Beginner, Kitchen Basics

The Basics of Water Bath Canning

What is water bath canning and how can you get started? My compete guide to water bath canning for beginners will tell you everything you need to know!

canned jars resting on a towel with a pot in the background

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What is water bath canning?

Water bath canning is a method of preserving food for long-term shelf-stable storage. Glass jars are filled with food, then fitted with metal lids coated with adhesive. Metal bands hold the lids in place. The jars are completely submerged in the boiling water and are boiled, also known as processed, for an allotted amount of time, depending on the type of food and the size of the jars.

How does water bath canning work?

Water bath canning works two ways – the heat from the boiling water kills bacteria. It also works as a vacuum, sucking all the air out of the jar and preventing new bacteria from forming and causing food spoilage.

What is the difference between water bath canning and pressure canning?

Water bath canning is ideal for foods that contain a high amount of acid. The presence of acid further prevents the formation of bacteria and food spoilage. High acid foods only need to be heated to 212 degrees to kill bacteria.

Pressure canning requires a pressure canner, a large stock pot fitted with a special lid and weight which allows pressure to build within the pot. As the pressure builds, the temperature within the pot increases. Pressure canning is required to preserve low acid foods. These foods must be heated to 250 degrees or above to not only kill botulism, which causes foodborne illness, but also its spores. This level of heat can not be achieved through water bath canning.

Foods you can safely can using the water bath canning method

  • Jams and jellies.
  • Naturally high acid fruits including apples, blackberries, cranberries, blueberries, peaches, pears, strawberries, and raspberries.
  • Low acid fruits will need acid added to them. These include figs, melons, Asian pears, bananas, dates, , ripe pineapple, papaya, and persimmons.
  • Vegetables also need a little acid to them. Vegetables that lend themselves well to canning are asparagus, beans, peas, cucumbers (pickles), corn, green beans, garlic, greens (lettuce, spinach, kale, collards), onions, pumpkins and squash (summer and winter varieties).

How to Can Diced Tomatoes

Adding acid: real lemon juice vs. bottled lemon juice

Achieving the right amount of acidity in your jar is crucial to prevent food spoilage. Unfortunately, no two lemons have the same amount of acidity. It varies from fruit to fruit. Bottled lemon juice has a consistent acidity level and is recommended over fresh when canning food.

Canning supplies:

canning supplies
Yes, this is a pressure canner in the photo. You can use a pressure canner for water bath canning. Just don’t seal the lid.

Canning Lids – Be sure to take note of whether you are using regular mouth or wide mouth jars and purchase lids accordingly. The underside of these lids are coated with a special adhesive that forms a bond to the outer rim of the jar, sealing the contents inside. As the vacuum is created inside the jar, the center of the lid bows in and creates a popping sound. When properly sealed, the center of the jar will be firm to the touch and should not have any give. If you are able to press the center of the lid and still head the popping sound, the jar is not sealed and its contents should be stored in the refrigerator. Lids can not be reused and must be discarded after the jar is opened.

Rings – these are also referred to as bands. They also come in regular mouth or wide mouth, so pay attention. Rings screw over the top of the jar and hold the lid in place during the canning process. Rings should be removed once the jar is cooled and it has been confirmed that it is completely sealed. Do not store jars with the rings on as water can get trapped underneath and cause rust. Also, if a sealed jar should become unsealed for whatever reason, you want to know immediately before you eat the contents. A lid held in place by a hand could created a false sense of food safety. Bands can be reused indefinitely as long as they do not contain any sign of rust or damage.

Glass Mason jars approved for use in home canning – the most common brands you will run across are Ball, Kerr, Atlas, and Weck. Old mayonnaise or pickle jars are not approved for canning. You could get lucky and they might work. But you run the risk of a higher spoilage rate because these jars have not been tested. Do you really want to take that risk? Jars can be reused indefinitely as long as they are not chipped or cracked

Canning kit – a basic canning kit contains four pieces:

  • Wide mouth funnel – will fit over both standard and wide mouth jars. It makes it easy to add food to jars without making a mess.
  • Jar Lifter – lets you safely lift hot jars of a canner without burning your hands.  The handles are coated with vinyl for a more secure grip to prevent breakage.
  • Magnetic Lid Lifter – removes lids from boiling water during the sterilization stage.
  • Measuring Stick – this tool serves two purposes. It removed air bubbles from the jars. The notched end with numbers measured headspace.

contents of a canning kit

Canning Pot – You don’t necessarily have to go out and buy something specila. Any stockpot deep enough to cover the jars with one inch of water will work.

Canning rack – a slightly raised platform that’s placed in the bottom of the canner to set the jars on during canning. It keeps the jars from being in direct contact with the heat of the stove. It also ensures that the boiling water comes in contact with every surface are of the jar.

Different Types of Canning Jars and When to Use Them

Sizes

Openings

  • Wide mouth – great for storing whole fruits and vegetables such as pickles.
  • Regular mouth – ideal for jams, jellies, salsas, sauces, pie fillings, diced fruits and vegetables.

Water Bath Canning: Basic Steps

Wash your jars in warm soap water. Adding hot food to a cold jar could cause it to crack, so be sure to keep the jars warm until you are ready to use.

four jars in soapy water

Fill jars with food. Cold pack canning is the process of filling jars with uncooked or raw foods. Warm liquid does need to be added to the jar before sealing to remove air and ensure a proper vacuum seal.

Hot pack canning is the process of filling jars with hot, cooked foot. Hot food prevents the formation of air bubbles and kills off bacteria.

pouring jam into a jar with the wide mouth funnel

Check headspace. Headspace is the amount of room in the jar between the top of the food and the bottom of the lid. Headspace allows for expansion. Too much headspace could affect the vacuum seal. Too little could cause the food to spill out and prevent a proper seal.

Headspace varies by the contents of the jars, so check your recipe or a reliable canning resource. Headspace is measured using the measuring stick that came with your canning kit. Simply place the corresponding notch with the correct measurement on the rim of the jar and fill the jar until it reaches the bottom of them measuring stick.

Wipe rims. Once the jars are filled, you’ll want to wipe any bits of food or spills off the rims with a damp rag. Not wiping the rims could prevent the lids from sealing.

wiping the edge of a jar clean

Santize your lids. Some people argue that you no longer need to sanitize the lids, that the canning process is enough. But, if you want to take the extra step, simply place the lids in a small saucepan, cover with water, and heat the water on low. Do not allow the water to come to a boil or you could activate the adhesive and the lid will be useless.

lifting a lid out of a pan of water

Place lid on top of each jar and secure with a ring. You don’t need to bear down on these rings with all your strength. Twist it just until it is finger tight.

Place the jars in the in pot on a canning rack. Fill the pot with enough water so that the tops of the jars are covered by one inch. Bring the water to a boil. Cover the pot with a lid and process your jars. Water bath canning times can vary, so always use a trusted recipe or canning resource guide.

ruler showing one inch of water over a jar

Tips to ensure your jars seal

Once the timer is up, remove the lid to the canner and let your lids sit in the pot for five minutes. Using your jar lifter, remove the jar from the pot and set on a towel on your counter or somewhere out of the way to cool.

lifting a jar out of a pot with a jar lifter

It can take up to 24 hours for jars to completely seal. Do not touch the jars in the meantime. Remove the rings before storing.

pressing the jar lid to see if it is sealed

How to store canned food and how long will canned food last

Canned food should be stored in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. Properly canned food will be safe to eat for years to come. However, after a year, taste and texture could diminish, so it’s recommended that you eat the food within 12 – 18 months.

My favorite canning resources

Water Bath Canning Recipes

4 Comments

  1. I’m very new to canning and found your information very simple to understand & very helpful. I’m about to try your dill pickle recipe. Thanks

  2. why does it say “remove rings before storing”?

    • It is recommended that you remove the rings that hold the lids in place before storing the sealed jars. Trapped moisture can cause rust. Also, if a jar becomes unsealed at some point, it may go unnoticed and the food will spoil.

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