Is it a Good Deal to Can Food?
Before canning anything, one must ask several questions. Why do I want to keep this food for an extended period of time? Does it lose nutritional value or flavor during the process? Could I get the same item, already canned, for a better price on sale at the grocery store?
The easiest thing to do when trying to answer these questions is 1) first decided what is good and what is not good to can, and then 2) make a price list with each food or food category. When the price of tomatoes or meat or fruit drops below X dollars per pound, THEN you stock up and freeze/can/dry it. Here is my personal price list.
Highest price I will pay for most foods:
I'm not locked in to such a price list, but it helps me determine whether I should stock up or not. The other day we found chicken thighs for $0.39 per pound. We didn't have a lot of freezer room left, but I bought two 10 lb. bags anyway. It took about an hour to skin the legs and divide the drumsticks and thighs, then I was able to can 10-15 lbs and freeze the rest in reusable plastic freezer boxes. As for produce, I have a garden and orchard on the property, so there is no reason for me to buy fruits and vegetables to put up for the winter.
Freezing vs. Canning
Frozen food deteriorates faster and costs more money the longer you keep it in the freezer. Having a freezer is like having a storage unit for food; the rent you pay ends up in your electric bill. Canned food can be stored almost anywhere, no electricity needed.
However, freezing does preserve more of the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables. Water bath canning destroys some vitamins, and pressure canning destroys a lot more vitamins. Because of this, I choose to freeze vitamin-rich, low-acidity foods (that would require pressure canning): peppers, green beans, peas, herbs, sweet corn and some fruits.
Neither type of canning destroys minerals, however, so I don't have an issue with canning meats. In fact, pressure canning draws minerals out of bones that are canned, so it is my favorite way to make gelatinous broth. While the texture and flavor comes out a bit different, canned meat is tender and wonderful for casseroles, tacos, soups and other one-pot meals. Things I like pressure canning: meat, beans, grains (like hominy).
Cost of Jars
So now you've got a garden full of nearly-free produce. Still, consider the cost of each jar:
Brand New Jar (with ring and lid): $0.71 - $0.11 lid = $0.60 per glass jar
It is entirely possible to get jars for free or cheaper than $0.60, but I frequently see people trying to sell used jars at garage sales for $1.00 each. In addition to being more expensive, sometimes used jars have chips or cracks that can prevent a good seal. Because of this, it is prudent to watch the price closely if you plan on paying for used jars.
Wide Mouth vs. Small Mouth
Honestly I prefer canning with wide mouth jars- they're easier to clean and easier to get the food in and out of. But both wide mouth jars and wide mouth lids are more expensive. Wide mouth jars cost $0.91 each as opposed to $0.71 per small mouth jar. Wide mouth lids cost twice as much as small mouth lids- something you should keep in mind when thinking long-term. Lids can only be used once, so you will have to buy new ones every year. Small mouth lids cost $0.11 each; wide mouth lids are $0.21 each. If you end up canning 100 jars of food every season, you could save $10 per year by simply using small mouth jars instead of wide mouth. They are more difficult to clean, but a jar brush will help a lot with that. I only use wide mouth jars for meat, which can be hard to get in and out of a small mouth jar.
Quarts, Pints, or Half-Pints?
Even though there are only two of us, I still prefer to use quart jars to do some of my canning, even with things like salsa. If I'm canning a gallon of applesauce, I can use 4 quarts, 8 pints, or 16 half-pints. The cost of lids would then be $0.44, $0.88, or $1.76 respectively. If I use 16 jars instead of four, not only am I buying more lids but also washing twice as many jars. To me it makes more sense to open a quart jar and then plan several meals with that ingredient, as opposed to using two jars for two meals.
However, if I don't follow my well-planned menu, I could end up with a bunch of half-jars of food rotting in the refrigerator. For this reason, I still can with pints even though it technically costs a little more.
Water Bath or Pressure Canner?
Water bath canning is definitely easier for beginners. It also processes the food at a lower temperature, thus preserving more vitamins. Unfortunately with water bath canning, you can only preserve acidic fruits/vegetables like strawberries, pineapple, peaches, pears and tomatoes. You cannot can most vegetables, meat, beans or starches with a water bath canner.
Pressure canning opens up a whole new world of food preservation for the homemaker. After I got married I bought a big scary pressure canner. My first few attempts were less than successful, but after a while I got the hang of it. I use my pressure canner mostly for beans, grains (like hominy) and meat. Pressure canning cooks the meat and draws out the gelatin. All of the fat rises to the top of the jar, so I don't have to pick it off the meat. The meat and broth are all ready to go if I want to make soup.
Gas or Electric?
I won't go into specifics about gas vs. electric (because it's not like we're going to switch out stovetops for canning season). But it's important to remember energy costs when canning.
Is the Food Even Worth Canning??
Last year I canned probably seven quarts of summer squash. I also froze several gallon bags of summer squash, and put summer squash in most of my frozen stir fry mixes. Needless to say, I never actually used the canned summer squash. In addition to cooking out the vitamins, pressure canning had cooked the squash (overripe by the time I picked it) to an icky, limp texture. It didn't even make good squash soup. Instead of spending $2.00 on lids and several hours preserving the squash, I should have just thrown it away.
Likewise, I don't spend any time or money canning jam. Apart from the tooth-rotting factor, it simply doesn't ever get used at our house. I have several jars of jams and jellies from when and before we got married that sit unused in the pantry, because we rarely have toast in our meal plan and that is the only thing you use jam for. I also made six or seven pints of relish last year; none of which have been opened. We are still working on a gifted jar of relish from one of Hubs' customers. Guess what you use relish for? Hamburgers and hot dogs, which we hardly ever eat. And tartar sauce, but we never have fish. So make sure you will actually USE and enjoy what you are going to can.
The Bottom Line
If you figure in the cost of a lid ($0.11) and the cost of a new jar and ring divided by ten years of use ($0.06) plus a few cents thrown in for electricity or propane, each jar of canned food costs $0.20. Hubs and I go through 3-5 jars of canned food per week, which averages out to $41.60 in yearly canning costs ($62.40 if using wide mouth jars). And that's just meat, beans and salsa for two people. Hard-core canners and those with larger families would probably spend at least $100-$200. So as you can see, "free" garden produce isn't really free after canning, and if you are buying something on sale, you need to factor in the cost of preservation for what you can't eat right away. If you are able to buy a can of beans for $0.10, you are probably better off buying it than trying to buy dried beans and can them at home.
Happy frugal canning!