Water-Bath Canning: Step-by-Step Beginner's Guide & Recipes | The Old Farmer's Almanac

Water-Bath Canning: Beginner's Guide


Water-bath canning is perfect for making jams, jellies and preserves!

Photo Credit
Megan Betteridge/Shutterstock.

Introduction to Water-Bath Canning at Home

Print Friendly and PDF

Water-bath canning—also called “boiling water bath”—is the easier method of canning that lets you store homemade jars of jam, pickles, and tomato sauce. By processing jars in boiling water at the end of the recipe, you lock in the fresh flavor for a full year. See our Beginner’s Guide to Water-Bath Canning—now with a step-by-step video so that you can see how it’s done!

Gardens and farmers’ markets are overflowing with vegetables and fruit in summer and fall. Water-Bath Canning is a terrific, cost-effective way lock in the freshness of produce to enjoy any time of year. 

Note: Sometimes Water-Bath Canning is called “Hot Water Canning” or “Boiling Water Bath.” It’s one of two methods of home canning (the other is pressure canning).

In a nutshell: At the end of your recipe, you are simply putting jars of prepared food in a big pot of boiling water for 10 minutes or more (based on the recipe’s instructions)—so that you can store the jars up to a year outside of the refrigerator. 

Skip straight to the short video (lower on this page) if you first wish to watch how it’s all done and then read through our step-by-step guide. 

Why Water-Bath Canning?

Water-bath canning is only for produce that is HIGH in acid. We’re talking about tomatoesberries, 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 although 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 temperature (240°F) to raise the heat inside the jars above the boiling point of water (212°F) and hot enough to kill harmful bacteria. Low-acid food requires Pressure Canning.

Image: Got fresh cucumbers! Pickling is perfect for water-bath canning. Credit: Zigzag Mountain Art/Shutterstock.

What Canning Supplies Do You Need?

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.

  • A boiling water canner is a large deep pot usually made of aluminum. They have fitted lids and are deep enough so that you can completely submerge the jars, leaving at least 1 inch above their tops. Flat bottoms are best (to work on all cooktops). You don’t have to have a boiling water canner, but any stockpot needs to work similarly.
  • Also, essential is a rack that fits inside the canner to keep your jars elevated above the direct heat at the bottom of the stockpot.  Don’t allow jars to sit directly on the bottom of your canner because they will crack from the heat.
  • Canning jars—usually by Mason, Ball or Kerr brands—come in many sizes, from four-ounce, to half-pints, pints, three-quarter quarts, and quarts, in both narrow- and wide-mouth versions. You can always reuse your jars. (Note :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.)
  • Clean, rust-free, 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.
  • 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 cooling and forming an airtight seal as the jars cool.  
  • A canning funnel. Ideally stainless steel or plastic, 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.
  • A jar lifter. These specialized tongs that 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, although 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 ladle them into the canning jars for processing in the canner. 

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 by boiling in water and then ladling a boiling-hot product into the jars, and sealing them by placing a lid and screw band on. Even if the jars seal well and hold their seal, their contents HAVE NOT been heated adequately to prevent bacteria, toxins, molds and yeast to grow when the jars are stored at room temperature.

Although some of the new multi-cookers come with a canning feature, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says research warns that ALL of these devices are NOT SAFE 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 and 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 under-processed 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 Guide

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

In advance: Have your supplies and produce on hand. All jars, lids, and bands should be clean, either washed in a dishwasher or washed in hot water with soap. Make sure your bands fit. Also, there shouldn’t be any nicks or cracks on the rim of the jars or the jar itself. Lids should be brand-new every time (as discussed above).

  1. Your jars need to be hot prior to filling them with hot ingredients and placing them in a hot canner. Put the clean jars in a separate large pot (not the canner), cover with water (fully immersed), and boil the water for 10 minutes. Note: The bands and lids do not need to be heated. Lids on the market today no longer need the seal to be heat-activated if they are new and clean.
  2. Separately, heat the water-bath canning pot. Fill half way-full with water. Turn on the heat and let the water simmer (180°F). If you have a jar rack, hang inside the canning pot. Keep the water simmering on your stovetop until Step 8, below, when you have filled each jar with the prepared food and put the jars immediately into the canner.
  3. Remove and dry the jars. Then, while they’re still heated, fill the jars with the prepared recipe. Use a wide-mouth funnel, ladle the food into the jar. Leave a ¼- or 1/2-inch headspace at top.
  4. Gently use a clean spatula or plastic canning wand by gently swirling along the inside of the jar to release trapped air bubbles.
  5. Wipe rims of jars with a clean, damp cloth and remove any food residue. Put the lid on each jar and then apply the band. Screw jar until finger-tight but not too tight. 
  6. Using the jar lifter, 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.
  7. Turn up the heat to get water in canner boil. Start timer when water starts boiling. Every recipe is different, but you’ll usually boil the filled jars about 10 minutes.
  8. Once finished, shut off heat and remove canner lid allowing steam to escape away from you. Let jars rest in canner for 5 to 10 minutes.
  9. Remove jars using the jar lifter from canner and stand on a towel or rack, not touching. As they cool, you should hear the jars “ping” which means the jars have properly sealed.
  10. Leave jars undisturbed for 12 to 24 hours to cool. DO NOT retighten bands, as this may interfere with the sealing process.
  11. After jars are completely cool, double check the seals. Unscrew bands and press down gently on the center of each lid. If you don’t feel any give, the jar has properly sealed. If lid springs back up, the lid didn’t seal. Put the jar in the fridge and eat within 2 weeks.

Store jars in a cool, dry, dark place for up to 1 year as recommended by National Center for Home Food Preservation. When you open the jars: If anything looks or smells odd or lid is broken, do not eat. 

Video of Canning Process

It is very help to watch a video to see the full canning process, step by step. Watch how to sterilize jars, create the perfect seal, store your delicious canned creations safely, and what to do if your jars fail to seal properly.

Water-Bath Canning Recipes

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

For more canning information, consult the USDA’s Complete Guide to Home Canning.

This Canning Guide was updated and fact-checked as of July 2020, by Christina Ferroli, PhD, RDN, FAND.  If interested in nutrition counseling and education practice to make healthier choices—or, simply stay up-to-date on the latest food, nutrition, and health topics—visit Christina’s Facebook page here.

2023 Almanac Club