How To Can Over A Wood Fire

August 7, 2015

Canning

How To Can Over A Wood Fire

When my husband first started to suggest that we needed to think about prepping, I have to admit…I drug my feet a little. It just seemed like an unnecessary expense for us as a newly married couple. Even so, we found ways to stretch our income in order to build our preps. We learned a lot back then and now, over ten years later, we’ve taken preparedness to the next level. We live and work on our own off grid homestead, powered only by solar and wind. Because we live without refrigeration, food preservation is very important to us. If you had told me when we first started prepping that I would be canning all of our garden produce, dry beans, and pastured as well as hunted animals, over a wood fire, I’m not sure I would have believed you! But here I am doing it! Last summer and into the fall, I put up about 600 jars of canned food. I canned all of them over an open fire.

homestead-pantry

I love that there is so much information out now about prepping and self-sufficiency. I learn a lot from others who have written about things that I want to try. There’s a lot of information about home canning and much of it is very helpful. But canning over a wood fire? It seems that not many do it anymore. I have heard stories of old-timers doing it. I even heard one that used an old cast iron bathtub with a fire built under it! But they were just stories, with no concrete instructions to follow. So, I felt like I needed to just dive in and figure it out myself, especially for pressure canning over a wood fire. Yes, pressure canning! It can be done! Here are my tips for how to do it.

Practice Safe Canning

I cannot stress this enough! Familiarize yourself with safe canning practices and only use recipes and instructions that have been deemed safe for canning. I had only done a small amount of water bath canning before canning over a fire, and never pressure canning. But I was very familiar with safe canning practices and all the instructions involved. It’s important to make sure you know what you are doing before you throw in the added variable of a fire. Always read your pressure canner’s instructions carefully before you get started and familiarize yourself with your canner.  I use a highlighter to mark important things in mine and even though I know what I’m doing, I always try to review them as canning season approaches.

top-of-canner

Short Processing Times

If you have never canned over an open fire, start by canning foods with short processing times. In the early summer, one of the first things to come in from our garden is green beans. They were the first thing that I pressure canned over the fire. They worked very well for my learning curve because the processing time is short, only 20 minutes for pints and 25 minutes for quarts. A short processing time helps when you are first learning how to control your fire. Processing times for canning foods like dried beans and meats are much longer and it takes some practice to be able to control and feed your fire for that long.

green-bean-jars

Think About the Weather

Always check the weather before you get started.  A rainy day could really hinder your canning.  You don’t want your canner to get rained on because water on top of it reduces the pressure inside. On the other hand, hot sunny days are miserable! I much prefer to use the evening hours after dinner and after the sun drops below the trees. It is much more enjoyable when I’m not working in the heat of the day. But without electricity, I have to plan to be done before dark, which means I can’t do multiple loads of jars in my canner.

Have Helpers

It helps to have helpers. Canning is a family affair for us. There is much to do: picking the harvest, butchering the animal, cutting up the vegetables or meat, pumping the water, and collecting the green-beansfirewood and kindling. We all have our jobs to do. Canning over a wood fire is also more labor intensive than using a stove. The fire needs constant attention and a helper is so important to have when you need to take a break.

Have the Right Tools

Of course, you will need the regular canning tools like a canning funnel, wooden spoons, ladle, jars/lids/bands, and a jar lifter. But canning over a fire requires a few extra. A chainsaw and/or ax is important to have to cut the firewood. Closed toe shoes are a must and boots are even better. You need to protect your feet from flying sparks and hot coals. Long-armed heat-safe gloves are extremely important. I use welder’s gloves.

It helps to also have the largest canner you can afford. Canning over an open fire can take longer than using a modern heat source. Collecting the wood, building the fire, and getting it good and hot all take time. I love that I have the biggest canner available (All American 941) because it means that I rarely need to do multiple loads to get my produce canned for the day.

welders-gloves

Along with my pressure canner (which is too big to use inside anyway), I have other pots designated for cooking over the fire. They always get black with soot. It has been suggested to me that I rub the outside with dishsoap, making it easier to clean them. If you have shiny pots that are important to you, that’s a good option. But my black pots don’t bother me. I use them outside so frequently that I just don’t want to clean off the soot every time I use them. I just let them be black.

Work Inside as Much as Possibleveggie-prep

I don’t have a beautiful and shaded outdoor kitchen. So, I do as much prep work inside as I can.  The most time consuming part of the canning process can often be washing the produce, chopping it, and putting it into jars. I try to do as much of this inside as possible. It’s much cooler (even without AC) and it requires me to carry much less outside (and then back again). If my recipe allows, I prefer to use the raw pack method and take my already filled jars outside to put directly into the canner.

lots-of-firewoodFirewood

Have lots of firewood ready!  It’s a pain to have to run around collecting more wood when you are closely watching your fire and processing time. If your heat drops and your pressure gets too low, you will have to start your time again. The best wood to use is pieces that are 2 to 3 inches in diameter.  You want your fire to be able to consume it quickly so it will get hotter immediately.  This is particularly important for longer processing times because you will need to keep feeding your fire.  You don’t want your temperature to drop while your wood is trying to start burning.

Fire Gratecanner-on-fire

We found our grate at a salvage yard and paid less than $10.  We supported it with rebar and placed it on top of two levels of concrete block.  It works well and makes outdoor wood fire canning possible for almost no initial investment, except for the canning supplies themselves.  It was put together in less than an afternoon and we were canning the next day.

Make sure your grate is a good height above your fire.  We have tried a few different heights, but we found the best height is less than 1 foot about the fire coals. Often the flames will lick the bottom of the pot, but that’s okay, especially when the water is coming to a boil.

Boiling Water

Set your pressure canner or pot on the grate and fill it with water before you start the fire. Because my canner is so big, it is much easier to position it when there is no fire to burn me.  I put the lid on and let the water heat as the fire gets started. I always add about a cup of white vinegar to my water. Because I have hard well water, it really helps my jars stay bright and shiny. We like to start our fire and get the water boiling before we are ready to bring the food outside. We usually shoot for about 30 minutes. Give yourself a little more time if you are still practicing your fire building skills.

Time for Canning

Getting the jars in the canner is often the most frustrating part of the process for me. I’ve definitely gotten better at it, but it’s taken some practice. “Smoke gets in your eyes.” The fire is hot. The water is hot. Smoke is venting right where you need to lean over and look in the canner. Jars fall over because you can’t see what you are doing. Did I mention, smoke gets in your eyes?! With practice, I can load my gigantic canner much quicker than I used to.

potatoes-in-canner

So, get your jars in and the lid on. At this point, I need to stress following the instructions of your canner. Check the pressure you need for your altitude. Vent the steam according to the manufacturer’s instructions, usually around 10 minutes. Air trapped in the canner means that the temperature will be lower than optimal and your food may not be processed correctly.  So, you want to make sure you vent the steam properly.  After this, put your weight on and start to watch the pressure rise.  How fast the pressure rises will depend on your fire. You may need to add more wood and stir your coals to make it hotter. Start timing your processing time when the pressure gauge registers the correct pressure and the weight gauge jiggles or rocks according to the instructions.

Regulating the Heat

When water bath canning you just want to keep your fire going so that you have a continual boil. But pressure canning requires constant attention with your fire. You don’t want the heat to drop too much. You will lose your pressure and have to start your time again. But you don’t want too much heat because the pressure will continue to build. Too much pressure for too long will cause the water to evaporate inside your canner. You don’t want that! You have to learn to regulate the heat from the fire.

We do this with a piece of sheet metal. We cut it the exact size we needed to completely cover our fire. Once the canner has achieved the right pressure, it will continue to build if you don’t back off the heat. At this point, we place the sheet metal over the fire. By moving it back and forth over the entire processing time, we can regulate the heat of the fire. Sometimes I will leave a very slight flame peaking out from the back. This will hold the right temperature for the longest time. Once the pressure builds too much, I will completely block the fire until the pressure comes down. If the pressure builds too much and it won’t drop quickly, you may need to pour some water on your sheet metal. Just don’t pour it on the fire. You don’t want to douse your coals! I haven’t needed to use water in a while. With a little practice, you can anticipate your pressure building and cover your fire before it rises too much.

moving-sheetmetal

If the pressure is beginning to drop, open up the fire completely. The air will get to the coals and the fire will come back to life. Over long processing times (more than 15 to 20 minutes) you will need to add more wood to your fire. Watch your pressure carefully and add wood before it drops. You don’t want to have to start your processing time again!

Watching the fire is a hands on process, but it gets easier with practice. You will begin to anticipate when you need to move the sheet metal and feed your fire. After enough practice, I can now hear the changes in the sound of the pressure weight on my canner and adjust my fire’s heat accordingly.

Ending the Processing Time

The safest practice to “turn off” the heat from your fire is to douse it with water. If you want to save your fire, you will need to move your canner. But for safety reasons, that is not recommended. It is especially difficult with the larger canners.

Leave your canner alone until the pressure comes down naturally. Don’t wiggle the weight, hoping to release the pressure faster. Don’t try to cool it by pouring water on it.  You run the risk of ruining your food because forced cooling can cause loss of liquid from jars, seal failures, and even broken jars. After the canner is depressurized, remove the weight from the vent port and wait 10 minutes before opening the lid.  Always open it away from your face so that steam doesn’t burn you. Don’t be in a hurry.

canned-beans

Pull out your jars carefully with a jar lifter and place them on a towel.  Leave them alone so that they will seal. If I’m canning in the evening, I will often leave them outside overnight. If it is cold outside, let your jars cool in the water with the lid off.  Too severe a change in temperature when you pull out your jars can cause them to burst. I often need to remember this when I am canning deer during the cold weather of deer season.

Are you ready to try it? Canning over a wood fire takes some practice, but I’m so thankful that I have learned the skill. We have an abundance of wood on our off grid homestead, so we have a never-ending supply of fuel. I am confident that if ever the grid really goes down, I can continue to can our food supply. I have no fear that I will ever run out of the fuel that I need to preserve our food.

About Jaimie Bauer

Jaimie is a homesteading and homeschooling mom of two boys. She enjoys cooking, organizing, and reading stories to her family by lantern light. She and her husband write articles for their website An American Homestead and make videos for their YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/AnAmericanHomestead, sharing their adventures in homesteading and off-grid living.

View all posts by Jaimie Bauer

24 Responses to “How To Can Over A Wood Fire”

  1. Jet Says:

    Many thanks for the info. I too have an American canner and love it. I do keep many 20 and 30 pound propane tanks filled but its good to know that canning can be done this way in case the tanks can’t be refilled. Keep safe!

    Reply

  2. Drew Says:

    Awesome, I have been pressure canning over a “turkey fryer” outside, so my wife does not have to endure the heat in the kitchen.

    Your story has me thinking about my own off grid homestead, solar but no wind and a diesel generator. With the batts we have the luxury of a fridge and freezer, so right now we are about half of what your doing.

    I thing was thinking while reading your story, about removing cans or removing the canner, is there a way your man could make a “swing arm” on a post next to the pit? It would have to hold about 150# a 6″ steel post[dug into the ground] with a 4″ swing arm and a wench salvaged from a old boat yard would be awesome!

    Reply

  3. JoeBob Says:

    I’ve got an All American 921 so I’m familiar with their product. With the juggler weight, you generally don’t have to worry about over pressure, that’s what the weight is for. . . The instructions for mine, and I’m sure they are similar for yours, states that you want about four jiggles per minute. If it’s jiggling constantly you are wasting water in the form of steam but you shouldn’t get an over pressure condition unless you’ve built a raging fire under the canner.

    I can using a gas stove but I’ll commit your instructions to memory. I’d hate to think my precious canner may get sooty. Lol! Great article overall. . .

    Reply

  4. Bob Says:

    Well done! Excellent article. I’ve canned using the propane grill and this makes my transition to wood canning much easier. Thanks

    Reply

  5. Garrie Cortelyou Says:

    Great artile, answers questions I would have otherwise

    Reply

  6. Mary Says:

    I have a wood cook stove But there is still the problem of regulating the heat.

    Reply

    • Ellen Says:

      My step-mother canned on a wood burning cookstove outdoors. She built tin walls around three sides of it. It worked great and kept the house cool.

      Reply

  7. Oren Says:

    Excellent article! Many folks will need this, especially with the latest revelation that Iran’s military has sanctioned an EMP strike over the US.

    About 1985 I managed to find an old Majestic wood burning cook stove, including the water jacket for hot water. I refurbished it, including having a new fire box water jacket cast. When we built our retirement home, I built it around that wood stove. Today, I keep at least a cord of stove wood in the wood shed. There is nothing that compares to having the wood stove fired early on a cold morning and sit in the breakfast nook with a hot cup of coffee to watch the sun come up over the hills.

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  8. Oren Says:

    Sorry, this is an OH BY THE WAY….

    Even with the 1933 model Majestic, you STILL have to watch the fire. Gotta keep the fire box of the stove loaded to maintain a good fire. The touchy part is having to watch the canner and if the pressure builds, you have to shift the heavy thing away from the main heating surface to the cooler side. Just as with the open fire, the wood burner has to be monitored constantly. But, just as with the open fire, the rewards are worth the work.

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  9. Bill Says:

    This was the plan in a grid down event. Your article brings up good points to make a bad situation easier. Thanks.

    Reply

  10. debbie Says:

    I have been canning for many years, but this is the best article I’ve seen on this subject. Hope you don’t mind if I copy it so I can keep it on hand while I get some practice in. I’ve got just the spot for the canner stove. Very helpful! Thank you.

    Reply

  11. Earl Mardle Says:

    Since we are about to install a wood-fired oven, a lot of this stuff can be moved indoors and if you get the chance to switch to one, its worth the effort. The other great benefit of an indoor woodfired device is that it provides space heating in winter and with a wetback can heat your household water.

    The one thing you haven’t mentioned, however, is the Liebig’s law limit to canning. Lids. Everything else is reusable, and we are now experimenting with re-using some of our lids, but after a couple of uses they are going to wear out, get damaged, the seal deteriorate etc. Without lids there is no canning.

    So while we will keep canning while we can, we are also now trying to increase the amount of pickling, especially sauerkraut type pickling. At least until we run up against the whole salt issue.

    Reply

    • Liz Says:

      @Earl Mardle, the limit to canning (lids) can be solved by the use of truly reusable lids.

      I’ve done water bath and pressure canning using Tattler lids and have been very pleased. The only drawback is that they are a bit expensive. I went in on a sale 3 or 4 years ago, splitting 100 lids with friends, just to try them out. The next year, I bought 100 just for my own canning.

      The lid has a separate rubber gasket, which gets flipped over each time it is used. I’m probably going to get some extras of the rubber gaskets, as they are more subject to damage.

      I still do use some of the “one-time use” lids when I can, as people don’t return the Tattler lids when you gift home-canned items and they’re too expensive to lose.

      Reply

  12. David Says:

    To extend the time reusable canning lids and seals by Tattler are available from Amazon. My mother used reusable rings in the 1940s.
    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=reusable+canning+lids&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Areusable+canning+lids

    David

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  13. nancy Says:

    When working over an open fire I wear welding goggles to protect my eyes from the smoke.

    Reply

  14. Randolph Chin-Quee Says:

    This was really great information on canning with an open fire mostly you have to do your preparations and have plenty of fire wood near where you plan build your fire. Anyway thanks for the tutorial as I have never canned anything before but by following what I have read I don’t think it would be that hard the most important thing to remember is practice practice to get better and pass this valuable information on to others that can use it.

    Reply

  15. Janine Says:

    I have had success with the Tatler lids, which last for a very long time (supposedly forever). I am switching to those just now.

    I also have a wood stove in my house, but we just couldn’t get the eat up enough to can veg. Pressure would not build. Am I doing something wrong, or did you use coal as well as wood for your fire?

    Reply

    • sarah Says:

      Janine – you might want to have your pressure canner checked. Sometimes a canner will not come up to pressure because the seal needs to be replaced, the vents need to be cleaned or the gauge may be inaccurate. Gauges should be checked every year or more often if it is dropped.

      Reply

  16. pat Says:

    I continually see preppers put food jars on shelves without protection from falling and braking during an earthquake. Please do yourself a big favor and put a bar of wood across the shelves

    Reply

  17. John Says:

    Reusable lids available from tatter.com.
    they work well time after time.

    Reply

  18. Renee Says:

    Thanks for the info ! I have often wondered about outdoor canning.

    Reply

  19. Jennell Says:

    This was a fantastic article. I have done a lot of water bath canning and pressure canning. But I have thought a lot about trying to do it over an open fire. Your article gave me so many good hints about making it possible. Wonderful, well- organized information. Thanks so much.

    PS I recently bought tattler lids and will be trying them tomorrow when I can beets.

    Reply

  20. Brian Says:

    Have you tried this with a rocket stove? It burns hot and clean. And you can make them really cheap with strategically placed bricks. I have cooked things really hot and in a hurry with a rocket stove. They don’t make much soot.

    Reply

  21. Flo Says:

    Could this somehow be adapted to an apartment situation, and still be safe, where everything is electric?? Would like to get into canning but can’t figure out how to go about it if the electric goes out.

    Reply

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