For beginners, I recommend starting with water bath canning. This method is nothing more than a way of preserving food in boiling water (212 degrees) in a large pot made of aluminum or porcelain-covered steel. While the jars are boiling the process kills micro-organisms and forces air out. The cooling process creates a vacuum seal.
Water bath canners come with a fitted lid and a wire rack. My local grocery store carries them for $20.00. You will need a few canning tools to aid in handling hot jars, etc. These are ususally sold in sets and are also very reasonable. Canning jars can be purchased at the grocery store or a builder's supply store.
Now that you know the basics, let's get started!
Gather up all the equipment. The first thing you are going to want to do is sterilize the jars. You can do this by boiling them, but I just run them through a "sanitize" cycle in the dishwasher. Make sure there aren't any chips on the rims so they will seal correctly.
Lids come in two pieces: a flat lid and a screw band. Cover the flat lids in water on the stove and warm them up. Do not bring the water to a boil. Keep the lids warm until you are ready to use them.
Fill the canner with enough water to cover the jars by one to two inches. Preheat the water to 140 degrees for cold packed food (raw) and 180 degrees for hot packed food (precooked).
Prepare food according to your recipe. You are going to want to handle one jar at a time. Using a funnel, pack the jar, leaving the specified amount of head space at the top. Take a plastic knife and run it down the insides of the jar to release any air bubbles. Wipe off the top of the rim to make sure you get a good seal. Using a magnetic lid lifter, lift a flat lid from the warm water, and place it on the jar. Screw the band on snuggly but not overly tight. Using the jar lifter, place the jar in the canner, and cover the canner with its lid. Repeat the process until all the jars are in the canner. Process times can vary so go according to your recipe. Start timing once the water reaches a rolling boil.
When done processing, turn off heat, remove lid, and let the jars sit for five minutes before taking them out of the canner. Using the jar lifter, carefully lift jars out (away from you), and place them on a towel. Do not place them on a cold surface, or they may crack. Leave the jars to cool, undisturbed, overnight. You may hear the popping sound of the jars sealing.
Make sure you have a good seal. The middle of the flat lid should be inverted and not move up or down when slightly pressed on. Take the screw bands off and wash and dry the jars to remove any residue. Store them without the screw bands. Make sure you label the jars with dates, and store them in a cool, dry place.
You can reuse the jars and screw bands, but you must always use new flat lids.
Note: If any of the jars did not seal you can reprocess them using new flat lids, or refrigerate for immediate use. Never eat any food with a broken seal or you suspect is spoiled.
I hope you will try your hand at canning. After putting up a few batches of homemade jam you will feel like an old pro!
A word of caution: Most manufacturers do not recommend canning on a ceramic stove top because the heat is not constant. My solution to this dilemma was to buy an electric turkey fryer. I purchased the Cajun Injector which is digital so I can easily adjust the temperature for cold or hot packed foods, accordingly. It came with a large, handled basket and has a drain spout for convenience. I use it on my kitchen island, and it works perfectly for canning (it can also be used for seafood boils and deep frying turkeys, of course)!