Waterbath canning is a method of food preservation that was invented in early 1800. Quickly adopted by both urban and rural housewives, it became an important part of winter food storage.
Home canning, like many traditional skills, has experienced “ebb and flow.” After being left behind by the majority of Baby Boomers, this practice has returned vigor as food sensitivities, allergies and sickness began surfacing in many households.
Folks are questioning our modern food system. As answers are unearthed, many return to growing and preserving food at home. Waterbath canning just happens to be one of the popular options!
Simple, easy to learn and...the best part is you don’t have to be a farmer’s wife (thank goodness!) to put food by in this manner!
Straightforward, well researched and tested, you’ll love it once you get started! Here are the essentials you need to know for safety!
Essential #1: Botulism and pH Levels
A common fear for those who practice home canning is a bad case of food poisoning and specifically, botulism. This neurotoxin is flavorless and scentless, making it impossible to detect. A byproduct produced by this bacteria will cause extreme sickness and in some rare cases, even death.
Interestingly enough, these spores are harmless until confined to an anaerobic (oxygen free) environment.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what waterbath canning offers. Food is made shelf stable by the removal of oxygen during a water-bathing process.
Today, there are two tested and proven ways to kill botulism.
Botulism cannot live in an acidic environment. According to government funded testing, food with an acidity of 4.6 pH and higher is safe when heated to the temperature of boiling water (212F or 100C). Note: this applies to moist heat only.
Processing times vary according to elevation, food type and density.
Foods that are below 4.6 on the pH scale must be reserved for the pressure canner or freezer.
In spite of the possibilities, don’t let botulism scare you! Home canning has been so well tested and researched that if you follow the rules, your food will be safe!
Safety Tip #2: Choosing the Right Foods
To date, there is no reliable household method for testing the pH of foodstuff. Don’t let this worry you! The National Center of Home Food Preservation tells us all we need to know!
Fruits are a popular choice when it comes to waterbath canning. Almost all have a higher pH than the necessary 4.6. Those that do not are bananas, figs, papayas and melons. If you are convinced these foods should be put up, choose the dehydrator or freezer.
The first step I’d recommend for newbies?
Do you remember grandma’s golden peaches, drowned in a sweet, sticky juice? Fruit can be safely (and easily) preserved in a syrup of sugar (or honey), water and spices! Apricots, pears, peaches, plums, berries and even apples are delicious when put by in this manner!
Fruit filled jams, jellies, sauces, chutneys, cordials, juices (etc) also fall in the “safety” zone.
Pickled vegetables, such as asparagus, beans, beets, carrots, cucumbers and garlic/scapes are also safe when the proper ratio of vinegar-to-water is used.
Tomatoes and tomato-based goods are so close to 4.6, they may be safely waterbath canned with the addition of vinegar, bottled lemon juice or citric acid.
Safety Tip #3: Follow Tested and Approved Recipes
If you are new to waterbath canning, be sure to follow tested and approved recipes! This is important! Without the ability to accurately calculate pH levels in our homes, we are entirely reliant on government testing.
Important note: just because a recipe is posted online doesn’t mean it’s SAFE. Until you understand the science behind waterbath canning and processing various foods, stick to reliable websites and approved recipes.
As you progress and learn about processing times, acidity levels and safety procedures, you will be able to tailor recipes to your own particular taste. Before doing so, you need to know your stuff! That’s another blog post for another day!
To get you started, here are a few reliable website that put safety first:
The National Center for Home Food Preservation is a great place to begin.
Sharon, of Simply Canning is another wonderful resource and even offers video tutorials and classes.
The Canning Diva offers loads of recipes that will keep you busy all year long!
Safety Tip #4: Recommend Processing Times
When canning, its important to process (waterbath) prepared and jarred food for the amount of time required in your specific recipe.
We want to kill all the bad stuff, right?! Processing times have also been tested and vary based on (a. the pH of foodstuff, (b. thickness of goods, (c. size of jars, (d. your altitude.
Safety Tip #5: Adjusting According to Altitude
Altitude plays a part in how long your food must be processed. Use google to discover your home’s specific elevation. Adjust recipes according to this chart.
Note: unless specified otherwise, most tested recipes give processing times for sea level altitude (under 1,000 ft in elevation). You are expected to know your own elevation and increase time accordingly.
Safety Tip #6: Follow the Packing Method
There are two ways to fill (or pack) your jars: the hot or cold (raw) method. Recipes will usually specify one or the other. If both are given, it’s your choice!
Hot packing is common with jams, jellies, sauces and preserves. Simply put, this means your delicious homemade food should be piping-hot when its ladled into the jar!
Cold (or raw) pack methods are common for fruits preserved in syrup and (most) pickled vegetables. Cool, clean, raw produce is packed into the jar and topped by a boiling hot syrup or brine.
Packing methods also have to do with the quality of the finished product. You can hot pack dill pickles, but the results will be mushy and hardly desirable!
Sometimes, these methods have to do with sensibility and safety. Attempt to cold pack applesauce. With 7 jars of cool thickness the canner, you’ll have to wait…and wait…and wait! for the water to boil. When it does, you cannot be 100% certain that the contents in the very center of each jar have reached bacteria-killing temperatures! Suddenly, it becomes an issue of safety.
So again I say: follow tested and approved recipe!
The Process of Waterbath Canning
Preserving food via the waterbath looks complicated when laid out step by step. Don’t be intimidated! Most of it is common sense. After a few attempts, it becomes second nature and you won’t have to follow a checklist.
Until then, you can download and print this handy Waterbath Canning Guide. Keep it in a cookbook or tape it to the inside of a cupboard until you can preserve food with your eyes closed.
Err…kidding! Please don’t!
Waterbath Canning Supplies
Before you jump into home canning, you should read the post Introduction to Home Canning & Equipment. There, you’ll find photographs and a list of the essentials.
However obvious this may seem, it is a necessary step in the process! Jars can be washed by hand or put through the dishwasher.
Recent testing revealed that jars and lids do not need to be sterilized if goods are water-bathed for 10 minutes or more.
Unless you live at low elevation, it’s unlikely you’ll find recipes that call for less than 10 minutes of processing time. Even if you live at to sea level, I think its worth tacking on a few extra minutes to avoid the sterilization process. But that’s just me!
Add Water to the Canner
Fill your waterbath canner half-way with water. Tip: use already-hot water from the tap to speed the process! Set your canner on a burner and apply heat. If water boils, turn it down to medium-high. It should be hot before jars of food are added!
Heat Your Lids
Before you begin filling jars with food, tin canning lids should be placed in a small pot. Cover with water, then warm on your stove top. Note: a crockpot can also be used for this purpose.
Prep Your Produce
Making jam, sauce, jellies or preserves? Safe recipes will required a pre-heating/cooking and (likely) the addition of sugar, spices or pectin.
If a brine or syrup is required, be sure to prepare and boil it for 10 minutes. Do this before you begin filling jars with produce.
Tested and approved recipes will guide you through the process, step by step. Follow their instructions and you’ll do just fine!
An absolute must?! Remember to stop and breathe! Take a moment enjoy the work, whether peeling apples, dicing peaches, scrubbing cucumbers or mashing berries. Home canning should be fun!
Filling Your Jars: Hot Packing
Jams, jellies, sauces and salsas (any thick substance) must be hot packed. But wait!
Glass expands with heat and contracts with cold. Pouring hot food into a room temperature jar will enlarge the bottom. Because the top is cool, there will be a variance in the glass wall which it may not withstand. Often, the jar will crack. Hot foodstuff will leak out everywhere.
Please. Don’t ask me how I know!
If you want to avoid all this, you must pre-heat the jars! Oven-heating (or any form of dry heat) is no longer recommended. The process should involve moisture. Here’s a wonderful article that explains it all!
Hot Packing Tips: Here’s a few (safe) method to keep your jars toasty:
- Put jars through your dishwasher’s hot “rinse” cycle and leave the door closed until ready for use
- Submerge jars in a sink with hot water (my favorite)
- Place jars upside down in canner as it heats up.
Remember: jars are hot! Oven mitts are a wonderful thing!
Filling Your Jars: Cold Packing
Cold packing is commonly used for produce that should maintain its shape and texture. Like cucumbers for pickling. Or peach halves. Jars are “packed” with these goods and a hot, prepared syrup (or brine) is poured over.
Once again, we face the dilemma: glass will expand when hot liquid hits it! You can prep the food and brine, then pull hot jars from the dishwasher and fly at it! If you desire a less stressful option, I’ve outlined two for you below:
- Place packed jars on rack over your canner of hot water, allowing steam to warm the glass before adding liquid
- Put 1 inch of medium-hot water in the sink and set packed jars in it
When adding hot liquid to packed jars, it’s important to pour slowly! First time ’round, add no more than 1 inch of hot brine. Be sure to pour directly over the produce so liquid has opportunity to (slightly) cool before it hits the glass. Fill each one with this minimal amount. Second time, fill halfway and the last time, top off jars, leaving adequate head space. Unless jar are hot (as with dishwasher method) pour slowly!
I know. What-in-mason-jars is head space? Simply put, this is the distance between goods (or hot liquid) and the jar’s rim. Thicker products usually require less “head space,” while foodstuff with syrup or brine may require up to 1 inch.
Approved recipes will give directions for even this! Should your jar be too full, goods may bubble over, affecting the lid’s seal.
Releasing Bubbles (for Cold Packing)
When hot liquid is poured over cold packed produce, there will be air pockets. After the proper head space has been accomplished, take a clean butter knife or Popsicle stick and gently push it down along each of the four glass walls. This will release the air pockets.
Once accomplished, re-adjust head space to the proper point.
Should you fail to release air pockets, they will surface during the waterbath process. Head space will drop, exposing food. Brown peaches aren’t exactly…appealing.
As soon as your jars are filled and bubbles released, rims must be cleared of foodstuff or grit with a damp, clean cloth. The tiniest speck will prevent a seal from forming.
Once accomplished, hot lids can be added and tightened down with a metal band
Tightening the Band
Tighten your band just past the tension point, using fingertips only. No palm grabbing! You can read up on the significance of proper tightness here!
A tighter lid doesn’t ensure a better seal. During the canning process, oxygen needs to be pushed out. This happens (you got it!) via the seal.
Processing the Food
Your waterbath canner should come with a wire rack. Set prepared jars on this rack and lower it into the water. Tops should be covered by at least 1 inch. Add more water if needed. Put the canner’s lid in place and crank up the heat!
Both the water and the food inside your jars must reach a boiling temperature. When (and only when) the water has reached a rolling boil should you start a timer. The exact amount of minutes will be given in the recipe’s instructions. Remember to adjust for altitude, if needed!
Leave the canner undisturbed until the timer has completed its cycle.
Note: if water is boiling too vigorously and splashing out of the pot, you can adjust the heat, decreasing 1-2 notches. Should it drop below boiling, restart the timer.
Removing Food from the Canner
After the required time has completed it’s course, turn off the burner and prepare your counter top. Hot jars may leave marks on wood surfaces! Place them on sturdy cooling rack or a cutting board.
If you have granite or tile counters, be sure to place hot jars on a folded tea towel or they may crack due to change in temperature.
Take a lifter and gently transfer jars to a prepared space. Avoid bumping glass sides together or they may shatter. Leave them undisturbed until cool. You may hear a “ping” as each jar seals!
Go ahead! Do a happy dance!
Seal Check and Storage
Give your jars 24 hours to cool. Before storing away on a solid, secure surface, you should check the seal on every one. For those that seal, lids will be slightly concave. They will not yield to pressure. However, if the tin lid has “give,” it has not sealed. Goods should be refrigerated and used soon.
Before you stash the jars in a cupboard, metal bands should be removed. If left on, they will rust, making next year’s canning more difficult!
How Long Will My Good Store?
Canned food, if sealed, will store up to 5 years. Goods will deplete in nutritional content during this time. Most home canners use their supply in 1-2 years.
Remember: it seems intimidating when laid out, step by step in a long blog post! Don’t forget to download your Waterbath Canning Guide to simplify the process!