Water bath canning isn’t hard, but you do need to know the basics. These instructions will take you from beginning canner to professional preserver in no time!
I wouldn’t call this an article on “Canning for Dummies” (although you can get that book on Amazon…lol). Let’s call it a primer on the basics of water bath canning for beginners. We all have to start somewhere, and kudos to you for taking the first step!
Learning to can your own food is a big step in self-reliance. When you can control the food you put into your pantry, not only will you not have to rely on “the system” to make sure you’re fed, but your health will improve, too!
What is Water Bath Canning?
Chances are, you already kind of know what canning is, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. But let’s be clear about the definition of “water bath canning” so you’re in the right frame of mind.
Definition of “Water Bath Canning”
Canning is a means of food preservation whereby food is packed into jars with lids and processed so that the contents have long-term shelf stability. Water bath canning processes those jars in a pot of boiling water for a specific amount of time dependent on the food being processed.
Water bath canning (also called boiling-water canning or hot-water canning) is used specifically for jams, jellies, most fruits, pickles, relishes, chutneys, salsas, and tomato products with added acid. It is the preferred method for foods with high acid content. Jars of food are submerged in boiling water for a length of time determined by the food being processed to make the food within shelf stable for months (if not years) to come.
How Does Water Bath Canning Work?
So how exactly does water bath canning prevent food from spoiling? Jars of food are submerged and heated in boiling water. The water raises the temperature of the food to 212°F / 100°C via convection, conduction, or both.
Time spent in the boiling water will kill any bacteria or other harmful microorganisms and enzymes that could cause food to spoil. It will also drive out the air that is in the food and the jar and create a vacuum to seal the lid. By this process, shelf-stable food packaging is effectively created for long-term storage.
How Long Will My Canned Foods Last?
Just about anything you read on the internet will tell you one year is a good “best by” date for optimal flavor. However, in theory, any food that you’ve canned should be safe so long as the jar remains intact, and the seal holds. When you’re canning to preserve food, you want to keep an eye on those seals – no matter how old the jar.
The basic goal we’re trying to accomplish with growing and canning food is to always have food to eat. The best method for us is to fill our shelves full of home canned goodness, eat it when we take a notion, and replenish the next growing cycle.
Your inventory must be managed with a “FIFO” mindset – First In, First Out. Keep your longest dates pulled to the front and eat them before the more recent canned foods. That way, you’re making sure to eat the oldest foods first to get them out of the rotation for the newer canned goods.
Items and Equipment Needed for Water Bath Canning
There are a very few things you need to get started with water bath canning.
You’ll definitely need a canning pot of some sort in order to process your jars. The most typical water bath canner you’ll see is this Granite Ware canning pot that comes with a rack and a lid. There are also other models on the market (just search Amazon for “water bath canner” and you’ll see).
You could even go high-tech (and much higher in price) and get this electric water bath canner from Ball, but I’ll personally be sticking to the basics.
In all honesty, though, any large stock pot will function as a water bath canner so long as you have something to keep the jars from touching the bottom of the pot. You can use a folded hand towel, jar rings situated on the bottom, or one of these stainless-steel canning racks.
Some of these accessories can be swapped out for things you already have at home, but we’re happy we got our canning accessory kit when we did.
- Extra Wide Canning Funnel
- Magnetic Lid Lifter
- Bubble Popper / Headspace Measurer
- Jar Lifter
- Jar Opener
- Pickle Grabber Tongs
- Canning Labels
Jars and Lids
How could we preserve food in jars without jars (and lids)? You can find jars just about anywhere, too. Walmart, Kroger, and Tractor Supply all have jars and lids available most of the time, but you can always find them right here on Amazon.
See Also: The Most Essential List of Canning Tools
Why Should I Be Canning Food?
Whether you’re a homesteader who wants to preserve their harvest, a prepper who wants to store food in case of emergency, or just a homemaker that found a great deal at the farmer’s market, canning is very important.
Why is canning so important? Imagine the food supply stops. Think, if you will, of what may happen if we ever have a major trucker’s strike. Worse yet, think of what could happen on a global scale that could cause extreme turmoil in the food supply chain.
Knowing how to can your own food that you grow means you never need worry about any “what ifs” again.
The Water Bath Canning Process
Here is a basic step-by-step set of instructions that will get you started. Follow these easy steps, and your water bath canning process will be more likely to succeed.
Step One: Gather Your Necessities
Get together everything you’ll need to can your food. Your canning pot, rack and lid, jar lifter, lid lifter, funnel, oven mitts, towels, and any ingredients on your recipe should all be ready to go before you even turn on your stove eye.
Step Two: Heat and Clean Your Jars
Wash your jars with warm soapy water to be sure they are completely clean. If you’re packing hot food and liquid into the jars, you’ll need to heat your jars in either boiling water or your oven (set on about 275°F/135°C) for about 15 minutes.
(Note about warming jars in the oven: If you plan to warm your jars in the oven, be sure you use a silicone baking mat on the tray so the jars aren’t sitting directly on the pan, and leave plenty of space between the jars. Be extremely careful removing jars from the oven as too much jostling could cause them to bump together and shatter.)
If you’ll be placing cold ingredients into the jars, you do not need to warm the jars.
Step Three: Prepare Your Recipe
Prepare the food as your recipe reads. If it tells you a specific way to treat your jars, do that in this step, as well. These canning recipes are written a certain way for a reason – they’ve been tested and proven to work time and again. Any deviation from a recipe could (but won’t necessarily) lead to disaster. Proceed with caution if you change the recipe or procedures.
Step Four: Debubble Your Jars and Check the Headspace
Use a wooden, plastic or silicone tool to probe the jar a few times (a reusable wooden chopstick works great). This moves the food around in the jar and releases air bubbles that could be trapped. Skipping this may result in incorrect headspace, causing the jars to not fully seal.
Each recipe will tell you how much headspace you should leave in the jar. This is the space between the rim of the jar and the top of the food. When you have your jars packed, be sure to take note of the headspace using a headspace checker.
Incorrect Headspace Problems
- Too Little Headspace – Food may bubble out between the jar and lid when air is being forced out during processing. This could leave a film on the rim of the jar and prevent the lid from sealing.
- Too Much Headspace – Lid could also not seal properly because it was not processed for enough time to force all of the air out of the jar.
Step Five: Wipe the Rim of the Jar
This is one of the most important steps in the process. Dip a paper towel into a bowl of vinegar, and wipe the lip of the jar to clean it thoroughly. You should do this for three reasons:
- The paper towel removes small chunks of food from the lip.
- Vinegar cleans oily or greasy liquid that could be on the rim of the jar.
- Using a paper towel and your finger lets you to physically inspect the lip of the jar to make sure there are no chips, cracks, or other defects.
Failing to perform this step may cause the lids to not seal to the jars.
Step Six: Add Your Rings and Lids
When the rims of your jars are clean, place a lid and a ring on the jar and tighten to finger-tight only. Do not overtighten the rings! Overtightening could cause the lid not to seal, or in the case it does seal, it could fail later while sitting on a shelf.
Step Seven: Process Your Jars
If your ingredients and jars are hot (hot pack), place them into hot water. Cold packing jars means they should go into cold water, and everything will be heated at the same time. Ensure the water level is about one inch above the lids of the jars.
Turn your stove eye on high and allow the water to begin to boil. I always do this with the lid on to help the water come to a boil faster. When the water has begun to boil, and the lid is on, start your timer. Process your jars according to the recipe you are using.
Step Eight: Remove Your Jars
When the processing has finished, turn off the stove and allow the canner to cool for at least 5 minutes. Remove the jars using the jar lifter and place them on a towel that is spread out on your counter (or wherever you’ll let your jars cool).
Let your jars cool for at least 12 hours so they come to room temperature. During this time, you will begin to hear “pings” from your jars. This is the lid suctioning down and forming its final seal. After the 12 hours has passed, be sure all lids have sealed by gently pushing on the center. Any give to the lid will tell you it is not sealed, and the food inside should be refrigerated immediately and eaten within the week.
Step Nine: Clean Your Mess!
After you’ve removed the jars from the canner, and your canning day is complete, be sure to clean up your mess. As tired as you may be, this step will save you a lot of elbow grease in the long run. Jams, jellies, syrups and sauces that spill will congeal and harden on pots, utensils and counter tops and become difficult to remove.
Plus, before you go to bed that night, you can stand at the kitchen door peering into your clean kitchen and reveling at your canning success!
Step Ten: Remove Your Rings
After your jars have completely cooled, remove the rings. Some people may tell you to leave them on, but there’s a reason why we remove them.
If your jars appear to have sealed completely, and you remove the ring, the lid should remain firmly suctioned to the jar. This is a good seal, but if for some reason the jar was not processed properly, that seal will eventually fail. If the ring is still on the jar, you may never know that the lid isn’t sealed, and the food inside tainted.
Step Eleven: Clean, Label, and Store Your Jars
Once your rings have been removed, it’s time to clean the jars. If there is a lot of food on the outside of the jar, a cloth with warm soapy water will clean them right up. If your jars don’t need that much attention, at least wipe them down with a damp cloth.
When the jars and lids are dry, use a Sharpie marker or some of these dissolvable canning labels to properly label all your jars with what is inside and the date.
Put your jars on a shelf in a climate-controlled area of your home (i.e.- not the garage). If you have other canned goods of the same type of food, place the newer jars behind the older ones. The First In, First Out (FIFO) method will keep your stock rotated and ensure all the food stored on your shelves is good.
Remember: When storing your jars, do not double stack them as this may break seals on the bottom jars.
Get Started Water Bath Canning Today!
Water bath canning really shouldn’t be intimidating. The process is simple, and very little can go wrong as long as you stick to the instructions.
Leave me a comment below and let me know what’s the first water bath canning project you plan to do!
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Patrick & Jessie homestead in Middle Georgia with two of their four children and their three dogs. They love gardening, food preservation, and keeping their family prepared for any disaster that may come.