Updated on 12.12.11

Saving Pennies or Dollars? Canning Beans

Trent Hamm

saving pennies or dollarsSaving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Erin writes in: I have a question for your “Saving Pennies or Dollars?” series. It’s about dried beans, like pinto, great northern. Would it be worth the time to buy dried beans and can them myself, or am I better off just buying the cans at the store when they are on sale. I have a pressure canner and a simple recipe for canning my own beans.

First of all, it’s pretty easy to find canned beans at the store for $1.50 per can or even a bit less than that. Canned beans are not a particularly expensive item.

Having said that, you can easily find dried beans for $1.40 per pound or less.

So, how much does that equate to? Beans approximately double in weight during the cooking process due to the absorbed water. A 15 ounce can of cooked beans, in other words, equates to about 7.5 ounces of dried beans. Thus, the cost of an equivalent amount of dry beans is about $0.65. You’ll save about $0.85 per can cooking them yourself, in other words.

However, that accounts for just the cost of the beans. If you wish to can them, there is significant cost to the canning process – a pressure cooker (for non-acidic items), a large pot (for water-bathing acidic items), jars, lids, and rings are all required to make this work, and these items all eat into the $0.85 per can you’re saving by canning yourself.

Lids can vary greatly in cost. If you want reusable plastic lids, you’ll be spending about a dollar each to get started, but you can reuse them a few dozen times before dings begin to make them not work, bringing the cost down to $0.03 per use. Other lid options have a lower initial cost, but are one-time use.

Jars and rings often come together for approximately $1 apiece in twelve packs. Again, you’re going to reuse these things many times, so the cost quickly goes down into the range of $0.05 (given my own history of breaking jars, 20 uses seems like a reasonable number).

A pressure cooker is going to be your big cash outlay. You can get a decent pressure cooker for about $40, which should last you a long time. Let’s say you use it 100 times with 6 jars each, though. That’s still a cost of about $0.07 per jar for the canner.

These costs quickly knock down the savings you get from canning. In fact, it’s going to take several batches of canning for you to reach a point where you’re breaking even on the supplies compared to buying cans of the food in the store.

If you notice, the cost per jar for each of the items above assumes a lot of uses, so if you’re only canning a few times a year, it’s probably not cost effective to do it.

From my own experience, I find that the time invested per jar canned across a lot of different things is about eight minutes. In other words, if I’m canning six jars of something, the time to actually can the items versus just making the items and putting them in the refrigerator is about forty five minutes or so.

Now, if I’m saving $0.65 per jar (the $0.85 in savings from using my own beans minus the $0.20 in costs for canning) and it’s taking me eight minutes per jar, I’m saving about $4.88 per hour of canning. Frankly, it’s not worth it at that price for me just as a savings method. There is savings there, but not enough to make up for the lost time.

However, the food quality is a factor, too. I’d far rather eat a food item I canned myself than a canned food item from the store. The quality of garden-fresh salsa I made myself and canned versus a jar of salsa from the store is huge, for example. The same is true for almost anything else – including beans.

So, are you doing this to save big money? No. You’re saving a little, but not a lot. You’re doing this because you’re turning out high-quality food for your pantry and saving a little bit of money, too. For me, that adds up to a worthwhile deal.

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  1. Katie says:

    Beans also keep well in the freezer; I like to make a batch and then freeze in smaller portions (with some of the broth in each – I’m told they defrost and reheat better when frozen with the broth).

  2. Priswell says:

    I’d lean more towards freezing than canning. I cook beans in big batches and freeze them in ziploc containers.

    I’m a big fan of the pressure cooker. Using one reduces bean cooking time a great deal.

  3. NMPatricia says:

    Add me to the list of one who cooks a big batch of beans and then freezes about 2 cup amounts, nearly equal to a can. It is news to me about adding some broth. Thanks, Kate.

  4. rebecca says:

    Add on the fact that home cooked beans have far superior taste and texture. And I don’t really count the cost of the canner itself, because I can’t imagine someone running out to buy a pressure canner just to can beans, but someone like myself who already uses her canner over a dozen times a year it wouldn’t cost me any more to try canning beans to see if it is worth it for me.

    All pressure cookers are not canners. Some mid to large capacity ones are, but not all. All pressure canners that I have seen can be used as cookers though, but I don’t use mine that way because my canner is so huge for the quantity of food I would be cooking.

    And a 15oz can of beans is a measure of VOLUME, not weight. I know that I can get 3 pint jars (16oz volume) from one pound of dried beans, often with some leftover, and I cram them in the jar without liquid to freeze, so that is better than the example you suggest.

  5. I agree with Priswell. A pressure cooker is the answer if you don’t want to have to can or freeze ahead but still want the beans in a jiffy. I would probably lean toward freezing if you want to prepare ahead though. Of course, then you might need to figure in the cost of the freezer since most refrigerator freezers run out of space quickly.

    Trent, maybe you can do another one of these on freezing beans.

  6. lurker carl says:

    The canned beans are ounces depicting volume, dried beans are ounces depicting weight – very different units of measurement. One does not equal the other.

  7. kristine says:

    No mention of energy required to use the pressure cooker. Add a few cents.

  8. George says:

    I’m not sure why one would bother with canning beans. Dried beans keep for a long time, so the only thing you’re accomplishing with canning them is the ability to eat precooked beans, which is a convenience rather than food preservation.

  9. ehunt says:

    I’m with George & the others — not sure why you’d bother going through the step of canning. leave them dry until you want to use them (food preservation). Make a big batch and freeze for convenience (easy access). Or cook more with lentils that can be prepared pretty quickly without soaking.

  10. valleycat1 says:

    I’m with #8 & 9. Also, we dehydrate freshly cooked beans, then pack them in single-serving plastic bags, to rehydrate when out hiking/camping. We’ve had better results buying the beans from the bulk bins rather than the bagged ones – fresher taste, and they absorb more water so they soften more quickly.

  11. Jane says:

    $1.50 for a can of beans sounds high to me. I would say I average paying $.75 for a can on sale. And that is black beans, kidney beans, northern beans, etc.

  12. Leigh says:

    We have just stopped using canned beans due to concerns about BPA toxins in the cans themselves. We don’t have children, but consuming these chemicals can be especially bad for the little ones.

  13. tentaculistic says:

    A side note that is not directly related to saving money: canned goods almost always have BPA can liners, as do metal drink cans or Tetrapaks. If you’re someone who has switched over to BPA-free plastic or glass, it can be distressing to realize that your canned veggies and such come with a big old load of BPA.

    You can get a list of BPA-free canned goods from Organic Grace’s “BPA In Cans” website (not giving a URL b/c I’ll end up in moderator purgatory; just google it). Also look at the Environmental Working Group’s “Bisphenol A: Toxic Plastics Chemical in Canned Food: Consumer tips to avoid BPA exposure” which says what has BPA and not.

  14. Andrew says:

    This is one of the dullest topics possible.

  15. AnnJo says:

    Stores in my area routinely sell canned beans on sale for 50 cents a can; can there really be that much regional variation that three times that price is considered a “sale” price?

    On the flip side, is it really possible to get a good pressure canner for $40? A pressure cooker, maybe, but canners are bigger and cost more.

    And I’m not sure why Trent would mention a water-bath canner as needed equipment in a discussion of canning beans. Beans would have to be pressure canned, I’d think.

  16. Shelley says:

    I can’t believe anyone would pay $1.50 for a tin of beans! We buy generic beans for anywhere from .19-.35 pence a tin for when we travel in the RV. At home, we buy dried beans, soak them, and cook them in the crock pot, then freeze them. Canning is a lot of work, I think.

  17. Kerry D. says:

    I prefer to cook my own beans, over canned, both for cost and flavor. Not to mention control over sodium and making sure they are well soaked and rinsed. I, too, usually cook double what I need and freeze a portion (Costco gallon ziplok freezer bags run about 9 cents per bag here.)

  18. Brittany says:

    As others have pointed out, the math in this is seriously screwy.

    A can of beans has about 2 cups of beans+liquid, and about 1 1/2 cups of actual beans.

    A pound of beans is approximately 7 cups cooked, if I recall.

    This changes the cost calculations dramatically, making the dry beans cost about $0.15 for a 1 1/2 cup serving.

    But I also don’t know why you’d ever can beans. Cook them in a crockpot (no soaking needed) overnight if you preplan, keep some in your freezer for times when you don’t preplan.

  19. Janis says:

    I regularly pressure can dried beans. I do it for the (future) convenience, economy, and selection. Commercially canned organic beans cost from $1 on sale to a norm close to $2, plus they’re loaded with salt. And our nearest store only stocks 3 or 4 varieties. I can use whatever varieties I want when I can my own, and they’re ready to use at a moment’s notice. We don’t have much freezer space, so canning works best for us – with no worries should the power go out this winter.

  20. littlepitcher says:

    All beans run under $1/can here, except baked beans. If and when I can dried beans (and I haven’t), it will be for the convenience of having a superbly seasoned, low-sodium, BPA-free product. If your county has a high-volume canning kitchen available for public use, it might be possible to use commercial size pressure cookers to shorten beans’ long cooking time. Otherwise, the high cost of electricity (and the long-term costs of natural gas fracking) make this an iffy deal; freeze them if you have a freezer.

  21. Amy says:

    When you add in the cost of infertility and reproductive cancer treatments (due to BPA consumption) – the cost of canned beans goes WAY up.

  22. Louise says:

    Wow! Who knew that the price of canned beans could lead to such an interesting discussion?! Thanks for all the comments, people. I’ve learned a lot! Food for thought. ;-)

  23. Joyce says:

    I routinely can beans for convenience and cost saving (usually get 4-5 pints from a pound of beans). I work full time and have a fairly lengthy commute. When I get home I can just open a can of whatever sort I fancy and go from there. Freezing is nice, I do it on occasion, but then there’s the space factor and defrost time. I plan my meals, but the best laid plans of mice and men… I’ve done the slow-cooker thing, but with beans the results are not always what I expect. Also, there is a fuel cost to canning, but it’s actually not that much. I turn the heat up at the start of the process, but the actual canning part is done at almost a simmer. Anyway, that’s my experience of canning. YMMV

  24. Stacy says:

    We just canned our first round of beans a few months ago, and for us it was worth it. We have tried cooking then freezing beans and they never defrosted right (for us). We also borrowed the pressure canner and used our own stash of jars so the only cost was for the beans and time. Canned beans here are in the $1/ea range and comment #18 is right about the 1.5 cups beans/can and 7 cups of beans soaked from dry. Dry beans here are about $1/lb give or take. There was a definite price difference per jar of home-canned beans.

    The process of canning them required relatively little active time, and it is convenient to be able to pop open a jar of beans when we want some. Additionally, we can store an open jar of beans in the refrigerator and just scoop out what we need. We will definitely do it again when we run out of this batch of beans.

  25. Jennifer says:

    Unless you use tattler lids, the lids have bpa in them. The food obviously doesn’t come in contact with the lid as much as the whole can but it’s not bpa free.

    Maybe you could post your salsa recipe. I’ve only canned it once but I found it much too acidic.

  26. Here regular canned beans are $1, but I buy no salt added canned beans which I can only find at one local store for now $1.69. (Was $1.55 a month ago and had been that price for a yearish.) For me, the freezing idea sounds good as I have never canned before, etc. My husband did freeze some beans at one time and I finally used them in my chili, but sat in our freezer for over a year before I remembered to use them. Sometimes I have trouble with dried beans never seeming to be done, esp. in the crockpot.

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