How to Do Water Bath Canning | What I Learned in 50 Years


Water Bath Canning

As a canner, the daughter of a canner, and the granddaughter of a canner (and possibly even further back than that), water bath canning is one of the first things I learned to do in the realm of preserving. I have been doing it over 50 years and thought I would share with you everything I know about it.

But first, let me begin by saying that there are two primary methods of canning. One is by using a pressure canner, and one is by using the boiling water bath method. The vital thing to find out is which method best fits the type of food you are preserving.

  • The Boiling Water Bath Method- This method should be used for high-acid foods like jam, jelly, fruit preserves, salsa, and some pickles. This method heats food to 212 degrees Fahrenheit or 100 degrees Celsius. Not all foods can be preserved by this method.
  • The Pressure Canning Method- This method must be used on low acid foods like meats and most vegetables since the boiling water bath method does not reach the required temperature for a sufficient length of time to render the food safe. Also, it does not preserve the food for an extended period.

In this article, we will focus on the boiling water bath method. But before we get into the steps, let’s define exactly what it is:

A boiling water bath is the most common method of preserving high-acid foods so they can be stored safely in the proper environment for extended periods.

Here are the 9 easy steps to follow to preserve foods via the water bath method.

1. Gather All Supplies, Equipment, and Utensils

As with any process, the first step is to select and gather the supplies, utensils, and equipment needed. For the boiling water bath canning method, here is the list of things that will be required:

  • Jars- Good canning jars are necessary for canning. They are available in various shapes and sizes, including .4 oz, 8 oz “jelly jars,” 12 oz, and pints, which are 16 oz, and all of these sizes are available in regular- and large-mouth varieties. Just remember that jam or jelly should not be made in any jar larger than a pint as the larger sizes would not result in a firm gel, and would very likely result in a runny product. Pints and quarts are the best sizes for fruits and vegetables, depending on your family’s size and how much you usually cook at one time.
  • Lids- New jars come with lids and rings, but you can buy new lids and new lid and ring combos at most grocery, dollar, or variety stores to use with recycled jars. Jars and rings can be recycled; lids cannot. No guarantee recycled lids will reseal and remain sealed.
  • Rings- Like jars, rings can be recycled. If reusing jars, lids and rings can be bought by the dozen.
  • Canner- There are many different types of boiling water bath canners, but any large pot, like this one, that holds at least 21 quarts of water and has a canning rack will work for a boiling water bath. The main thing is to be sure it is large enough to hold the number of jars you are making per batch completely covered with water with enough headroom to cook at a full rolling boil without a chance of boiling over. Also, the water should be 1 to 2 inches over the top of the jars. The pot mentioned above will hold 7-quart jars, 9-pint jars, or 12 half-pint jars, but any large stockpot that is not more than 4″ in diameter larger than the element or burner of the stove will work by adding a canning rack.
  • Canning rack- A good canning rack, like this one, will fit any stockpot larger than 12 inches in diameter.
  • Pot or Pan for Sterilizing Jars- A pot or pan suitable to sterilize jars while the food is cooking. I use either an oblong baking pan like this one or an old Dutch oven, which I don’t use much anymore, or any pot or pan that will hold 6-8 jars. Just make sure the pan is deep enough to hold at least an inch of water to boil the jars in.
  • Pot or Pan for Sterilizing Jar Lids- Use a saucepan or baking pan large enough to boil a sufficient amount of water to cover the jar lids.
  • Funnels- A large mouth funnel or funnels are needed to pour food into the jars and help avoid spills.
  • Canning Tongs- Special tongs, like these, are made for lifting and moving jars safely.
  • Lid Lifter- A magnetic wand for pulling the lids from boiling water. A fork can be used to lift lids out of the water, but a lid lifter, like this one, is much more efficient and safer.
  • Bubble Tool/Measurer- A measurer is a special tool for measuring the amount of headspace at the top of the jars of your canned food.
  • Canning Tools If you do not already have a canning funnel, canning tongs, measurer, and lid lifter, you can buy a set of canning tools that includes all four items.
  • Dishcloths– Always keep a stack of clean dishcloths handy to wipe up spills and keep your stove and work area clean to avoid contaminating your canned food and to make cleaning up faster and easier. Plus, you will need a separate clean dishcloth just for wiping the jar rims before putting the lids on.
  • Pot Holders- Several pot holders are necessary to handle large hot pots while canning.

2. Add Water to Canner and Bring to A Boil

For 6 to 8 jelly jars, fill the canner ½ full of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Then, reduce heat and keep the water simmering while preparing your food for the boiling water bath. For other size jars, adjust the amount of water in the canning pot to cover the jars with at least 1 inch above the jars’ tops.

3. Check Jars and Wash Jars, Lids, and Rings

Check your jars for any nicks, cracks, or rough edges around the rim that could cause them to break discarding any with imperfections. Then wash jars, lids, and rings in hot soapy water and rinse thoroughly until they are completely clean.

4. Sterilize Jars

There are several ways to sterilize your canning jars. Most dishwashers have a sanitize setting, and some people sanitize their jars in the oven by placing them on a baking sheet and putting them in a 220-degree oven for at least 10 minutes. But, according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, it is not necessary to pre-sterilize the jars if they are processed in the boiling water bath for at least 10 minutes. However, I recommend always pre-sterilizing the jars before filling by following this method:

After checking your jars for any nicks, cracks, or rough edges around the rim that could cause them to break and washing jars, lids, and rings in hot soapy water, place clean jars in a pan or pot with enough water to allow jars to sit in about one inch of water. Then, bring them to a full rolling boil, allowing them to boil for at least 10 minutes to sterilize them while you are cooking the food.

5. Prepare Lids

Add enough water to a saucepan or baking pan to cover the lids that you will need and bring to a full rolling boil. Then, reduce heat and add the clean lids to the water, allowing them to sit in the hot water until needed.

6. Cook the Food Being Canned and Fill Jars

  1. Prepare the food that you are canning.
  2. Fill the jars one at the time while they are still sitting in boiling water.
  3. With a clean, damp cloth, wipe the jar rims to ensure there is no residue that would prevent the lids from sealing.
  4. Add the hot lids and rings, tightening snugly, but do not overtighten.

7. Place the Jars Into the Canner and Process

  1. Place jars in the boiling water bath canner, making sure the water covers all the jars by at least 1 inch. For process times of 30 minutes or more, make sure the water covers the jars by at least 2 inches.
  2. Turn the heat to high and bring the water in the canner back to a full rolling boil.
  3. When the water has reached the boiling point, set your timer, cover, and process the length of time recommended for the food you are canning. For example, jelly should be processed for 5 minutes, jam for 10 minutes.
  4. If the water stops boiling during the processing time, bring the water back to a full rolling boil and start the processing time over again, setting your timer back to the original process time.

8. Remove Jars From Canner and Cool

When jars have been processed for the required time, turn off the heat and lift the rack to the rim of the canner. Remove the jars to a previously prepared spot (I place a towel on an unused end of the counter or kitchen table.), dry them, and place in the prepared area to sit undisturbed for at least 24 hours. Spread the jars out, so they are at least an inch apart and have room to cool. Do not retighten the bands as this may affect the sealing process, and do not press on the center of the lid.

9. Inspect Lids for a Good Seal and Store Properly

Don’t neglect this step! It is essential to make sure you do a little bit of quality control on the finished product. I recommend getting into a routine and just doing these 5 things every single time you have gone through the water bath canning process.

  1. Inspect the lids to make sure they have sealed. The center of the lid should not flex when the center is pressed.
  2. Remove the bands and again check the seals. Properly sealed lids will remain attached. If a lid fails to seal within 24 hours, immediately refrigerate the product.
  3. Clean the jars and the lids with warm soapy water to remove any residue from the canning process.
  4. Label each jar.
  5. Store in a cool, dry, dark place for up to 1-½ to 2 years. Check lids from time to time to be sure they have maintained a good seal.

That’s it, you did it! See, that wasn’t hard at all. In fact, I really enjoy this canning method. Now, let’s answer a few more common questions that people ask me.

What Foods Should Be Canned By Using the Boiling Water Bath Method?

The boiling water bath method of home canning is recommended for processing high-acid foods. The pH is the measurement of how acidic food is.

Foods with a 4.6 pH or less are considered high-acid, and foods with more than a 4.6 pH are considered low-acid.

Examples of high-acid foods (pH less than 4.6) include: Apples, Peaches, Applesauce, Pears, Apricots, Pickled beets, Berries, Plums, Cherries, Rhubarb Cranberries, Tomatoes, Fruit juices, Tomato juice, Jams, Jellies, Fruit Spreads, Salsas, Pickles, Relishes, Chutneys, Sauces, Vinegars, and Condiments.

Any of the above foods are great candidates for boiling water bath canning.

How to Store Homemade Canned Food

To maintain the best quality for the maximum length of storage time, all homemade canned food made with full sugar (for jam and jelly) and processed by using approved canning methods should be stored under the following conditions:

  1. In a cool space in which the temperature should remain between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit with no significant temperature changes.
  2. In a dark space that is never exposed to direct or indirect sunlight nor bright light of any kind.
  3. In a pantry or storage area that is dry and as free from high humidity as possible.

If your canned foods are made and stored by the guidelines mentioned above, they should be good for at least 2 years and possibly as long as 5 or 6 years.

Handling Spoiled Canned Foods

Home-canned foods should be checked before using and also from time to time during storage to ensure it has not spoiled. If the jar is no longer sealed (The center of the jar lid will move up and down when pressed), it should be discarded immediately.

Other signs that the food has spoiled are leakage and bulging lids on an unopened jar and upon opening, liquids spurting, signs of mold, and an unpleasant odor.

IMPORTANT- Do not taste foods that show signs of being spoiled, just discard them immediately. Canned foods that have spoiled can cause botulism and other food-related severe illnesses.

Words of Wisdom

I will conclude by offering a few tips for those of you who are new to canning. I have been doing this for over 50 years, so this info will hopefully help you avoid common mistakes and become better at the process much faster.

  1. You don’t have to invest a ton of money- Most canning can be done without going out and buying a lot of new equipment, and most cooks can find substitutes in their kitchen for almost all of the utensils and equipment needed. For example, a large stockpot with some kind of rack that will keep your jars off the bottom of the pot can be substituted for a boiling water bath canner. The bottom of the stockpot can even be covered with jar rings as a very basic substitute for a rack, so long as you have long enough tongs to remove the jars from the pot. My point here is, don’t go out and buy a lot of canning equipment until you have tried your hand at canning and know that you want to continue doing it.
  2. Pre-sterilize- Although it is not necessary to pre-sterilize the jars if your food is processed for at least 10 minutes in the boiling water bath, I highly recommend going ahead and pre-sterilizing the jars anyway, no matter what process you are following. Better safe than sorry, I always say.
  3. Heat the lids- The makers of Ball and Kerr lids have determined that it is unnecessary to heat new lids before placing them on your canning jars. Instead, they say just a good washing with hot soapy water and drying will be sufficient. Even so, I like to have the food boiling, the jars sitting in boiling water, and lids waiting in hot water when I pour the food into the jars to avoid any chance of food contamination.
  4. Only can quality food- Only can food that is fresh, of good quality, and at its peak of ripeness. Experienced canners know that when the food is ready for canning, it must be canned at that time, not at the canner’s convenience. Canning food that is under-ripe or overripe will result in a less than perfect finished product.
  5. Don’t overfill jars- The space in the canning jar between the top of the food and the jar lid is called the “headspace” and must be maintained to allow for expansion of the food during the canning process. According to the National Center For Home Food Preservation, “Directions for canning specify leaving 1/4-inch for jams and jellies, ½-inch for fruits and tomatoes to be processed in boiling water, and from 1- to 1¼-inches in low acid foods to be processed in a pressure canner.”
  6. Be careful if raw packing- In case you are considering raw-packing the jars, have the water in the canner hot, but not boiling, to prevent breakage of the jars when they’re placed in the canner. For hot-packed jars, use hot or gently boiling water. Having said that, keep in mind that raw-packing is more suitable for vegetables being canned by the pressure canner method and is rarely used in the boiling water bath method.
  7. Don’t get frustrated, enjoy the process- If you really are a “newbie” to canning, all these instructions may sound a little daunting, but for many, including myself, there is nothing complicated about it if you just take one step at the time. And, when you look at the finished product, it is a gratifying feeling to know that you are preparing wholesome, healthy, and delicious food for your family, and they are sure to appreciate your efforts.

I hope this article has helped you avoid many common mistakes and pitfalls so that you can become a master canner as quickly as possible! Thanks for stoppin’ by for a visit.

Jelly Grandma

Anne James

Hi, I'm Anne but my grandchildren call me Jelly Grandma. I hope your visit here has been a sweet one.

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