Pickled beets are a traditional relish for Thanksgiving and holiday dinners. They are best when the beets are canned fresh from the garden and have been canned for several months to let the beets absorb spices evenly. While beets are low-acid foods and may ordinarily be processed safely only in a pressure canner, pickled beets have vinegar in the brine, which adds acid and lowers the pH, so a water bath is sufficient to sterilize them.
Pick or buy 1 gallon of uniform-sized, crisp beets as fresh from the garden as possible.
Cut off the tops, leaving the tap root and 1 inch of stem.
Wash dirt off the skins carefully so as not to pierce them, which drains the color.
Rinse the canner, put the rack in the bottom and fill with hot tap water. Put the canner on low heat on the stove.
Cover the beets in water and boil until their skins slip off easily, 15 to 35 minutes, depending on the size.
Let the beets cool, then remove the skins, stems and roots. Save the water.
Cut large beets into cubes, halves, quarters or ½-inch slices. Use baby beets whole. Add pearl or thinly sliced onions.
Put the beets into a clean pot and add beet water, sugar or substitute, cider vinegar and salt. Put cinnamon, cloves and allspice in a cheesecloth bag and add to the pickling solution. Bring to a boil, simmer for 5 minutes and remove the spice bag.
Ladle the beets into clean canning jars and fill with the hot vinegar solution. Cover the beets and leave ½ inch of headspace. Remove air bubbles, wipe the jar rims, add lids and screw the rings on snugly, but not tight.
Use jar lifters to set the jars onto the racks in the water bath canner. The water should cover the jars by 1 inch. Put on the lid.
Boil water for 30 minutes at sea level. Add five minutes for every 1,000 feet above sea level, up to 45 minutes for 6,000 feet and higher.
Remove the jars and set carefully on a wooden board or towel. Don't bump the hot glass jars into each other.
Let cool overnight.
Check that the lids have been sucked down to make a tight seal on the jar rim. Gently press the center of the lid; if it gives and springs back, the seal is not secure. Refrigerate the jar immediately and eat the beets promptly.
Do not use aspirin to acidify tomatoes and beets for canning; it will not eliminate the risk of botulism. Aspirin contains salicylic acid, but not enough to acidify tomatoes or beets sufficiently to make water-bath canning safe.