Essential Tools

Mrs. Wheelbarrow's 9 Essential Tools for Pickling and Preserving

July  2, 2014

As home cooks, we rely on our instincts, our knowledge, and our curiosities -- but we also have to rely on our tools. Which is why we're asking the experts about the essential tools we need to make our favorite foods attainable in our own kitchens.

Today: What equipment is really necessary for making perfect pickles and jams? Expert canner and cooking teacher Cathy Barrow -- a.k.a. Mrs. Wheelbarrow -- gives us the lowdown on the must-have items for pickling and preserving summer's bounty.

Shop the Story

When someone asks me what special equipment is necessary for canning, I can go all Laura Ingalls Wilder and talk about how food preservation is as old as the hills. I can get on my high horse and tell stories about the time I made mango chutney in my college dorm room by hijacking the cooking pot used for popcorn and boiling the hot, sugary condiment on a hot plate I kept (illegally) under my bed. While the sanity of this endeavor was suspect, you will note that there was no special equipment used.

In the years since, I’ve grown wiser. Now I tend to hew toward safe and cautious, and that means a few pieces of canning-specific equipment. Water bath canning is the safe way to get seasonal foods into the pantry. Most fruit jams, jellies, and whole fruits are safely processed in a water bath, as are many pickles.

More: Get our step-by-step guide to boiling-water canning.

Practice your technique with early summer fruits and vegetables in preparation for late summer’s tomato harvest because, surely, the most useful home canned foods are crushed tomatoes and tomato purée. (If you think I’m kidding, just take note for the next few days: See how many times you reach for a can of tomatoes, then think about how heavy those cans make your grocery bags.) Here are the key pieces that will get you ready to tuck this summer’s produce into jars before winter comes again.

More: Quick! Make your strawberries into jam before their short season is over.

The Essentials:

1. A good book
Every first-time canner worries about safety, and there’s only one way to ensure that the food you preserve will be safe: Use only trusted recipes, do not alter their ratios, and follow the instructions to the letter. For decades, the classic Ball Book of Home Preserving has been the go-to for basic recipes.


2. Large, heavy, non-reactive pots for cooking
You need only two pots for water bath canning projects. Non-reactive cookware, referenced in many preserving recipes, confuddles and concerns all new canners. But no worries: It simply means that the pans must not be aluminum. Aluminum can leach into whatever you’re cooking -- particularly acidic pickles, chutneys, and tomatoes. Foods cooked in aluminum can oxidize -- that is, blacken -- and they'll sometimes carry a metallic tang.

Something large, heavy and non-reactive is key for cooking preserves, brines, chutney, and more. I use a 5- or 8-quart enameled cast iron Dutch oven, like a Le Creuset. Is there anything in the kitchen that you use in so many ways and in so many recipes? It’s so useful that I’m pretty sure you already have one, or something similar, in your kitchen. If not, any wide, heavy, non-reactive pot will be fine.

3. Canning kettle for processing and sealing the jars
I like a very large, very deep pot with a capacity of at least 12 quarts. This canning kettle is perfect: It’s stainless steel and therefore non-reactive, which means it's useful beyond the water bath. Think about it: chili for a crowd; chicken stock; many artichokes; two dozen ears of corn; or even processing a 25-pound box of tomatoes.


4. Canning rack
Every canning kettle needs a rack in the bottom. Jars jangling along the bottom are more prone to cracking (and cracked jars are unbelievably sad). If the kettle you are using doesn’t have its own rack, use a footed cake rack. In a pinch, fold a kitchen towel and place it in the bottom of the pot: It will rise like a specter, but it will still cushion the jars while boiling.

5. Canning jars in different shapes and sizes
Match the food to the jar: Pack pickle spears and dilly beans (made with this Happy Girl pickling spice) in tall Ball jars and scoop jams and relishes into sweet tulip-shaped Weck jars. Jars can be used over and over, so the investment pays off in no time. Train your friends and family to return your jars by promising a refill. Speak sternly to those who do not return jars and to those who stash your precious preserves on a shelf and fail to open them.

6. Jar lifter and funnel
Getting the hot preserves into jars is messy at best. A jar funnel will reduce spillovers and keep your work surface tidy. Jar lifters are essential, not only for setting your precious filled jars upright in the canning kettle, but also for fishing those jars out of the boiling water after processing. If you’re just getting started canning, you might consider a set that includes jars, a jar lifter, and a funnel.

7. Clean up tools
I’m not going to lie. Canning is messy. Be prepared with a stack of big, thirsty dish towels.

8. Entertainment
Canning is a great activity for friends: Share the work and divvy up the jars at the end of the day. If I’m canning with friends, I have dance party playlists to keep the day moving along happily. And I always make plenty of snacks and cold cocktails to end the day. But I’ll also admit that a day of canning alone in the kitchen means listening to an audiobook or catching up on podcasts, and that is utter bliss.

9. Labels and decorations
Once these essential tools are in your arsenal, you can supplement them with fun additions. Consider these items as accessories, the equivalent to a pearl necklace, a fabulous handbag, or oh-la-la shoes. The Mason Jar labeling kit makes your jars look BKLYN ready, and the Pickling Storage Crate is handy for stashing jars under the bed, in the closet, or displayed in the middle of the living room for that humble-brag opportunity.

Are you craving more advice on how to turn the bounty of summer's markets into jars of jams and pickles? Pre-order Cathy Barrow's book, Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving, for the techniques, tips, and recipes you need to help you stock your pantry through the seasons. 

Photos by James Ransom


See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • AntoniaJames
  • healthierkitchen
  • aargersi
  • Leah
  • MrsWheelbarrow
Four cookbooks. 100s of recipes online. It all started with Food52


AntoniaJames July 2, 2014
Is a Mauviel copper jamming kettle "non-reactive" and if not, can you provide guidance on what it can and cannot be used for? For example, I recently discovered a spectacular plum + Pinot Noir jam recipe from Paul Virant's "Preservation Kitchen." (The recipe, which I used last summer, is actually for yellow plum + Riesling, but Virant recommends the darker variation in his headnote.) Can that be made in a an unlined copper jamming kettle? Thanks so much. ;o)
MrsWheelbarrow July 2, 2014
Hi AJ,
Copper is reactive, so should be used only for fruit jams and jellies, fruits in syrup, conserves and confectionary (it's fabulous for caramel and chocolate), but not for brining pickles, chutneys, or other high acid foods. Copper doesn't transfer a metallic taste, per se, but highly acidic foods can pit the surface. Never cook tomatoes in your beautiful, enviable ! Copper jam pot.
AntoniaJames July 2, 2014
Thanks for the prompt reply! So a bottle of pinot noir + rather tart plums + not very much sugar is not too acidic? My blueberries are also rather acidic. Even with the sugar I add to make a light syrup for canning, the berries shine the pan up brilliantly where have been, which makes me wonder if the reaction is something about which one should be concerned. ;o)
MrsWheelbarrow July 2, 2014
I don't exactly know where to draw the line, but have decided for my copper ware, to make only jams and jellies. The wine would make me nervous, but I have no proof to back up my gut feeling. The lemon juice in the blueberry syrup shines the pan!
healthierkitchen July 2, 2014
Woot woot Mrs. WB! Am thinking of doing some cherries next week the way you showed us at the DC food 52 gathering a few years back!
MrsWheelbarrow July 2, 2014
Please post a photo, Wendy!
aargersi July 2, 2014
Mrs W have you resolved the fading strawberry jam conundrum? So far all I have come up with is eat it quickly ... but would love to make it in the spring and have it be red at Christmas ...
MrsWheelbarrow July 2, 2014
Tell me about fading strawberry jam? I don't have that problem.
aargersi July 2, 2014
So when I make / can the jam, it's beautiful and red like it should be. Then always over the course of say 2 months it fades to a very un-yummy sort of gray dirty socks color. I did some searching on line and found others with this problem but no solutions other than food dye (I don't wanna do that) - and it still smells and tastes like strawberry jam. Very ugly strawberry jam.
MrsWheelbarrow July 2, 2014
Here are the things that come immediately to mind. Do you store the jam in a closet or in a lit area? Sunlight will fade preserved foods. Do you use lemon juice? For every three pounds fruit, use a good 2 Tablespoons of lemon juice to keep jam from oxidizing. not Meyer lemon, btw, but Eureka lemon. You could try citric acid in place of the lemon juice (1/4 tsp). I'm guessing you do these things.... So you might try adding fruit fresh (TM) to your jam mixture (or two crushed vitamin C tablets) or adding dried strawberries, about 10 oz to every two pounds of fruit, to get that red door to stay. Let me know!
MrsWheelbarrow July 2, 2014
Keepers. Red COLOR to stay.
aargersi July 2, 2014
Thanks! I do use lemon and store in a dark place - I think I will try fruit fresh AND dried strawberries and see if that helps!
Leah July 2, 2014
I have a giant pressure cooker (aluminum) that I've used in the past, I like the idea of switching to stainless steel but how do you note the pressure for canning?
MrsWheelbarrow July 2, 2014
Hi Leah, pressure canners and pressure cookers are not necessarily the same thing. I recommend looking up your pot on the internet and downloading the instructions. Pressure canning recipes will all have the pressure and time noted.
Leah July 2, 2014
Sorry if my question was confusing, what I meant was, if I buy that 21 qt stainless steel canning kettle you mentioned, it didn't look like it has a dial to tell you what the pressure is inside it, so how could you follow specific pressure instructions?
MrsWheelbarrow July 2, 2014
That large pot s nt a pressure canner, just a great big amd very useful pot.