Water bath canning is used to preserve high acid foods by putting filled jars in a “bath” of boiling water. It’s a fantastic way to fill your pantry with jams, jellies, pickles and condiments.
Hot water bath canning is usually the first canning someone does, and for good reason. With water bath canning you don’t really need any special equipment, you can usually make due with what you already have.
How do water bath canners work?
A water bath canner is just a big pot of water that you submerge filled jars in to boil them. The boiling water heats up the jar contents and kills microbes, with the exception of Clostridium botulinum which produces the botulism toxin. Fortunately, C. botulinum isn’t in high acid foods which is what we use a water bath canner for.
What foods can be preserved by water bath canning?
Water bath canning is for high acid foods which have a natural pH of 4.6 or lower and for foods that have had enough acid added to them to increase the pH to 4.6 or lower. Water bath canning is used for
- Fruits (with a few exceptions such as bananas)
- Jams, jellies, fruit butters and sauces
- Tomatoes with added acid
- Pickled vegetables
- Some condiments
Water Bath Canning vs Pressure Canning
Water bath canning is for high acid foods, those with a pH of 4.6 or lower. Pressure canning is for low acid foods, those with a pH of 4.7 or higher (vegetables that aren’t pickled, meats, legumes). Tomatoes are tricky and require a little acidification to them and most recipes can be processed in a water bath canner or pressure canner – the recipe will tell you which one to use.
With the exception of some tomato and fruit recipes, you don’t get to choose if you use a water bath canner or pressure canner – the acidity of the food makes that determination.
Pressure canning is a great way to fill your pantry with self stable vegetables, meats, legumes, and meals in jars.
Water bath canning supplies
There are a few essential canning supplies you need for hot water bath canning, but there are a lot of things that you probably already have in your kitchen that you can use.
- Jars – For canning, you want to be sure to use jars that have been tempered so that they won’t break under the high heat of the canning process. Mason jars such as Ball, Kerr, and Garden Harvest have a two piece lid and Weck jars have a glass lid and a rubber gasket. For water bath canning, it’s perfectly fine to reuse jars from commercial mayonnaise and spaghetti sauces as long a the two piece lids fit them.
- Lids – Mason jars have a two-piece lid system; a flat metal circle with a rubber gasket on the underside and a metal band that screws on over the metal lid onto the jar. The round metal lid is a one-time use product but the bands can be used many times. There are also reusable plastic lids that come with a separate rubber gasket that can be used instead of the metal lid. You’ll still use the metal bands with these. I use Harvest Guard lids for most of my canning and use the one-time-use metal lids for canned goods that I’m giving away.
- Water bath canner – A water bath canner can be any large pot that has a lid and something to keep the glass jars from touching the bottom of the pot. There are some very inexpensive enamel water bath canners that you can buy online or at larger grocery stores. There is also pricier stainless-steel canners and even electric water bath canners. You can also use your pressure canner as a water bath canner just don’t latch the lid. All of these come with a rack to keep the jars from touching the pot. If you don’t have one of these but do have a large stockpot with a lid, you can put a kitchen towel in the bottom of the pot to keep the jars from touching the pot. This is messier but will work.
- Jar Lifter – A jar lifter is large pair of tongs that wrap around the jars for lifting them out of the hot water. This is a necessity for water bath canning and super handy for pressure canning.
- Jar Funnel – A jar funnel has a wide top opening just like regular funnels, but instead of a tiny bottom opening, the bottom opening is almost as large as a regular mouth jar. This is great for keeping the mess to a minimum.
- Bubble Remover and Headspace Tool – This tool is used to slide between the jar and the food to dislodge any air bubbles trapped in the jar. You can use a thin plastic spatula or wooden spoon, but don’t use anything metal or you run the risk of the jar breaking. One end of the tool is stair-stepped and is used to check the headspace. Find the correct headspace notation on the tool and put that stair-step on the rim of the jar, the contents should just barely touch the tip of the tool. The headspace is the space between the rim of the jar and the food it’s containing; this gives the food room to expand when heated.
- Other supplies you’ll need for canning you probably already have; sharp knives, cutting boards, food processor, mandolin, ladle, oven mitts and kitchen towels.
Tips for using a water bath canner
Make sure you have clean jars and enough lids before you begin. There’s nothing worse than being in the middle of jam making and realizing you don’t have enough lids to complete the job.
Speaking of jars, always, always, always check the rim of the jars for nicks. If there are nicks in the rim of the jars the lid won’t seal. The only thing worse than not having enough lids is realizing that the jars didn’t seal because there were nicks in the rim of the jars.
The jars don’t need to be sterilized before using them, if the processing time is 10 minutes or longer. But they do need to stay hot. You can run them through the dishwasher, put them in an ice chest with hot water, or just put them in the hot water bath until you need them. If the processing time is less than 10 minutes, the jars need to be boiled for 10 minutes to sterilize them.
Know how long you need to process what you’re making. For water bath canning processing times vary from 10 minutes to 90 minutes depending on what you are canning. The processing time begins AFTER the hot water begins boiling, not when you put the jars in the hot water bath.
Unless you’re using reusable lids, don’t reuse the lids. When you pop a lid off a jar of canned food, there is high chance that the lid will be damaged in some way. Lids are pretty cheap and can often be found on clearance at the end of the canning season so for me it’s not worth the risk of a jar not sealing.
Use reusable lids for food that is for your family. For the most part, I use Harvest Guard lids for food I’m preserving for my family and metal lids for food we’re giving away. Reusable lids are a little different than other lids and you need to read the instructions before using them. For the most part, they have worked great for me. I haven’t noticed a higher rate of seal failures but I know that is a common complaint of them. For me the cost savings is worth the inconvenience of having to put it in the refrigerator and use it first.
Have extra towels and hot pads available. Water bath canning is a little messier than pressure canning simply because there is more water to deal with. Once a hot pad get damp it doesn’t work as well and I find that it helps to have a few extra so I always have a dry one.
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- Water bath canner
- Mason jars
- Lids and bands
- Jar lifter
- Bubble removal and head space checker tool
- Canning funnel
- Kitchen towels, dishcloth and hot pads
- Prepare the water bath canner by filling it halfway with
water and putting it on the stove to simmer.
- Check the jars for any nicks or cracks, wash them in hot soapy water and rinse in hot water.
- Keep the jars hot until it’s time to use them.
- Wash the lids in hot soapy water and rinse.
- Prepare jar contents according to the recipe or process.
- Remove the empty jars from the water bath (or wherever you have them)
- Ladle the food into the hot jars leaving the correct headspace.
- Wipe the rims with a clean cloth, put on the lids, and screw
on the bands.
- Place jars in prepared hot water bath canner making sure that the water covers the jars by at least 1"
- Process the jars for the recommended time according to the recipe, adjusting for altitude if necessary.
- Remove the jars using a jar lifter and place them on a folded towel on the counter or table. Let them cool for at least 12 hours.
- Once cooled, remove the bands and check the seals. If any
jars failed to seal, put them in the refrigerator to use first.
- Wipe down the jars with a clean cloth, label them, and store for up to a year.
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If you have a tip that I missed, feel free to share it in the comments.