seals once the jars were cool? You’ve always got to take those rings off and make sure you’ve got a solid, tight, concave lid on there. Beyond that, I don’t really know what to tell you. I’ve been canning for years and have never found mold inside a sealed jar that had gone through a full boiling water bath.

      1. Thanks for the reply! I do think it was in for a full 10 minutes. I had wrapped them up in towels and let them cool overnight – how my grandma used to do it. I hope it was just a fluke. I’m looking forward to trying some of your recipes.

        1. Ah. You’re not supposed to wrap them in towels. Jars need to be allowed to cool rapidly. By keeping them warm overnight, you may have created an opportunity for bacteria to grow.

  • Hi! My family really loves Pioneer Womans salsa but I am worried that there is not enough acid to can it. How do I know if there is enough? Thanks for the great post!

  • Perhaps we’d be better off if we didn’t think of recipes as belonging to anyone. I think there’s also a tendency when we find a recipe to assume that it’s the “original” source, especially with magazine and cookbook recipes. But really, we have been doing this cooking thing for how many hundreds of thousands of years? Trust me, it has all been done before. Some things are not meant to be owned.

  • This is my first year canning, and I am really enjoying it. I am so happy that I found your site. I am trying several recipes. I do have a question about tomatoes. I canned some tomatoes, and one jar did not seal. I have put in the the refrigerator. Can I freeze that now, or do I need to use it within a couple of days? Thank you so much for your hard work and helping people like me on our new canning adventures!

    1. You can definitely freeze those tomatoes. Just make sure that they have enough headspace before freezing!

  • This is awesome. I love your process, too, in creating new recipes. Such an important conversation and I’m so glad you’re talking about it.

  • Thanks for such an helpful post. It’s true that everything has been done, but it’s also true that simple, small variations in ingredients or techniques really do render a new outcome. And that credit is deserved where credit it due!
    @Chris – People feel so strongly about their food and how they make it, I think it’s impossible for humans to not feel like they own a recipe. And it’s good, because this is the way certain foods, and how they are made, get shared.

  • Marisa, this is the best blogsite I’ve found, and I’ve been searching for months! I’m so impressed! I’ve bookmarked it for speedier access and can’t wait to catch up on all your posts. I’m posting pioneer recipes from old cook books and trying them as I get a chance. I will post as I taste them, trying to remember to take photos as I go along. Keep up the great job!

  • Hi Marisa. On modifying recipes, I would like to play around with some fruit jam recipes, and I have three major questions:
    1. Can I cut a jam recipe in half?
    2. Can I use less sugar for a less-sweet jam?
    3. Are there pH test strips for canning, similar to chemistry sets or pool chemical sets, so that I can know a waterbath process is safe?
    Thanks for your guidance.

    1. 1. Yes, you can always cut a jam recipe in half.
      2. Reducing sugar is tricky, because sugar isn’t just sweetening a jam, it is also playing a role in set, yield, and length of preservation. So while you can cut back on sugar a little bit to reduce the sweetness, you may need to cook it longer to get the same set, your yield will be lower (sometimes significantly), and it won’t keep as long when on the shelf.
      3. You can either use litmus paper to test for pH or you can get a pH meter like the ones sold here.

      1. What do you mean that the jam won’t keep as long on the shelf – is this about the set, or is it about jam that will go bad?


        1. When you reduce the sugar, the jam will lose its color and texture faster than a higher sugar jam. It also has a higher chance of getting moldy.

          1. How does it get moldy if it’s properly sealed? My impression is that the water bath and acid content make the inside of the jar sterile so that anything that was alive in there isn’t any more. Do mold spores survive the water bath?

            1. Mold spores can occasionally survive the water bath, and if you have less sugar in the jar, they have a higher chance of growing.

  • Questions on recipe development:

    I was taught to can by the women of my family, my grandma canned everything the family would eat for the winter without a single recipe, only knowledge handed down through the generations. In my canning adventures, i constantly find myself veering off of established recipes and creating my own, i have been doing this for several years with no ill effects. Yet, in my internet queries, I find only information discouraging me from this. I have a good understand of canning science, and when i develop recipes, i take about ten written recipes, study them, and average the acid content added of each recipe to create an average acidity for that type of product.

    I want to phrase this delicately, because i mean no disrespect, but what are your credentials that give you the ability to safely develop canning recipes? When i search Canning and Preservation on Amazon, i find dozens and dozens of books, only a very small percent are written by those possessing credentials in food science. The national center for food preservation states that most books published have not been tested for safety, and unless you are using a recipe from them or another reputable source, it is buyer beware. What means do you use to test your recipes? Are they all tested? Again, i mean no disrespect, only curiosity, your books have launched me further into the realm of canning than ever before, and the further i go, the more i want/need to know. What advice do you have for someone who is not discouraged by all the discouraging information regarding canning recipe development?


    1. Hi Amanda,

      I have no credentials that uniquely qualify me to develop recipes beyond a sincere desire to create things that are delicious, safe, and will keep well on the shelf. I have vigorously self-educated myself on what makes a safe recipe. I typically do much like you say you do yourself, using the current canon of acceptable recipes to discern what a safe acid level is. When there isn’t any information out there for me to turn to, I do one of two things. I either write a recipe and recommend that it goes in the fridge or freezer, or I pull out my trusty pH meter and take some readings to determine whether the acid levels are high enough to be safely canned.

      I’d suggest that if you’re excited to explore more recipe development on your own, that you get yourself the books written by Stephen Palmer Dowdney and a mid-level pH meter. They will help guide you into the wilds of recipe development.