Water Bath Canning for Beginners
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Water bath canning is one of the easiest and most popular ways to preserve many types of food. An easy skill to master that requires no real special equipment, water bath canning is the first form of food preservation that most modern homesteaders and sustainable foodies master, and it tends to quickly lead to an interest in learning other forms of food preservation too.
Still, if you’ve never canned any food at home before, even water bath canning can seem intimidating. I was certainly intimidated by it when first I started canning just a few years ago. But after four years of canning jams, jellies, sauces, syrups, fruit, pickles and more with nary a spoiled jar to show for it, I’m now more than confident in my water bath canning skills, and that’s prompted me to start pressure canning too, as well as fermenting and dehydrating food at home.
I remember being so nervous when I canned my very first batch of applesauce (the first thing I ever canned at home). I was sure I was going to get botulism and die if I ate it, or worse, that I would feed it to my 6-month old daughter and she would get botulism and die and my life would be over.
This might sound a little crazy for a seasoned canner who knows what they’re doing, but it’s a legitimate fear for new home canners who don’t yet understand the process. So if you can relate at all to the intimidation and trepidation I once felt about canning, then this is the post that will ease all your worries and help you gain the confidence and knowledge you need to break out the Mason jars and fill your pantry with home-canned goodness:)
What is water bath canning?
So, what exactly is water bath canning?
Well, it’s pretty much what it sounds like: Canning food in a hot water “bath,” (ie. a pot of boiling water).
Basically you put your food into hot, sterilized Mason jars and pop them into a pot of boiling hot water for a specified amount of time. The boiling water kills off any bacteria that could allow your food to spoil, sucks the air out from inside the jar and helps the lid to suction onto the jar and seal tightly, all of which helps to preserve the food inside the jar and make it shelf stable for months and even years to come.
Water bath canning equipment list
- Water bath canner (or large stockpot with canning rack)
- Mason jars & lids
- Jar lifters
- Canning funnel
- Canning scoop
Water bath canning is really as simple as it sounds and requires little to no special equipment. While you could purchase a water bath canner specifically for this task, you can also use a large stockpot with a rack in the bottom or even a pressure canner with the lid placed gently (not sealed) on top.
I’ve been using my great aunt’s old pressure canner as a water bath canner for years! I just rest the lid on top so the steam can escape, since there’s no need to bring the pressure up or raise the temperature past boiling when it comes to water bath canning.
Just make sure that there’s a rack in the bottom of whatever pot you’re using as you should never place jars directly on the bottom of a boiling water pot since they could break.
Aside from the pot or canner itself, you’ll of course need Mason jars and lids (size will depend on what you’re canning), and a few basic canning tools. I use and recommend jar lifters, a canning funnel and a canning scoop.
Water bath canning vs. pressure canning
While water bath canning simply requires a pot of boiling water, pressure canning requires the use of a pressure canner to bring the water temperature up much higher than boiling point, which is necessary for canning certain vegetables, as well as meat and combination recipes like soups.
Pressure canning is what many people think of when they think about canning, and thoughts of blowing up your kitchen with a pressure canner or poisoning your family with botulism from improperly canned foods can be enough to scare many potential home canners off from ever even trying.
But the good news is that, even though pressure canning isn’t nearly as scary as most people think, water bath canning is even less scary. In fact, it’s downright safe and easy as long as you follow some very basic rules.
To learn more about pressure canning, check out this post on how to use a pressure canner safely.
A word about botulism
Just in case you’re unfamiliar with botulism, I’m going to touch on it quickly here since it’s probably the biggest safety concern when it comes to home canning.
In short, botulism is a severe form of food poisoning caused by a bacteria called Clostridium botulinum (C. botulinum) that affects the nervous system, and can cause severe disability, including paralysis and even death.
The bacteria that causes botulism actually lives in the soil and can be found on the surface of pretty much all fresh fruits and vegetables, however botulism can only survive in anaerobic environments (where there is no air), which is exactly the kind of environment inside a sealed canning jar!
However, botulism cannot survive on high-acid foods, so any food with a PH of 4.6 or lower is safe from botulism. The addition of vinegar (and in some cases, lemon juice) also keeps food safe from botulism, so even though cucumbers have a PH level of about 5.1 to 5.7, when they’re pickled in vinegar their PH level lowers to about 3.5, which automatically makes them safe from botulism.
Botulism spores can also be killed with very very high heat (greater than 240ºF/116ºC), but only pressure canning can achieve the temperatures needed to kill off the bacteria. Since water bath canning can only reach boiling temperature (212ºF/100ºC), it is not safe for canning low-acid foods.
This being said, as long as you follow a tested water bath canning recipe, it will always be made with ingredients that are high-acid and can safely be water bath canned without any fear of botulism. So water bath canning is actually very safe since you won’t be canning anything that could allow botulism to grow in the first place. Just always follow a tested recipe and follow the specified processing times (more on that below).
Rules to follow when water bath canning
Rule #1: Only water bath can high acid foods
Water bath canning is only safe for high-acid foods, such as most fruits (apples, berries, cherries, peaches, pears, etc.) as well as tomatoes* and any pickled foods (because “pickling” -either with vinegar or with the naturally-occurring lactic acid that’s created when foods are fermented- raises the acidity of the food in question).
The reason acidity matters is because botulism can’t grow in acidic environments where the PH level is 4.6 or lower, and the foods mentioned above are all below 4.6 on the PH scale.
* The one exception is tomatoes, which used to be highly acidic, but years of engineering and hybridization has caused the PH level to rise in some tomatoes, so to be safe, most tomato recipes call for the addition of lemon juice in order to bring the acidity up enough to make it safe for water bath canning.
Low-acid foods, including most vegetables (potatoes, carrots, green beans, pumpkin, etc.), red meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, stock, soups, etc. MUST be pressure canned in order to be shelf stable and safe to eat.
Rule #2: Follow a tested recipe
While you might enjoy getting creative with your standard kitchen recipes, canning is definitely more of a science than an art. While it is possible to add or omit certain ingredients like sugar, spices, etc., you should always start with a safe, tested recipe from a source you trust.
I wouldn’t recommend tampering with the ingredients in any recipes until you are comfortable with canning and understand the science behind it, since tampering with certain ingredients can change the PH level and potentially affect the safety of the food in question.
I highly recommend investing in a good canning cookbook. My absolute favourite is the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. I use it all the time and most of the recipes on this blog are adapted from this book as Ball pretty much sets the standard when it comes to canning.
You can also check out the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s website for up-to-date recipes and safety information.
Rule #3: Always use new lids (and remove bands after processing)
When it comes to canning anything, glass Mason jars can be used over and over again, although you should always check the jars for nicks and cracks, and you always need to clean them with hot soapy water and sterilize them in hot water before filling them.
Bands can also be reused as long as you wash them first (bands are the metal rings that secure the lid onto the jar).
But you always ALWAYS need to use new lids when canning. This is because once a lid has sealed onto a jar, that seal will never be as strong again, which means your jars of food may not seal completely or correctly, which can lead to food spoilage.
Once you’ve built up your Mason jar collection, however, a few boxes of lids are a small investment to make each season. If, however, you’re willing to invest a little more up front, you can purchase reusable tattler lids for your home canning projects.
Also, it’s best practice to remove the bands before you store your home-canned food. This helps to ensure that you spot any potential issues, like jars that didn’t seal or food spoilage and bacteria growth at the top of a jar that didn’t seal correctly. I’ll be honest, I usually leave the bands on, and I’ve never had a problem, however the safety standard is to remove the bands, so it’s what I recommend for you (and for me) this canning season!
Rule #4: Practice safe food storage and rotation
This last rule really applies to all of your food storage, but it’s extra important when it comes to canning: Once you’ve canned your food and the lids have sealed and the jars have cooled and you’ve removed your bands (I typically recommend waiting for at least 12 to 24 hours before moving jars from the spot where you’ve left them to cool), then it’s time to put them away.
To ensure the quality and safety of your home-canned food, always label and date jars and store them in a cool, dark place such as a pantry cupboard, basement or cold storage. Keep them out of direct sunlight and try to keep them somewhere where the temperature will remain fairly constant, and won’t freeze or get hotter than 75ºF (23ºC).
If you can, store jars in a single layer and do not stack them on top of one another as this can potentially cause jars of the bottom layer to break their seal. If you need the space and must stack jars, only stack rows two layers deep and try to stack equally weighted or lighter jars on top of heavier ones.
And finally, make sure you rotate your food! Put the newest canned goods at the back and move your older canned goods to the front so you’ll use them first.
You should try to use up home-canned goods within a year, although most canned goods will last longer than that. Still, nobody wants to be eating canned food that’s from another era! (I’m reminded of cleaning out my great aunt’s cold storage when we moved her to a home a couple months ago and found apple sauce dated 1994! Yuck!)
If you’re ever concerned that any of your jars of home-canned food have spoiled or are unsafe to eat, toss them out. It’s just not worth the risk.
Water bath canning instructions
While every canning recipe is different and obviously calls for different ingredients and processing methods, certain procedures stay the same. Here’s what you always need to do before, during and after a water bath canning session…
- Prepare your jars: Wash jars and bands with hot, soapy water and rinse. Place jars in the canner or pot and simmer them on medium high heat to keep them hot (you don’t need to boil them).
- Prepare your ingredients as per the recipe you’re following.
- Remove jars from water right before you fill them. The trick is to never let the jars or the food going in the jars to cool down (unless you’re following a cold pack recipe like pickles).
- Leave the correct amount of headspace in your jars. Head space is the amount of room you need to leave between the food and the lid at the top of the jar. Your canning recipe will tell you how much headspace to leave (usually ¼-inch to ½-inch headspace for most water bath canning recipes). Headspace is important so that your jars seal properly and allow for any food expansion that can happen when the jars are heated and processed.
- Release any trapped air bubbles by sliding a non-metallic utensil around the food and the outside of the jar. Air bubbles can affect the seal and quality of home canned food. (I use a knife for this purpose, but the official guidelines say not to use metal as some metals can cause off-flavouring of foods that they react with. A plastic or wooden utensil works well.
- Wipe the rim of the jar with a clean, wet cloth to ensure there’s nothing standing in between the jar and the seal.
- Place new lids on top and screw bands on “fingertip tight,” meaning just as tight as your fingers can tighten them without straining too hard. (You don’t want the lids to be too tight as they need to be able to loosen slightly while in the canner in order to expel air and create an airtight seal.
- Place filled jars upright in the canner and ensure they’re covered by at least 1 inch of water.
- Bring water to a full boil and then start the timer for the specified processing time in the recipe.
- Leave jars in the canner for an extra 5 minutes after processing time has finished. This allows the pressure inside the jars to stabilize and reduces the chance of liquid loss.
- Remove jars with jar lifters and place them on a tea towel on the countertop somewhere where they can sit undisturbed for at least 12 to 24 hours. Never place hot jars directly on a cold countertop as this could shock the jars and cause them to break. And 24 hours is the recommended time to allow jars to cool, but in most cases I find 12 hours is enough. I leave jelly to set for a full 24 hours in order allow the pectin time to cool and set.
- Store in a cool, dark place away from direct sunlight.
How to get started water bath canning
If you’re ready to dive in and start canning, my advice is to start with one simple recipe and go from there. Here are a few straightforward water bath canning recipes to get you started:
- Pectin-Free Strawberry Jam Canning Recipe (+ video tutorial)
- Blueberry Pie Filling Canning Recipe
- Honey-Sweetened Peaches Canning Recipe
- Sugar-Free Applesauce Canning Recipe
- No Frills Dills: Dill Pickles in Vinegar Brine Recipe
- Spicy Garlic & Dill Pickled Beans Recipe
Oh, and don’t overwhelm yourself if it’s your first go (as in, don’t go pick 50 lbs. of strawberries for strawberry jam. 5 or 10 pounds is enough to get you started on a batch or two!)
And practice! The more you do it, the easier it will become.
Back when I first started canning, I read over the recipes for hours before I even worked up the courage to actually get started because I was afraid that I would mess it up and kill my family. During the process I made a huge disaster of my kitchen and struggled to keep organized and get all of my timing right.
Nowadays I barely need to check my recipes for certain items. I know the process well and I always make sure I have everything I need prepped and ready to go so I’m not scrambling. And I’m relaxed and organized enough during each canning session that I can actually clean as I go while the jars are processing, so by the time they’re ready, I have a clean kitchen and a sparkling countertop to line my new jars of home-canned food on. This makes it all the more enjoyable when I stand back to admire my jars (I’m pretty sure literally every home canner does this!) And so they should. And you should too.
Home canning isn’t just a skill every aspiring modern homesteader should master, it’s something to be proud of. Because for anyone with a pioneering spirit and a homesteader heart, having a pantry full of glistening jars of home-canned food is more valuable than gold, and you’d certainly be forgiven for stopping to stare;)
Ready to take your home canning to the next level? Be sure to check out my complete guide on How to Use A Pressure Canner Safely.
Wishing you health, wealth & homestead happiness:)