It happens all the time. You make a batch of something, and it either doesn’t quite make enough jars to fill an entire canner. Or it makes a few over the normal canner load … so you have to run a second load that–again–isn’t completely full.
A pressure canner can operate safely with a couple of open spaces in the load. Just be sure that:
- your burner and work area are level
- you fill the pot as it’s sitting on the burner. Don’t try to load it elsewhere … then try to move it. That’s just asking for problems!
- you space the jars around inside the canner evenly in order to distribute the weight across the entire bottom of the pot
- you use extreme caution moving your canner around, especially when it’s heated/pressurized. This is the most dangerous point of using a partially-full canner, when it’s so hot that you could hurt yourself or others with it … so–rather than try to move your canner off of the burner/heat–just turn it off and leave it right there to cool. It may take a little longer than normal to cool that way, but it’s worth it when it comes to being safe.
If you follow these rules carefully, you can successfully–and safely–run a pressure canner that’s one, two, three, even more jars short of a full load. The total number of jars in a load depends on the size of the pressure canner, and I would never suggest running a canner with less than half the potential jars in place … but you can make it work with a few empty spaces if you are very, very careful.
Alternately, many canning experts suggest that you put additional jars inside your canner to fill in the empty spaces: jars filled with water. That way, the weight is consistent and evenly spaced across the bottom of the canner, and the additional jars give each other support when you move the entire canner. If you unbalance it slightly, the jars simply lean against each other–the way they should–rather than falling over. Plus, some individuals even use rings and lids on their jars of water, too … actually sealing the jars … which they then use as part of their long-term water storage …….
……. but why the heck would you want to do either one of those? Seriously! Why would you want to waste that kind of electrical/gas energy by leaving a hole in the canner and letting all that heat go to waste … or go to the effort of canning (and then STORING) water in canning jars, especially in a day/time when bottled water and water sanitation pills are quick, easy, and cheap. They’re also readily available now–before there’s some sort of emergency–so just go stock up on them right now–before any emergency hits–and then use them as part of your emergency preparedness kit. Don’t waste your canning jars on water! And why would you use one of those solutions to a half-empty canner … when you can take those additional slots, and turn them into extra cooking and canning power
Be creative: that’s what I do. I keep a mental list and supplies on-hand to toss into the tail-end of a canner … so that I can make use of every scrap of heat and time that each pressure canner load uses.
For example, if I’m canning something like quarts of soup, pints of mixed vegetables or pints of chicken–something that processes for 75 minutes–and I’ve got spaces left … I look for something with the same 75-minute canning cycle, something that’s also quick and easy to put together in order to fill the hole(s).
For me, that’s often canning pints of dry beans … or canning pints of shelled boiled peanuts … which both process in 75 minutes. I’m also ready at any time to can them. I’ve got bags of peanuts ready to go, and then all sorts of dried beans in the 5-gallon “bean bucket” in my pantry, too. Plus, I keep tabs on what I’ve used/how much I have left of any one thing already canned on the shelf right at that moment, so I use that info to decide between boiled peanuts (salted? … or with Chinese 5-Star powder?) or some type of bean. Black Eye-Peas? Navy Beans? Small Red Beans? Limas of some stripe? Turtle beans? The choice is yours. It doesn’t matter which one you choose. They all process in the same amount of time, and it only takes a few moments to toss dry peanuts or beans and seasonings in a jar, add some boiling water, slap on a few lids … and, viola! … full canner!
I’ve also had excellent luck reconstituting and canning dried mushrooms in this same manner. I frequent several awesome Asian markets in my area, and often run into wonderful bulk deals on dried mushrooms of different varieties, sometimes coming home with five-pound bags of dried mushrooms–some almost the size of king-sized bed pillows–that I’ve paid <$10.00 for. Sure, I can use them dry in cooking, but sometimes I need already-reconstituted mushrooms available for dryer dishes were they won’t have a chance to reconstitute in any other way. I use them on things like pizza, queso flameado–melted queso blanco, browned chorizo and mushrooms, served in soft flour tortillas … one of my husband’s favorite Mexican dishes–and even the occasional salad or sandwich. Bonus points: they make perfect canner fillers!
I simply break/chop/cut the dried fungi down into pieces that will reconstitute into an approx. 3/4-inch chunk of mushroom. I pack wide-mouthed pints about half-full of chunks–often mixing different types of mushrooms together in one jar–before I top them with boiling water (up to a one-inch headspace) and use them to fill in any remaining holes in canners that will run at least 60 minutes. I’ve also had great success with mushrooms that pressure canned as much as 75 minutes, too. They are somewhat softer than the 60-minute versions, but–considering you start with hard, dry mushrooms–they’re still fairly al dente, even at 75 minutes.
Along the same vein–I haven’t tried it yet myself–but if I found myself with an over-abundance of sun-dried tomatoes that I got at a good price … I think I’d try doing some of them the same way I do mushrooms. In the case of sun-dried mushrooms, you wouldn’t end up with nearly as much texture left in tomatoes after canning that you keep with the mushrooms, but the resulting tomato product would probably be somewhere between sauce and stewed … strongly-flavored and excellent!
Another stand-by in my kitchen is the fact that you can COOK grains in a jar inside of a pressure canner. And I’ll give you the same warning here that I gave on the post about this particular segment of this process … NOTE: I did NOT say that you can “can” grains. Grains cannot be “canned” for long-term, room-temperature storage. That’s a complete NO-NO! All that starch is just an engraved invitation for a few hundred thousand canning cooties … so I don’t want to find a single one of you out there next week saying But Lane said we can CAN grains! … because that’s NOT what I’m saying here! I’m saying that you should never, ever–not in a million years–attempt to can grains!
However, grains can easily be COOKED in canning jars inside of your pressure canner, right along with other foods that are being pressure canned. The jars of grain DO seal during the process, but they are NOT “CANNED” or “PRESERVED” in any form or fashion. They are simply–and conveniently–cooked in the jar, taking advantage of the open space in the canner … and the heat you’re already using to preserve/can other items. But–let me say it again–just because the jars of grain will seal when you do this … and they’re siting right next to a jar of food that IS being canned … that does NOT mean that your jars of grains are “canned” or “shelf-stable” or even “sterilized” by this process. They are–quite simply–cooked in the jar … nothing more … so as soon as they cool, they need to go straight in the fridge, and you need to eat them within about a week. If you don’t eat them in that time … throw them out! Grains are generally cheap. Don’t risk your health (and life) over $0.12 worth of oats or rice … but do read my post on cooking grains in the jar … so that you can use them to fill up spaces in a canner, too.
Beyond that … what do YOU need to cook or can in YOUR kitchen that might make a useful thing to fill a hole in a pressure canner?