Maybe you’ve enjoyed some homemade canned pickles from the farmer’s market or a jar of your grandmother’s homemade preserves. Or maybe every summer you dream of turning all those freshly picked strawberries into canned jam for your family, but something always stops you from actually doing it.
Namely, that “something” is that you feel like you have no idea what you’re doing when it comes to canning, and you’re afraid that even if you follow a proper recipe there’s still a chance you might make your family sick.
How do I know that? Because I used to feel the exact same way! For those of us who didn’t grow up helping our parents and grandparents preserve bushels of fresh food every summer, the whole idea of canning can be incredibly intimidating.
And yet, there’s something so enticing about the idea of getting back to our roots in the kitchen, engaging in the labor of love that canning can be, and preserving fresh, healthy foods that will feed our family long after summer has passed.
That’s why I’m here today to give you a swift kick in the pants and tell you there’s no reason to be intimidated. Yes, canning is a science, and yes, you need to do it properly, but it’s not difficult, and you can absolutely do it safely.
This post covers all the basics of water bath canning so you can confidently preserve those beautiful summer fruits and veggies for your family. Give yourself permission to be a beginner, and give canning a try!
Why should I try canning?
Once you get over the intimidation factor and get a few recipes under your belt, you’ll find that the process of canning is actually pretty easy, and it’s fun, too! You might be surprised by how rewarding it feels to spend an hour or two in the kitchen and come out with several months worth of relish, pickles or jam.
Not to mention the fact that canning is incredibly practical. With a little work during the warmer months, you can have fresh summer produce at your fingertips all year long, and usually for much cheaper than what you would pay at the store.
What exactly is water bath canning?
Water bath canning is the process of preserving foods by placing them in jars and boiling them for a certain length of time. This process works because of two things:
- First, the hot temperature of the boiling water kills any microorganisms that might otherwise cause the food to spoil.
- Second, when you remove the jars from the hot water, the temperature change from the pot to the air causes the heat (and air) to rush out of the jar, forming a vacuum and ensuring the jar is tightly sealed.
Water bath canning is only safe for high acid foods. This is because the acid in the foods, combined with the temperature of the boiling water, is enough to kill any microorganisms and ensures that the food is safe to preserve.
Foods that are NOT high acid foods are NOT SAFE to be canned in a water bath. Instead, these low acid foods (such as vegetables, soups and meats) must be canned in a pressure cooker, which reaches a higher temperature than a boiling water bath.
What foods are safe to can in a boiling water bath?
“High acid” foods are considered safe to water bath can. These include:
- Jams, jelly, and preserves
- Tomatoes (with additional acid, like lemon juice, added)
What tools do I need?
While water bath canning doesn’t require as many special gadgets as you might think, there are a few basic tools you’ll want to have on hand, many of which you probably already have in your kitchen. These include:
- large, wide non-reactive pot for cooking your recipe
- deep stock pot or canning pot for your boiling water bath
- round metal or silicone rack/trivet to place at the bottom of your water bath (this is so that the water can circulate around the jars)
- timer (the timer on your stove or cell phone will work fine)
- clean kitchen towels
- measuring cups of various sizes
- jar lifter (this is optional but makes it infinitely easier to get your jars in and out of the water bath)
For about $15 you can purchase this set of canning tools on Amazon. I have this set and would say it’s worth it just for the jar lifter and funnel, which fits any size jar.
What are the basic steps of canning?
- Choose a reliable recipe to follow. Read through it carefully and gather all of the tools and ingredients you’ll need.
- Remove the lids and rings from your jars, and place the jars on top of the metal rack inside your canning pot. Fill the pot with water (including inside the jars) until the water just covers the top of the jars. Bring the pot to a simmer over medium heat to keep the jars warm. (Heating will prevent the jars from breaking when you add hot food to them.)
- Prepare your recipe.
- When the recipe is ready, carefully remove the jars from the hot water, pouring the water from the jars back into the pot, and place the jars onto a clean kitchen cloth on your counter. Fill the jars using your funnel, making sure to leave the recommended amount of headspace (i.e. the space between the contents and the top of the jar), usually 1/4 or 1/2 inch.
- Once the jars have been filled, wipe the rims with a clean towel. Then carefully place the lids centered on top of the jars, and screw the bands on until they are fingertip tight (i.e. until you just start to feel resistance).
- Place the jars into the boiling water bath. Once the pot has returned to a boil, start your timer and process the jars for the recommended amount of time. When the time is up, carefully remove the jars and place them upright on a clean towel. You should hear the jars “ping” soon after removing them from the pot – this is the sound of the vacuum being formed inside the jar to keep it sealed.
- After 12-24 hours has passed, remove the bands and check the lids to make sure they have sealed properly. If so, label and store your jars, and you’re good to go!
What else do I need to know to make sure I’m canning safely?
Here are a few other tips to keep in mind to make sure you’re always canning as safely as possible.
- Always wash your jars and lids with hot, soapy water prior to using them.
- Jars and rings can be reused repeatedly as long as they do not have any cracks or other damages. Lids cannot be re-used and should be replaced after each use.
- If you check the jars within 24 hours and a lid has not sealed correctly, you can still eat the product as long as you store it in the fridge right away.
- You may have seen your grandparents pre-heat their jar lids, but according to Ball Canning, they have determined that preheating the lids is no longer necessary because the jars seal just as well with a room temperature lid.
- Always make sure you’re following a reliable recipe that is safe to be preserved with a boiling water bath.
Where can I find trustworthy canning recipes?
Here are a few of my favorite resources for trustworthy, well-tested recipes:
- Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving
- Ball Canning’s Online Recipe Archive
- Food in Jars Blog
- Food in Jars Cookbooks (My favorite is Naturally Sweet Food in Jars)
- The National Center for Home Food Preservation is also a reliable resource for canning information.
Remember, you don’t have to be an expert at food preservation to give water bath canning a try. Just start with one simple recipe, and you’ll be canning like a pro in no time at all.