Calm yourself, Toulouse. Not that can-can.
Canning is fun.
Well..."fun" you say? Maybe not "fun" like...miniature golf or dancing the tango after several mojitos fun. Still, it's something that I like to do when I have the time (and a surplus of something I want to store for a while). Aside from the obvious benefit of having food 'put up' to eat over the cold winter, it gives you some insight into the way things worked kitchen-wise in the past. You get to live a little history here. Plus it's like a cool science experiment to boot!
Here's how it works in a nutshell: food and liquids (often hot) are placed into sterilized canning jars, fitted with two-piece lids, then placed in a hot water bath for 10-20 minutes. During that time, a vacuum is created where the hot water forces all the remaining air in the jar out. Once the jars are removed from the water bath and begin to cool, a vacuum seal is established between the jar and the lid. After they've completely cooled, you can remove the outer lid ring and feel the strong seal between the jar and the lid proper. Properly canned foods can last up to a year, kept in a cool, dark location.
Are there some inherent dangers to home-canning? Yes. Non-sterile jars and trapped air-bubbles within the food can introduce bacteria that may cause spoilage or, worse, botulism. You want to be careful to clean and boil your jars before filling, swipe around the inside of the jar with a knife to help remove any air pockets and make sure your seals are good and strong. Also be on the lookout for your product no longer looking 'right' after it's been stored for a while: mysterious growths (hey, look, sea monkeys!!), cloudiness, loss of seal or ESPECIALLY bulging out of the lid. Don't risk trying that stuff; chuck it. I don't want to scare you off; I've been canning for years now and have never had any issues.
There are so many foods you can preserve by canning. Jams and jellies, pickled vegetables of all kinds, simple packed fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and corn. Where do you start? Usually you want to start canning things WHILE they're in season (read: fresh, better tasting and obtainable at affordable prices). Those end of the season aforementioned corn and tomatoes are going to bring a little summer to you when you eat them in February. When strawberry's hit in the spring, make yourself (and your friends!) some strawberry preserves.
I've been getting in a holy ton of apples from the CSA, so...Apple Butter For Everyone!! Also pickled the green beans from the CSA in vinegar with some dill and garlic, and did my semi-regular pantry stock up of what Miss Kate likes to call "the Crack." It's just a simple pomodoro sauce I adapted from one of Lydia Bastianich's books, but she's quite fond of it so I try to keep us in a steady supply. Whatever you make - and whenever you try it - it's always appreciated.
What do you need to start canning?
Time, first of all. Do it when you're hanging around the house for lazy, rainy day or weekend. It's not hard work, but it can be time consuming between the preparing of what you'll be canning and the actual process itself.
The Blue Book of Preserving published by Ball, the manufacturer of all the supplies you need, is a great intro/starter/bible for canning.
A large pot for the boiling water bath. Big enough to hold water and as many (filled) jars as possible. So...BIG.
Canning jars and lids - again, made by Ball. You can find them at some grocery stores. I've found them a lot in local hardware stores. (Mom & Pop type businesses, not the mega Home Depot places...) $8-10 will get you a box of 12 jars and lids. The jars can be cleaned and used over and over again. Lids are only one-shot deals, though, so buy some extra lids if you become a regular canner.
Extras? A funnel for filling the jars without getting food or liquid on the lid is pretty essential. I have a handy (not at all necessary) slotted thingy for dipping the lids into the boiling water to sterilize. A (pretty close to essential) long set of (Ball designed, I'm sure) canning tongs for placing and removing the jars into the hot water. And a magnetic 'wand' for picking lids out of the hot water.
I'm sincerely not trying to shill for Ball, but I did just notice on their website they sell a whole Canning Basics Kit that looks like it has ALL of the above mentioned stuff. Take a look.
While we're on the subject of preserving, after a conversation a few weeks back with local playwright and all around lovely guy, Joe Byers, I realized I'd never tried drying my own tomatoes. (Joe just had.) It's really, really easy to make your own 'sun-dried' tomatoes - but they're really oven-dried. Hey...tomatoes dried under the Tuscan sun will most likely kick the tiny tomato butts of these, but still...if you have tomatoes piling up at the end of the summer, here's another easy way to keep enjoying them through the winter.
Wash the tomatoes and dry them off. Slice them in half. (There...wasn't that HARD?!) Place a rack over a cookie sheet and spread the tomatoes, cut side up over the rack. Sprinkle them with some Kosher salt. Place the pan in a 200 degree oven. (I used my convection oven at 170 degrees.) Leave them in there for about ten hours, then start checking every half hour or so to pull out the ones that are dry (but not hard). Store them in a Ziploc or other air-tight container. Or, for really nice rich sun-dried toms, put them in a sterile jar and cover them with olive oil and store them in your refrigerator.
There are different ways to preserve foods. Give canning or dehydrating a try. Heck...get all pioneer on us and make yourself some jerky. If you like to cook but only find time to do it every once and a while, why not make a giant BATCH of your 'famous' soup or sauce and can a bunch of it to enjoy until the NEXT time you get around to some extended kitchen time. Give it a try, if you're curious, and let me know how things turn out.