Will canning your food save you money?

When I was a child, we lived on a farm that had a grape arbor loaded with Concord grapes. Each September, my mom would can jars upon jars of grape juice, and I have fond memories of evenings around the kitchen table as our family ate popcorn and drank that delicious stuff (which doesn't taste like anything I've ever purchased from a store).

Well, apparently, nostalgia set in this year, and I ordered 1.5 bushels of Concord grapes. (And if you're wondering how much that is, it felt like a whole vineyard.) The grapes came earlier than I expected, so I texted my husband that morning: “The grapes are here and they're RIPE. We need to can the juice tonight.”

He texted back: “Sounds grape.” Yes, he really did.

So that's how we found ourselves — on our anniversary, no less! — late at night, plucking grape after grape after grape off stems, stuffing jars, wiping up grape juice, and feeling very, very tired.

My thoughts went something like this: This is a stupid way to save money. And then to an even scarier thought, Am I even saving money?

Does Preserving Your Own Food Save You Money?

Besides the grape juice, our family canned and froze lots of other produce, too. Back then, it was a way to save some serious money. But my mother also used to sew a lot of our clothes for the same reason: It was cheaper. However, it is not cheaper to sew my own clothes today, so I wondered if food preservation should fit more into the “hobby” category in my budget. And what a labor-intensive hobby it would be!

Here are my grape numbers:

  • 1.5 bushels of grapes – $37
  • 56 quart jars – free
  • 56 rings/lids – rings were free, lids $10
  • Sugar – around $4
  • Electricity – I have no idea, although according to this article, it costs between 2.3 and 3.4 cents per quart (or $1.90 for 56 quarts, using 3.4 cents per quart)
  • Canner – free
  • Jar lifter and canning funnel – free

Using the above numbers, my costs were 94 cents per quart.

First, drinking water would be way cheaper than this. And, the crazy thing is, we usually do drink water, milk, or the occasional iced tea. This grape juice will be used judiciously. But let's say we did buy grape juice regularly. At my grocery store, a quart of grape juice is close to $1, just about the same amount.

Finding Canning Components

As you can see in my equipment list, my favorite word is mentioned a few times: free! I have had no problem finding free canning supplies. In fact, I have turned down offers for canning jars.

Anyway, look in the usual places (Freecycle, Craigslist, etc.), but also ask empty nesters or people who are downsizing. When my mom downsized earlier this year, she had boxes of jars and rings to give away. She also gave me the jar lifter, but didn't have a spare canning funnel. However, I asked my best garage-saling pal if she could keep her eyes open for one — and surprise! — she had two extras. And then there was my (free) pressure canner and (free) water bath canner that were given to me by someone who was getting older and didn't want to mess with canning anymore. So it has been really simple for me to amass the equipment needed for canning.

I bought my jar lids in bulk, but they were not reusable. However, there are reusable jar lids that I found for $8.50 a dozen. Based on these costs, I would have to use them over four times to equal the disposable lids. I haven't used them, but maybe they are cheaper somewhere else. I always like the idea of reusing something.

Freezing, the Cold Alternative

With canning, the energy use is on the front end. With freezing food, there may not be any consumption on the front end, but storing frozen food isn't free. Obviously.

I have more experience with freezing produce. This year, I bought 80 pounds of blueberries for $2.29 per pound (not cheap, but so delicious). Most of them made it into our freezer. Getting them ready for the freezer required little more than a quick rinse. Easy. And then there was our bumper apple crop that netted us 100 pints of applesauce for the freezer. That was a little more time-consuming: cook the apples, puree them into sauce, and freeze.

I also got some free plastic freezer containers from someone who prefers to use plastic freezer bags. I actually prefer the freezer bags, too, but I occasionally still use the plastic containers.

There are other pieces of equipment you may need. For instance, my applesauce was pureed with a part that pops onto my big mixer. These extra pieces could be borrowed, or I am sure you could find them by using the strategies above.

Finding Inexpensive Produce

1. Grow your own. If you grow your own produce, freezing and canning make sense, especially if you're trying to prevent wasting a surplus. But there are other avenues to find good produce — for less than you think.

2. Fruit trees and gardens are a lot of work. Perhaps you can barter your pruning skills in exchange for some peaches. I have been given free pears and apples by people who had picked all they needed, but didn't want more to go to waste. My Grandmother's neighbor couldn't pick her grapes, so she was relieved when my Grandmother picked them and used them. The grape jelly didn't hurt, either.

3. U-pick farms and produce stands aren't necessarily inexpensive, but sometimes they have “seconds,” produce that doesn't look as good, even though the taste is just fine. This produce is less expensive than the pretty stuff.

Getting Started With Home Canning

High-acid foods like jams, jellies, pickles, and some salsas are an easy way to start preserving your own food without stressing about botulism; recipes and instructions abound on the internet. My favorite canning blog (yes, they exist) is Food in Jars by Marisa McClellan. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and she's a pro at creating small batches in an evening hour or two. If you've tucked fruit into the freezer this summer for later use, check around for a canning recipe for a mid-winter day's work.

I especially like that glass canning jars are reusable year after year and don't need giftwrap when given away. They are welcome homemade gifts that won't turn into clutter (unless you're my Dad, who has an entire cupboard packed with food I've made for him over the last five years — long story). And I was excited to find a source for BPA-free reusable canning lids through the magic of the internet. I split an order with two friends and used them for the first time (easy!) on a batch of dill pickles the other night. One more step toward self-sufficiency; now if I could just grow and refine my own sugarcane…

The jams and jellies section at the county fair

A word of caution: You'll still find recipes that tell you to seal canning jars by turning the jars upside down or by simply packing them with very hot food and closing them immediately. USDA recommendations call for a boiling water bath — usually between 5 and 25 minutes — for safe canning. Without the boiling water bath, your jars may seal, but they won't be sterile and could develop mold. It's worth the effort to do the boiling water bath step.

Apricot Essence Preserves

(Makes 2-3 pints)

  • 3 pounds apricots, pitted and chopped (about 24)
  • 1/2 cup canned apricot nectar
  • 1/2 teaspoon unsalted butter
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fresh or bottled lemon juice

Puree the pitted fruit in a food processor. In a non-aluminum 8-quart pot, combine fruit, nectar, and butter. Bring to a boil over medium heat.

Reduce heat and stir until apricots are softened, about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in the sugar and lemon juice. Bring to a simmer and stir until the sugar is dissolved.

Reduce to a slow simmer and cook until it is thick enough to mound on a spoon, about 30-40 minutes.Stir frequently. (Remember, it will firm more as it cools—you can put some on a chilled plate to gauge how thick it is.

Ladle into clean pint or half-pint jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Wipe the rims clean with a damp paper towel and add lids and screwbands. Process in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes. When cool, check the seals. If sealed, remove the bands and store in a cool, dark place. If it didn't seal, you can either re-process it or store it in the fridge for up to a month.

While I didn't experience the joy of canning while I was in the middle of it (it's a lot of work!), I do admire my colorful jars lined up on the shelves in my food cellar. Each sip of grape juice takes me back to my childhood, and that tastes pretty sweet.

For more information on canning, check out:

Is food preservation worth it to you? Has anyone used the reusable canning lids?

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Jane
Jane
12 years ago

Wow! What a fantastic supply of great food you have. Well done! I borrowed the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving from the library this summer and it truely is a fantastic source of information. I highly recommend it too.

Will
Will
12 years ago

Wow that IS a lot of great food! I am thinking I might try this at some point because I love going to the farmer’s market but sometimes don’t use everything before it goes bad. It would also be nice during the winters here in Maine to have some fresh summer vegetables. Thanks for the post!

Richard
Richard
12 years ago

Heh, last night and this morning we canned 22 Qts. of pickels. 8 Qts. of dill chips and 14 Qts. of bread and butter spears. And 2 Qts. of green beans. Our garden is small and diverse enough that we’d been able to keep up with everything up until we took a 4 day trip last week and found an invasion of cukes when we got back… This was the first time that we really took care of our garden (last time we didn’t weed) and it was pretty amazing how prolific squash can be and how much watering corn… Read more »

Solomon@ThingsI'mGratefulFor
[email protected]'mGratefulFor
12 years ago

I picked over a kilo of blackberries today, from the fields that back onto my house, in less than half an hour. I’m planning on freezing rather than canning, though.

liz
liz
12 years ago

My mom is great – she still cans stuff for us; the biggest thing that I love are canned peaches; she’ll also do tomatoes (for tomato sauce), and she’ll also can mustard beans and pickles. For beans, usually, my mom just blanches them and throws them in the freezer… But in all honesty, unless you are getting the veggies and fruit for a really really good deal, sometimes canning is not the best use of your money. For instance – is it really worth the cost to spend $3/lb for peaches, and all the money and time for canning, when… Read more »

Annie Jones
Annie Jones
12 years ago

This is great! We subscribed to a CSA farm over the summer and were able to eat most of what we received. However, I did freeze some of the veggies for later use (green beans, berries, etc.) We didn’t get enough to do canning, but I have canned in the past and enjoy it.

Adam
Adam
12 years ago

Is this a form of pack ratting?

Kirsten
Kirsten
12 years ago

I am always put off making jam by the cost of the sugar. Have you kept track of those costs? Perhaps it’s not as much as I think it is.

Hank Osborne
Hank Osborne
12 years ago

That is awesome! My wife and I just did our first round of canning. We canned 5 jars of apple butter. We plan to do more canning, but are starting off small with some apples we picked last weekend in western NC. Both of our families canned when we were children and we want to teach the practice to our children. Thanks for sharing. I would be interested to see a breakdown on the cost of canning _____ (filling in the blank) vs. the cost of buying the same quantity of that product in the store. I know there is… Read more »

Carlin
Carlin
12 years ago

I am 22 and have, along with my 24 year old roommate, have canned various things (so far Apple Butter, various Jams, and dozens of quarts of Apple Sauce). When we tell people about it, or pass out our bounty, they are rather disbelieving. They view it as an art of the past, not something that my generation can be doing as well.

This weekend we moved my Grandmother into a retirement community and I inherited her big old pressure canner! Now I am excited to do even more canning.

Brett McKay
Brett McKay
12 years ago

I was talking about this with my mom the other day. She grew up canning as a girl. It was basically an all day event. My grandma would wake all the kids up at 6AM and they would can and bottle fruit and vegetables from their garden all day long.

I’d like to get into that sort of thing. I just don’t know how to do it. I’m letting my Mormon forebearers down.

Lanna
Lanna
12 years ago

Oh, I always recommend the Ball Complete Book. My latest favorite is also Stocking Up by Carol Hupping – some other neat recipes and other growing/harvesting tidbits that are fun to have on hand. My grandma canned like she was preparing for nuclear fallout, and I’ve apparently inherited that tendency, which is kinda fun, just not at 3am on my 3rd round of applesauce. 😉

Stephen
Stephen
12 years ago

Very jealous! (But in the best of ways…we have a small kitchen…too small to can in right now!)

Any way to extract the salsa recipe from you? If it comes out well after canning, it has to be good and I am currently on the lookout for one that will work.

Caitlin
Caitlin
12 years ago

I have never canned but I have made blackcurrant jam with freshly picked blackcurrants and that was absolutely fantastic!

@Kirsten, the cost of sugar is not much compared to the cost of jam – this can literally last you all year from a couple of pounds of fruit. Plus homemade jam makes a great gift to friends, so you can save money on gifts as well.

I have just read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and her summer chapters are all about canning and preserving. It’s a lovely book – well written and accessible and inspiring in lots of ways.

Adam
Adam
12 years ago

We’ve been canning for some time now. Most of our information comes from my Alma Mater: http://extension.usu.edu/foodsafety/htm/publications/by=category/category=319

My Daily Dollars
My Daily Dollars
12 years ago

I’m impressed! I agree . . it’s easier than you’d think to can and so satisfying to have everything stored up for the winter. It’s true, the cost is much less than you’d think. Also, you can control the ingredients. For example, you know that there won’t be any low-quality corn syrup in your jam!

kendra
kendra
12 years ago

We do quite a bit of canning too each summer. This year we’ve done mostly plum jam and nectarines with a few pickles. We still have umpteen jars of applesauce, pears and tomato sauce to do.

If you want something to make her lids look a little bit more cheerful, I designed these canning lid labels for my blog readers. You are welcome to enjoy them too:
http://asonomagarden.wordpress.com/2008/07/21/canning-lids-download/

Anita
Anita
12 years ago

I think it’s great that you do canning, I used to help my mom can and also freeze vegetables. And although it might not be cheaper now, nothing compares to Canned Peaches or anything for that matter especially since you know exactly what your
ingrediants are.

Brent
Brent
12 years ago

My wife, Liz, and I get great deal out of your website and really appreciate it as an educational source. At times, it seems that we are living a very similar life to the two of you, only on the opposite end of the country in central Pennsylvania. As a kid in the 1960s/70s, I used to help my mother plant and tend a large garden every year. Each summer and fall she would can and freeze a significant amount of our family’s fruit and vegetables for the next year. Interestingly, we just started doing this ourselves these past couple… Read more »

db
db
12 years ago

Kudos on all the great canning! Here is my list of all the ways this a great beyond just being more cost-effective per ounce: 1. It’s more sustainable. You make an initial investment in the supplies up front, but after that you can reuse the jars over and over. It drives the costs down AND it minimizes storage container waste in the landfills. 2. You have more control. Since you know how you grew your fruits and vegetables, you know exactly what sort of pesticides/chemicals you are being exposed to (or not). 3. You can pick the food fresher so… Read more »

Boomer
Boomer
12 years ago

Sounds like you really like this batch of Salsa. Would you care to share how you made your salsa? I’m struggling with a good recipe for it. Thanks!

Jess
Jess
12 years ago

Uhh JD, why is there a WoW ad on the feed today? *tsk I thought that you gave that up.

Google Reader KNOWS ALL!!! 😛

elena
elena
12 years ago

We get a box of canned jams, jellies, pickles and relish every Christmas from a beloved aunt.
It is heaven. I do secret trades for my favorites. Canning is a lovely thing to do.

Amy F
Amy F
12 years ago

I just canned 10 qts of tomatoes yesterday (1/2 bushel from the farmer’s market) and have plans to do you-pick apples and raspberries this week. I’d really like the berry applesauce recipe! Our garden hasn’t produced enough to can, but I’ve been bulk-buying from the farmer’s market and you-picking to get our favorites. This season we’ve canned: 20 1/2 pints rhubarb jam (rhubarb is free), 20 qts dill pickles, 1 1/2 bushels tomatoes (about 20 qts whole tomatoes and 20 pts spaghetti sauce), and 11 pints applesauce. I’ve also frozen a bushel of green beans, a gallon of blueberries, a… Read more »

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
12 years ago

I grew up canning and gardening but now live in a Seattle apartment with zero space for growing and zero time to get a P-Patch garden plot. So my canning is all (free) fruit, all the time. I suggest that anyone looking for free produce do what I did: Put an ad on Freecycle. People who aren’t using the fruit or who have too much of it may be amenable to your taking some. I proposed it as a trade: Give me enough fruit to make jam and I’ll give you a jar of it. (I didn’t think of doing… Read more »

Annette
Annette
12 years ago

I haven’t seen anyone mention the difference in taste. For us, a jar of fresh canned peaches is like a jar of sunshine, even the expensive store bought ones in the glass jars don’t come close to the summer ripe taste of home canned peaches. While other preserves also have improved taste when done at home, the biggest difference in taste for us is in the peaches. We also grow our own beef and pork, and while the beef is good, home grown pork has a flavor nothing I buy from the store comes close to. To the person who… Read more »

Becky
Becky
12 years ago

I would also like the salsa recipe and I did want to do it this week, but I suppose I can wait…. (I’m reading from Poland. Salsa over here is something like $6 for a small jar of Old El Paso.)

Ryan McLean
Ryan McLean
12 years ago

All of those jars must have cost you alot of money??

Chris
Chris
12 years ago

Canning equipment can be very inexpensive. I got my Boiling-water-canner (practically new with rack)at a garage sale for 3.00. I get tons of canning jars from older relatives who no longer process their own foods. You can also find them at garage sales and thrift stores. These last forever. Just check for any cracks or chips, especially around the rim. Cracked or chipped jars should not be used. I also got tons of new lids, still sealed in the boxes at a garage sale. 11 boxes for 2.00. That was a score! I do a lot of trading. My neighbors… Read more »

EscapeVelocity
EscapeVelocity
12 years ago

Have you tried dehydrating? I’m curious to try it–hear it preserves nutrients better than canning does.

Christy
Christy
12 years ago

I totally love this. I thought I was the last person under 40 into canning. 🙂 Its awesome. It’s hard work in short bursts but so very satisfying. I absolutely love the post about bartering for free fruit. I never thought of that.

Mary
Mary
12 years ago

I actually just finished up my first canning experiments – 6 half-pint jars of spiced pear butter from free pears that I got from my boyfriend’s sister’s mother-in-law’s tree. (Third-hand, but still.) I also used local Pennsylvania white wine in the first step.

There’s an apple tree on my walking route to work and I’m seriously thinking about asking the nice people who live in the house if I can go pick their apples in exchange for some eventual apple butter.

David
David
12 years ago

Taking the idea of buying in bulk and repackaging in smaller containers, my mom once bought a #10 can of chili sauce (it was very cheap) and processed it into pint jars. That was last year and we still have jars of it around. Also, for freezing stuff, I highly recommend the Food Saver vacuum sealing stuff. The initial outlay is high, but the quality of frozen food frozen vacuum sealed compared to just plain plastic bags is beyond compare.

partgypsy
partgypsy
12 years ago

You can send me the green beans!

Becky
Becky
12 years ago

My daughter’s friend’s mom has apple trees. This year the fruit is abundant. I’ve been giving her 1 liter for every canner full I make from her fruit (7 liters). I’m glad and I think so is she. My mom got me the Victorio Strainer at a yard sale for a couple of dollars a few year back and it is WONDERFUL. Everyone loves turning the crank and it seems like a miracle how that ugly stuff comes out and the applesauce comes out the other side. The jars CAN be expensive at first (ha) but if you let people… Read more »

Jennifer
Jennifer
12 years ago

I love to can and every year I do more and more of it. Yesterday I canned 9 pints of pears. Today I have canned 10 quarts of applesauce and I will do about 10 more tomorrow. Also this summer I have made blackberry jelly, blackberry/raspberry jelly, blueberry jam, pickles, 2 batches of salsa 1 spicy, 1 not, and am going to make apple jelly later this week. I would second the recommendation on the Ball Blue Book of Preservation – it really is a must have if you want to can. It has all the info you need for… Read more »

Brian
Brian
12 years ago

Hi there,

Thanks for this post; I really enjoyed it. We’ve done canning before (salsa and applesauce) and we love the results. The only problem for us is time. How many hours did all of that canning take?

Bobbi D
Bobbi D
12 years ago

This is one of the most inspiring posts ever! My sister in NC can’s, but I have never had much luck. I think it may be time to give it another try though. To all of you who can, my hat is off to you, thank you!

Anca
Anca
12 years ago

FYI, there’s a 3-page canning how-to in the latest issue of Bon Appetit magazine (p. 116).

Hermgirl
Hermgirl
12 years ago

Mmmmm, spiced apple chunks and cinnamon apple wedges!

Ben-David
Ben-David
12 years ago

Allow me to be the contrarian here: I now can a lot less than I used to. Part of this is because I now live in a milder climate, but… To those with gardens I say: rethink your garden layout, try compact/container seed varieties, and explore climate-extending techniques. In many areas of the country you can eat fresh veggies earlier and later than you think – by selecting early/late varieties from a seed catalog instead of settling for what the garden center offers. And by using inexpensive season-extending methods. Look into Square Foot Gardening and Raised Bed Gardening – both… Read more »

Ruthie
Ruthie
12 years ago

To avoid the heat in the kitchen (since we don’t use AC) I can everything on a propane grill side burner. I try to batch as much of my canning together as I can to keep the water hot, and only half a propane tank will do all of my summer canning. I looked at our grocery receipts last month and realized that because of our own garden, our normal eating budget was down by $100! So I looked at some sales of things we eat every day (certain cookies and pretzels that always go in lunches) and I spent… Read more »

Green
Green
12 years ago

Hi there– So glad to see that so many others are into canning too! Out of my large family, I’m the only one who still does it. We are currently working on 2 bushels of plum tomatoes bought from the local farm stand, which we are turning into sauce via vintage canning equipment from my grandmother’s day. (Next year we will plant enough so that we don’t have to buy any.) I’m curious about other people’s tomato sauce canning technique: the books usually say that the jars should be boiled after filling them and putting the lids on, but we’ve… Read more »

Mr. Obvious
Mr. Obvious
12 years ago

I’m curious about other people’s tomato sauce canning technique: the books usually say that the jars should be boiled after filling them and putting the lids on, but we’ve never done that, and we’ve never had problems with the lids not sealing or the sauce spoiling. Does anyone else just fill the jars with boiling-hot sauce, close them up, and let them seal on their own? —- I’d never do that. I always boil or pressure-can everything that I jar. All it takes is one batch of botulism to ruin your family’s day. As for the costs of canning: the… Read more »

Lanna
Lanna
12 years ago

I always water bath or pressure can everything that goes in the pantry. Yeah, I’d prefer not to meet Mr. botulism. I believe that putting the lid on hot foods was how folks used to can (like people used to use the rubber rings, inversion, wax, etc.) but I believe there’s since been more research done on it and the water bath and pressure canning are safer. As for cost savings… I did u-pick for strawberries ($1/lb), green beans (5gal bucket for $5) and so on, in addition to “free” stuff from neighbors and their trees and my own backyard… Read more »

Matt
Matt
12 years ago

We recently got into canning. One tip: getting the canning jars at a resale shop like Goodwill can save 30 – 50% then buying them new.

Mitchell Webster
Mitchell Webster
11 years ago

I am surprised to see all the talk on canning vegetables and fruits, we have canned for decades, however we can everything meats, stews, soups, chowders (not with milk/cream until it is opened) I live in an apartment, and still manage to can approx. 1,000 qts of vegetables, fruits, meats, soups, stews, every year. For me it is just an ongoing year round process, like going shopping. However, doing it at home, you control Sodium, and preservative etc. I also can, lots of chicken and broth, beef and broth, pork and broth. Chicken Leg quarters are cheap by the 10… Read more »

Mitchell Webster
Mitchell Webster
11 years ago

On the topic of tomato sauce, here in rural western Virginia (high density Old Order Mennonite area) I learned from an Old Order lady years ago. Cook your tomatoes into juice, let the stock pot set on the stove top until the next morning, all the solids (after juicing) will settle to bottom, leaving the clear yellowish clear liquid on top (we refer to as tomato whey)skim all this off, cook for about 30 minutes to reduce a bit, then go to the store and buy the largest cans of to tomato paste. We purchase gallons at Costco for 3.99… Read more »

Mitchell Webster
Mitchell Webster
11 years ago

Pressure Canning vs. Waterbath

I have not water bathed anything for decades!!

When I can tomatoes, fruits etc. that they call for water bath, we use 5 lbs for 5 min.

Some really soft fruits, we will bring to pressure after venting and turn off the canner.

Some other fruits we will process 5lbs for 15 min.

We have found that 99.5% of all pressured canned foods seal, this fall, I canned 350 qts of soups, stews, meats, and vegetable soup and I had only 6 jars that did not seal.

Courtney
Courtney
11 years ago

Please be careful when canning green beans. They have a very low acid content and such are ripe for botulism colonization, even with proper preparation. My great grandmother accidentally killed her first two babies with canned green beans back in the early 20th century.

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