If you read the title of this post and started to run away in fear, stop. Come back. Relax. Canning is not hard, not dangerous (if you follow the rules), and not complicated. We're talking about simple hot water bath canning today, and anyone can do it. You don't need special equipment that only the Super Secret Canning Society of Old Ladies gives out. You don't need a chemistry degree. You CAN do this!
So, why should you can? Um, like a million reasons. It allows you the opportunity to eat local fruits and vegetables throughout the year. It gives you something to do with the mountains of tomatoes/berries/apples/whatever that ripen at the same time. A basket of homemade jams makes a great Christmas gift. It's a great way to spend an afternoon with your best friend, Natalie. (If you don't have a best friend, Natalie, think about getting one; they're awesome). Also, you'll be ready in the event of a zombie apocalypse wherein all grocery stores are destroyed.
Convinced? Okay, let's start canning!
Gather the following equipment:
canning jars and lids - New jars come with lids. If you're reusing jars, you will need new lids.
large stock pot - large enough to submerge your jars
tongs - Canning tongs are nice, but regular kitchen tongs will work if you've got a steady hand.
clean dishtowels - a whole mess of 'em
The following are not totally necessary but are really nice.
wire rack for the bottom of the stock pot
Choose a tested canning recipe for hot water canning. This is not the time for making up recipes. You can only can very acidic foods without a pressure canner, so you need to follow the recipe precisely to ensure the right pH. I'll post some recipes here later this week, but the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving is a great resource as well.
Fill your stock pot with water with a towel or wire rack at the bottom, and put it on the stove to boil. If you have a dishwasher, load the jars and rings in start it. Do NOT put the lids in. Begin preparing your canning recipe in a separate pot.
When the water in your stock pot is boiling, drop the lids in for 1 minute, then remove with tongs and place on a clean towel. If you don't have a dishwasher, submerge your jars in the boiling water for 2-3 minutes, then remove and place on a clean towel. You want to do this (or remove jars from the dishwasher, if you're using one) immediately before the recipe is done. The idea is to fill hot jars with hot food.
Fill the jars with whatever you've made, leaving however much space the recipe calls for at the top. Slide a knife down the inside of the jars, to get rid of any air bubbles. Wipe the tops with a damp towel and put the lids and rings on.
Submerge the jars in the boiling water in your stock pot, cover, and boil for the time indicated in the recipe (probably 10-15 minutes).
Remove the jars carefully with tongs, set on a clean towel, and leave undisturbed for 24 hours. You will hear some popping noises as they seal! Check the seals by pushing on the lids the next day. The center should not be popped up on any of them. If any jars failed to seal, you can stick them in the fridge and eat them within a few weeks. As for the rest, store in your pantry and enjoy for up to a year (as per USDA standards)!