Canning is practically synonymous with homesteading. When people see or hear how big my garden is, the first question asked is usually “Oh, you must do a lot of canning, right?” Erica clearly loves to can, and is a great resource for general safety and lots of recipes.
But there are a lot of ways to preserve food, and I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to hate canning. We’re not going to take your homesteader card away if you admit it!
You Must Not Be Doing It Right
Trust me, I know how to can. I have a giant 8 gallon brew kettle purchased to water bath can without getting constantly sprayed by boiling water like with the awful graniteware canning pots. I once owned an All-American pressure canner (sold it to purchase a second Excalibur). I have an awesome Squeezo food mill. I have lots of customized jam recipes (primarily adjusting for zero or low-added sugar).
I’ve invested a few years into learning the ins and outs of canning, and I still continue to can a few things, mostly jams for my kids to eat over the winter and to give away as gifts. I’ve got high enough on the learning curve that the process wasn’t overwhelming.
But the more I thought about canning, the more I hated it. It felt weird to admit it at first, but this year I’ve done almost no canning and I’ve never been happier.
Here are all the reasons I hate canning, and what I’ve come to prefer instead.
The first reason for my canning hatred came when I began to learn about the nutrient density of preserved foods. Canning is shelf stable, but it’s also the least nutritious way to preserve food. It is fine for things primarily used as condiments. If your diet revolves around canning, however, you’re losing quite a bit of nutrient density. Meat is probably an exception here but fermentation, freezing, and drying are vastly superior for goods that will form the bulk of your diet.
My favorite resource for improving the nutrient density (and energy usage) of your preserved foods is Sharon Astyk’s Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage & Preservation.
Even with good air-conditioning, running a giant pot of boiling water in summer or early fall is not my idea of fun. Fruit intended for jam in the summer often makes a stop in the freezer for a few months until temperatures finally cool here in late October. My family and friends, however, have really come to love the various dried fruits I make – mainly dried strawberry slices, apple slices, and unsweetened tart cherries. They get much more excited about dried gifts than canned ones, and we enjoy eating them more as well.
Running the dehydrator still pumps heat into the house, of course, but if parked near an open window it’s nowhere near as bad as tending the hot water bath kettle. If you have a reasonably critter-proof sheltered outdoor space, you could run an electric dehydrator outside.
For those of you in a climate with lower humidity and reliable sunshine, solar dehydrators can be an even better choice. Here in southern Wisconsin, I haven’t felt comfortable experimenting with one yet but our early falls are typically sunny and dry so it might be a future project.
Can’t I can outside? I’ve definitely seen some pretty neat propane setups in online canning groups. I don’t personally have a large enough level, hard outdoor surface to have propane stoves, let alone a table or two for tools and jar filling. Plus, from what I’ve seen in doing other forms of propane cooking, using LP is considerably more expensive than a natural gas or electric stove.
If you’re doing very small batches of homegrown produce or are buying large quantities of ripe veggies or fruit, canning works pretty well. I have a large garden of about 40 4×8 raised beds plus an additional less-intensively managed 5,000 square foot garden plot and rarely feel like I have enough ready at any one time to really justify getting all of the canning equipment out, washing jars, etc.
Dehydrating fits the flow of my garden produce much better. Depending on what exactly I’m drying, it only takes about an hour to fill one of my Excalibur 9-tray machines and a minute or two to empty it into storage containers or bags when done.
I now own two Excalibur dehydrators, so that I can keep one for veggies and savory herbs most of the year without needing to wash my dehydrator to avoid undesirable flavors when drying fruit. I can mix tomatoes, peppers, and more in the same batch. Plus, my dehydrators use a small enough amount of electricity that I’m personally okay running them only partially full if I need to.
It’s very quick to turn dried tomatoes into sauce as needed during the winter. Dried peppers make fantastic additions to chili and other soups, or can be rehydrated in pan juices and beer for surprisingly good fajitas. As with all kinds of food preservation, it can take a little experimentation to figure out how best to use dried foods. And though I have found dehydration to be the best overall method of food preservation for my family, I certainly don’t dry everything.
Canned goods take up less space than frozen ones, and freezer space is always a valuable commodity. When looking at shelf stable items, however, there is no comparison to how space-efficient dehydrated items are. I can store the equivalent of gallons of canned tomatoes in the space of a quart or two when dried. Dried foods are also much are also much lighter if you lack a lot of heavy-duty shelving.
How Important is Shelf Stability, Really?
Shelf-stable meat and prepared foods containing meat or broth is arguably where canning (pressure canning, in the case of meat and meat products) shines compared to other preservation methods. How important this is to you is an individual choice.
I personally live in a very low-risk area for disasters. Power outages are very infrequent and never last more than a few hours. For someone with longer and more frequent power outages, I can see where they would rely on canning much more than I do.
If you live in an area like that but, like me, hate canning and prefer to rely on freezers for this class of food, there are other solutions.
It takes 48 hours without any power before freezers are typically in danger of thawing, particularly if you keep them close to full (or filled with frozen water as a thermal battery). A small generator or even an inverter hooked up to your car run for a couple hours every day can keep freezers cold as long as you have gas. The Steven Harris’ interview segments on The Survival Podcast are a good resource for details on inverters and battery options.
If you love canning, that’s great. But for those of you who hate it, I hope this article makes you feel better. I certainly felt weird for a while being a homesteader that hates to can, but I’m completely at peace with it now.