If you've never canned before, just starting can seem pretty overwhelming. So much to learn, so much to buy. Wide mouth or standard? Boiling-water canner, steam canner, pressure canner - what to get? It's all a personal choice really, but I thought I'd let you know what I use. Rest assured, I only bring you the best products that have withstood the test of time (well, I can only speak for myself - but they've been used a bunch in the last five or so years...). Here's the rundown:
1. The most important item is the canner for processing. Granted, you can always skip the canner and use your freezer, but if you're like me, my freezer is pretty jam-packed (no pun intended, ha ha. I crack myself up.) as it is. To be honest, I've never tried doing freezer jam. Anyway, you really need a canner, in my opinion. In the Ball Blue Book of Preserving the two canners they mention are the boiling-water canner and the pressure canner. However, I use neither. My mother-in-law taught me using a steam canner.
I actually just learned that there is some controversy about the steam canner method (please read the link in the previous paragraph for more info) because the USDA says that the processing times haven't been completely researched. However, the rest of the article basically concludes they're just fine (one researcher from the University of California concluded in 2005 the processing times for four different foods were the same whether you used the water bath or steam method). I've never had a problem with mine. No poisonings, no botulism deaths. And I figure, if it were that dangerous (or dangerous at all), my husband probably wouldn't have survived years and years of eating his mother's canned food. Everything seals (when done properly) and we've eaten plenty of stuff canned by it. I always process my jars a little longer anyway because of our altitude. So, it's up to you, really. I like the steam canner because it uses less water, it's lightweight (especially when full of water), and it doesn't take very long to heat up. Just be careful lifting the lid on it - steam really burns (I know from experience)!
Keep in mind that boiling-water and steam canners are meant only for high-acid foods, like fruit, jams/jellies, pickles and tomatoes (with added acid); most vegetables and meats (low-acid foods) have to be processed with a pressure canner. I've never attempted using a pressure-canner. I guess that's an adventure for the future. Anyway, sorry for the digression from the actual suggestion - I just thought you might want the info, seeing as there is a 'controversy' (seriously, you should see the three reviews for my canner on Amazon -link is in following sentence- that are negative. However, the rest of the reviews are very contented and have used steam for many years). The canner I use is made by Back to Basics - it has served me very well.
2. Having a canner is all nice and dandy, but if you're going to do anything you need some good glass canning jars, also called Mason jars. These are quite inexpensive (I just bought a case of 12 pint-size ones for a little over six dollars) and can be used over and over again (as long as the tops of the jars aren't chipped or anything). As you can see in my photo at the top, there are quite a variety of sizes, shapes, textures, and openings (standard or wide mouth). I prefer the wide mouth jars myself - they're less messy to fill and it's easier to scrape every bit of jam out of them. Again, it's up you.
Two things to keep in mind: 1) only use canning jars for canning (no re-using glass jars from store-bought jam, spaghetti sauce, baby food, or anything like that. They can't withstand the heat of processing); and 2) be sure always follow the processing time indicated for the specific jar size. For example, pint-size jars don't process as long as quart-size.
3. The key to preserving food is in the lids and bands. While the bands can be reused (so long as they're not rusty or damaged in any other way), but you need to buy new lids every time. The lids have a sealing compound on them and when you take them off after they've been sealed, some of that compound comes off. So, as a result, the jars won't seal properly.
And this next point may seem like an obvious reminder, but be sure to buy the right size of lids and bands, depending on what size of opening your jars have. Nothing's quite so irritating as realizing, once you're home from the store, that you didn't read the label and that you bought the wrong ones. Not that I speak from personal experience or anything...*cough cough*
4. There are other utensils you can use while canning like jar lifters and lid wands (to remove the lids from the hot water), but I don't really think they're necessary (well, maybe the jar lifter is good for water-bath and pressure steamers); you can just as easily use hot pads and kitchen tongs. One specific canning utensil that I really like is my canning funnel. This saves so much time and prevents a lot of mess. Totally worth the dollar or two I spent for it.
5. While not necessarily required for canning,I highly suggest a food mill. This is a great tool for making applesauce and other pureed foods (like baby food or tomato sauce). The cool thing about it is that you don't have to peel anything. I just chop up the apples (skin and everything) and stick them in the food mill. It peels the apple and purees it at once. My mom and I tried this with her gooseberries - they have tiny stems that are super-tedious to take off, so we just put them through the food mill. Just as we hoped, the stems were taken off and we were ready to make gooseberry jam with the puree. Love it.
Next week, I'll be posting how I make and can apple pie filling, jam, applesauce (and maybe peaches). I'll also be giving away some of the fruits of my labor, so be sure to check it out when all the canning fun begins...