I love preserving food. There is something SO satisfying about being able to look into your cabinet and seeing fresh food from seasons ago ready to eat! I dehydrate and pickle things *a lot* because its quick and easy, but one of my favorite ways to preserve food is through water bath canning. It makes me so happy to have a messy kitchen, filled to the brim with jars and produce, and fresh lids smelling of the garden and steam! Canning seems to be super nerve wracking for newbies, but I promise it really isn’t hard! So if you’re a first time canner or just looking to brush up on your skills read on! Water Bath Canning 101.
I know looking at pictures of aesthetically stacked jars in vibrant colors in a perfect looking kitchen can be intimidating- but don’t worry my kitchen while canning is just as messy as yours will be! My mom always laughs at what a wreck the kitchen is after I’m in there for hours- but in my case, messy space happy me! Messiness aside, I’ll go ahead and take you step by step when it comes to water bath canning. I’ll start with what it is and how it works, followed by what you’ll need, and finally the process itself!
Water Bath Canning: What It is and How It Works
The most commonly asked question about canning is how it actually preserves food. When you dehydrate something the moisture is removed to you know there is no way that mold can form- but what does that in canning while the food still retains its moisture content? It is all about pH! pH- potential of hydrogen- is essentially just a measure of acidic or basic a food is. Acidity is great for canning because it creates an environment that doesn’t allow for the growth of bacteria- bacteria is what causes food to rot! So when it comes to canning you’re looking for a pH level of 4.6pH or lower (more acidic) in order to can food using the water bath method. Higher than that you can use the pressure cooking method with some recipes, but I don’t use a pressure cooker!
So, we know we need at pH of 4.6 or lower- how do we make that happen? The great thing is that any published recipe that says you can use the water bath method from a reputable source is already going to have those numbers! Books like my three favorites, Put Em Up, Preservation Society, and The Art of Preserving, all have wonderful recipes that the acid levels are great in. Or you can look to someone who has been preserving for years and has the ability to test their own tried and true recipes raises hand! But if you are new to canning, please don’t deviate from recipes- it is VERY easy to change the pH of a recipe, even just with spices!
How Can Food Become Acidic
- Some foods are already acidic like berries which is why jam is SUCH a great first foray into canning!
- You can create acidity by fermenting foods. When you ferment foods in a salt brine you create lactic acid!
- You can also add acidity from the addition of certain foods, like citrus in some recipes!
So we know canning is all based on acidity and you should look for recipes that are tried, true, and tested, what next?
Water Bath Canning Equipment
One of the great things about water bath canning is that you usually can use what you already have on hand! Even many of the fancy ‘tools’ you can purchase you can make from items in your kitchen.
- Large, thick bottomed pot (I have a specific canning one I love)
- A Canning Rack or enough extra canning rings to line your pot’s bottom
- Sterilized Glass Canning Jars, Rings, and Lids
- Set of Canning Tools. Jar tongs, magnetic wand, and canning funnel.
You can make do without a set of canning tools, but you can find really inexpensive ones and it is definitely worth the investment!
Step By Step: The Water Bath Canning Method
So you’re ready to go, your canning recipe is made and your food is still hot. What’s next? We need to prep your jars and then process you food!
Now some people skip this step when they have a brand new set of jars, but I like to sterilize my jars whether or not they are new. It seems silly not to as you want to make sure that you ALWAYS put hot food into hot jars- putting your hot recipe into cold jars can actually cause them to shatter, as with any glass cookware! So let’s go ahead and sanitize.
If you are using new jars remove the lids and rings. Then we’ll prep our canning pot. If you are using a canning rack (they make life easier!) place it in your pot or use some extra canning rings and line the bottom of your pot. Fill each canning jar you’re sanitizing with water and then arrange them in your pot as tightly as possible, but still allowing a small amount of room to move. Then fill the entire pot, jars and all, with water until the water is covering the jars. Pop on the lid, let it come to a boil and boil the jars for at least ten minutes. This has the added benefit of heating up the water so your processing time later won’t take as long to heat up!
You can NEVER reuse canning lids as the seal isn’t able to be reused so use a new lid for each jar each time. You can purchase these in their own box or you can use ones that come in your new canning jars. To keep these sterile I like to put them seal-side down in a clean bowl for easy access later.
Packing Your Canning Jars
It is time to put your food in jars! Before you start plopping in food willy-nilly, every canning recipe is going to give you a measurement called ‘head space.’ Head space in canning is the amount of space needed between the food in a jar and the lid- you want to make sure that the food you’re canning doesn’t touch the jar lid when you are processing it. One of the best things about a canning funnel is that there are measurements on the funnel, so when you put the funnel on a jar you can see exactly how much headspace there is. Each recipe is going to be different, usually 1/4 or 1/2 of an inch of headspace, but pay attention to that as you pack!
To pack my jars I lay a kitchen towel on the counter and then use my canning tongs to carefully remove my jars from the pot and pour the water out. Place them hot, with some space in between on your towel. And then, working one at a time, fill your jar to the headspace required with your food. If you notice any bubbles you can use a chopstick or the wand half of your magnetic canning wand to remove them. Then wipe the rim of the jar clean with a clean towel, and then use either your fingers or a magnetic canning wand to carefully pick up a new canning lid, without touching the underside, and place it on the jar. Secure this in place with a canning ring, just finger- tightening it to make sure the lid and seal won’t move! Do this with each jar and then using your tongs, fill your canning pot with your filled jars.
Water Bath Canning Processing
Your jars are packed and placed in your canning pot! If you are using a canning rack, release it to the bottom of your pot now. Then fill your canning pot with water so you have at least 3 inches of water over your submerged jars. Put the lid on your pot and then bring the water to a boil and then start your timer once the water has come to a rolling boil! The processing time that is listed in your canning recipe doesn’t start until the water has come to a boil.
Process the jars for the amount of time listed in your recipe and then once that timer ends turn off the heat and let the jars rest in the water as the boiling comes down. Let rest for at least five minutes. And then using your canning tongs, carefully move the jars, pulling them straight up and NOT tipping the water off of them (to prevent seals from breaking!) and place them on a towel somewhere where they will not be disturbed for 24 hours. As your jars seal (sometimes this has already happened in the actual water) their seal with bond with the rim of the jar and cause the center button to indent. If you can press the small circle at the center of the lid after 24 hours and it pops back up, your seal has failed. It is SUPER satisfying to hear the little ‘pop pop pops’ as your jars seal themselves!
Water Bath Canning Storage and Use
And that is it! Once your jars sit for 24 hours and you check to make sure that your seals are secure you can store them in a cool, dark place for as long as your jars tell you- usually 12 or 18 months! You can stack your jars with or without the canning rings- I like keeping them on because they keep jars from sliding, but once the seals are set they won’t pop open in storage.
When you are ready to use something you canned, use a butter knife under the rim of your can and pry open the seal! Use what you’d like and store in the fridge! It really is that simple. The process can take a while if you are processing a large amount of produce, but when you have fresh tomatoes in the middle of winter you’ll be glad you did!
Please follow canning instructions and recipes exactly to keep you safe. Some links are affiliate links. All opinions are my own.