Water-Bath Canning: Beginner's Guide and Recipes

An Introduction to Water-Bath Canning at Home

June 19, 2020
Canning Tomatoes
Ortodox/Shutterstock

Gardens, farmers’ markets, and farm stands are overflowing with vegetables and fruit! We’ll show you an easy home canning method that simply uses boiling water to heat and seal jars of food. Here are the basics of water bath canning, a step-by-step guide on how to can, and recipes. You’ll capture and share the best of summer in a jar–and you’ll save the flavors long after the growing season is over.

Canning is a great way to share your special recipes, save money, and enjoy summer and fall foods even in the dead of winter. If you’re among the folks recently struck by the home canning bug, I recommend starting with water-bath canning, as it’s not as big of an investment.

What is Water-Bath Canning?

That being said, water-bath canning is only for produce that is HIGH in acid. We’re talking about most tomatoes, berries, fruit, sauerkraut, and pickled vegetables. This means water-bath canning is for making jams, jellies, and pickled veggies. Their natural acidity—in addition to time in a boiling water bath—helps preserve them safely without the use of high pressure (though you’ll still need to take some precautions).

Water-bath canning is NOT for meats, seafood, poultry, chili and beans, corn, and other low-acid vegetables that require a higher tempearture to raise the heat inside the jars above boiling, enough to kill harmful bacteria. Low-acid food require Pressure Canning.

If you’re starting out, you’ll need to assemble some gear. Although you can cut expenses in some ways, food-safety concerns should dictate all of your choices. 

Canning Supplies

  • A large deep saucepot with a flat bottom and a lid or a water-bath canner (also called a “boiling water canner,” and essentially a very large stockpot), ideally with a domed lid and a rack to hold the canning jars off the bottom. The canner should be deep enough to submerge your filled jars at least an inch above their tops. 
    • Also, essential is a rack** that fits inside the canner to keep your jars elevated above the direct heat at the bottom of the kettle.  Don’t allow jars to sit directly on the bottom of your canner, lest they crack from the heat.
  • Canning jars, lids, and bands: You can reuse clean jars and bands, but lids are one-time only and you do need to buy new kids each year.
    • Canning jars come in many sizes, from four-ounce jelly/baby-food jars, to half-pints, pints, three-quarter quarts, and quarts, in both narrow- and wide-mouth versions. Even if you have access to hundreds of ornamental glass storage jars, recycled pickle and mayonnaise, or the old-fashioned canning jars with wire bails and glass lids that sealed with jar rubbers, do NOT use them for canning. You can reuse your jars.
    • Single-use metal canning lids that fit your jars. You must use brand-new lids every time you process food. These lids are designed with an inner gasket that softens during processing (heating in the canner), allowing air to escape from the jar during heating, then forming an airtight seal as the jars cool.  
    • Clean, unrusted, undented metal bands that fit your jars. These screw onto the threaded rims of the jars, holding the lids in place until the products are processed. sealed, and cooled. You can reuse your bands if they aren’t dented or damaged.
  • A canning funnel. Ideally stainless steel, this wide-mouthed funnel keeps food from spilling onto the rim of the jar while you’re filling it. 
     
  • A stainless steel ladle. You may already have a nice soup ladle that will work well for filling canning jars, but if you’re buying a new one, go for a long-handled model with a pouring spout or rim.
     
  • Jar lifter tongs. These specialized tongs fit around the base of the canning-jar rims to safely grasp and lift hot jars straight up and out of the canner after processing, or to lower them into a canner of boiling water.
     
  • A food mill or strainer. There are many styles and sizes of these devices, designed for mashing soft, cooked foods, and sieving them to remove skins and seeds from the pulp. I’m still using an old hand-cranked Foley Food Mill inherited from my mom, though I also have a modern, heavy-duty food mill that clamps to the countertop and that came with several different-sized screens. I rarely pull it out; in the flurry of summer gardening, harvesting, and preserving, it takes too long to assemble and clean. The old Foley hangs from a hook, ready to go. Plus, it’s reliable (though it takes a little muscle power) and easy to clean.
     
  • A stainless-steel stockpot large enough to hold and cook a big batch of tomatoes, berries, or other products before you funnel them into the canning jars for processing in the canner. 

**About those canner racks: Most canning racks have handles that pull up and hang over the rim of the canner, allowing you to lower or raise the entire rack out of the pot. These handles work well for the smaller canners that hold three or four quart jars, but I’ve learned that wrangling them into or out of a larger seven-to-nine-quart canner can be clumsy and downright dangerous.

They’re generally too hot to handle without pot holders, especially when the rack is full of quart jars of, say, just-processed tomato sauce. It’s heavy! You’ll grab one handle, but the other will slip away, or you’ll get one handle up over the rim of the kettle, but miss the other. This tilts the rack, along with the jars, which sometimes slide sideways into the hot water, allowing the product to leak from one or more lids and prevent them from sealing. Full, boiling-hot jars are difficult to extricate when they’re lying on their sides in a foot of hot water.

If you can find handle-less racks to fit your canner, go for it! I simply ignore the handles except for loading and lowering the rack into the hot water when I’m processing pints. I just use the canning tongs to grab each jar and set it into the rack before processing, or lift it straight up and onto a thick kitchen towel to cool after processing.

Use The Right Cooking Surface 

Do your water-bath canning on an electric or gas stovetop. No matter what you’ve heard or how cool it sounds, it’s not safe to can in an oven, microwave, or dishwasher. It’s also not safe to can tomatoes and fruit products by simply sterilizing the jars and lids, funneling a boiling-hot product into the jars, and sealing them up. Even if the jars seal well and hold their seal, their contents may not have been heated adequately to prevent microbial growth.

Although some of the new multi-cookers come with a canning feature, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says research hasn’t yet determined the safety of these devices for home canning, even for high-acid foods.

Smooth glass stovetops pose another concern for home canners. Some styles of water-bath canners have indented bottoms that prevent heat from the glass top from being adequately distributed during processing. So much of the heat may be reflected from the canner back to the glass, causing the glass to overheat. This may cause the glass to crack, or activate the burner’s shut-off feature, resulting in an underprocessed canner-load.

If you have a smooth, glass cooking surface, the USDA says your best bet is to follow your stove manufacturer’s advice, “because styles of smooth cooktops being manufactured differ in ways that influence suitability for canning.” 

Water-Bath Canning Step-by-Step

Here’s the step-by-step process for canning produce using a water bath. Follow the steps precisely!

  1. Get ready: Have your supplies and prepared food on hand. Ensure all canning jars are clean and sterile. (Wash in hot, soapy water and rinse; air dry.) Make sure all jars, lids, and bands fit. There shouldn’t be any nicks on the jars.
  2. The first step is to sterilize your clean jars and lids. Put the jars in a separate large pot, cover with water (fully immersed), and boil the water for ten minutes. In a separate bowl, soak clean lids in very hot but not boilding water for ten minute to soften the rubber seal. You can just boil water in a kettle and pour over the lids. Leave lids in the warm water. The bands are new, so are already sterile.
  3. Separately, heat the water bath. Fill canning pot half way with water. Turn on the heat and let the water simmer (180°F). Hang jar rack inside canning pot. Keep the water simmering on your stovetop until Step 6, below, when you have filled each jar with the prepared food and put the jars in the canner.
  4. Remove and dry the jars. Then, while they’re still heated, fill the jars with the prepared recipe. Use a wide-mouth funnel and ladle the food into the jar. Leave a ¼-inch headspace at top.
  5. Gently use a clean spatula to poke around the inside of the jar to release trapped air bubbles.
  6. Wipe rims of jars with a clean, damp cloth and remove any food residue.
  7. Put the lid on each jar and then apply the band. Screw jar closed but not too tight.
  8. Put sealed jars in the canner on the rack. Don’t allow the jars to touch each other. Jars must be covered by water—about 1 to 2 inches of water. Add more hot water from a separate kettle if needed.
  9. Turn water to boil. Start timer when water starts boiling. Every recipe is different, but you’ll usually boil the filled jars about 10 minutes.
  10. Once finished, shut off heat and remove canner lid. Let jars rest in canner for 5 minutes.
  11. Remove jars from canner to stand on a towel or rack, not touching. As they cool, you should hear the jars “ping,” which means the jars are properly sealed.
  12. Leave jars undisturbed for 12 to 24 hours to cool. DO NOT retighten bands, as this may interfere with the sealing process.
  13. After jars are complete cool, double check the seals. Unscrew bands and press down on center of lid. If you don’t feel any give, lid is properly sealed. If lid springs back up, the lid didn’t seal. Put the jar in the fridge and eat within 2 weeks.
  14. Store jars in a cool, dry, dark place for up to 1 year (as recommended by National Center for Home Food Preservation).
  15. When you open the jars: If anything looks or smells odd or lid is broken, do not eat. 

Water-Bath Canning Recipes

Now that you’ve got the supplies and knowledge you need to get started, check out some recipes!

Questions? For comprehensive, scientifically-tested recipes and advice, consult the USDA’s free, online Complete Guide to Home Canning.

About This Blog

"Living Naturally" is all about living a naturally healthy lifestyle. Margaret Boyles covers health tips, ways to avoid illness, natural remedies, food that's good for body and soul, recipes for homemade beauty products, ideas to make your home a healthy and safe haven, and the latest news on health. Our goal is also to encourage self-sufficiency, whether it's relearning some age-old skills or getting informed on modern improvements that help us live better, healthier lives.