Now, don’t worry about this long list of instructions. I am covering EVERYTHING you need to know about the water bath method of canning. (aka the “boiling-water method”) This is the method used for canning high acid foods such as: jam, jelly, most fruits, pickles and tomatoes that have been acidified. It is NOT difficult or complicated. Trust me! After reading this, be sure to check out some of our canning recipes and tips for Canning the Season video.
EQUIPMENT: You do not have to buy a water bath “canner” to do this. You can use any tall, heavy-bottomed stockpot with some sort of rack in the bottom. The purpose of the rack is to keep the jars from coming in direct contact with the hot bottom (which may cause breakage). I have a round cake rack that fits perfectly in a large stockpot. You can use something similar or buy an inexpensive “canner” wherever canning supplies are sold. It will come with it’s own rack.
Handy Hint: If you don’t have a rack that fits perfectly in the bottom of your stockpot, place extra jar bands (the round rings with the hole in the center) on the bottom of the pot. They work very well in a pinch. Just set your jars on top.
Water Bath Steps:
1. Clean the jars with hot soapy water (or run them through the dishwasher) and check the top rim or chips. (Discard any chipped or cracked jars.) Fill the canner halfway with clean water. This is approximately the level needed for a load of pint jars. If you are doing larger jars, add a bit more water.
2. If your recipe calls out a processing time of 10 minutes or longer, you do NOT have to sterilize your jars. (They will be sterilized during processing). If your recipe has a processing time of less than 10 minutes, you must boil the jars in the canner for 10 minutes prior to filling with food. Keep them in the hot water until ready to use.
3. Whether you sterilize or not, the jars need to be hot before filling. (Adding hot preserves to a cold jar is a great way to break a jar.) So, if you didn’t sterilize the jars, place them in the water bath canner and let them heat up as you make your preserves. Also heat the jar lids 5 minutes by placing them in hot, not boiling, water.
4. Start making your canning recipe while the water is preheating. When the food is ready, remove each warmed or sterilized jar and transfer to a wood board or kitchen towel on the counter (a hot jar placed directly on a cold countertop could break). Shake out any excess water.
5. Fill the jars leaving the headspace specified in the recipe. (“Headspace” is just a fancy term for the amount of space between the food and the top of the jar.) Too much space and the jar may not seal correctly and too little may cause food to push out during boiling. For pickles and whole fruit preserves, you should remove air pockets by running a plastic knife around the inside of the jar. Then add more liquid if necessary to ensure a proper headspace.
6. Wipe jar rims with damp paper towel to remove drips of food before placing on the flat lid. Next, tighten the screw band to just “finger tight”. Do not over tighten! (Click here for information on BPA free canning jar lids)
7. Load jars into the canner. I like to use a cool tool called a “jar lifter”. It makes it easy to grab and carry the jar in and out of the water. Always keep jars upright since tilting could cause food to spill into the sealing area of the lid.
8. After you load the jars, check to be sure that the water level is at least 1 inch above the top of the jars. (2 inches if you are processing for over 30 minutes.) If not, add more boiling water.
9. Turn heat to high, cover canner with lid, and heat until the water boils vigorously. Once boiling, set timer for the total minutes required.
The higher the elevation, the longer you need to process. Recipes are written for under 1,000 feet. If you are over 1000ft, adjust as follows for high altitude:
1001-3000 ft: increase processing time by 5 minutes
3001-6000 ft: increase processing time by 10 minutes
6001-8000 ft: increase processing time by 15 minutes
8001-10,000 ft: increase processing time by 20 minutes
10. Keep canner covered and maintain a boil throughout the process. If water stops boiling at any time during the process, bring back to a vigorous boil and begin timing over, from the beginning. Add more boiling water, if needed, to keep the water level above the jars.
11. When jars have been boiled for the recommended time, turn heat off and remove canner lid. Wait 5 minutes before removing jars. (This is a new USDA recommendation. There is a higher success rate for seals if you do this.)
12. Use jar lifter to remove jars and place them on a wood board or a towel, leaving at least 1-inch space between all, to cool at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours (If you hear a “pop”, congrats! The jar just sealed!).
13. Check seals after 12 to 24 hours by pushing down the center of lid, it should concave slightly and make no noise. If any jars fail to seal, put them in the refrigerator and eat within a few weeks. All sealed jars can be stored on the pantry shelf for up to one year.
14. Examine each jar before opening. If any seal has come undone or you notice any signs of spoilage, do not eat contents.
For more information and recipes, go to our Canning Page!
Theresa Loe is the Co-Executive Producer of Growing A Greener World. She is trained as a Master Food Preserver and is an expert in city homesteading, home preservation and educational gardens/gardening with children. She also blogs about homesteading on her blog LivingHomegrown.com