Water Bath Canning Basics w/ Free Printable Guide

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When people hear the word “canning” they instantly begin to worry.  I know I didn’t try it for years because it seemed so intimidating.  But water bath canning really isn’t that difficult to master.  All you need is the right tools and a little bit of preparation. Most people have many of the tools needed to do water bath canning already.  Trust me, if I can do it, so can you.

The first thing you need to know is that there are foods that are safe to water bath can, and there are foods that are not.  Also, there are foods that should never be canned at all.  Like cake.  Yes people really have attempted this!  Only high acid foods can be safely water bath canned. Everything else that can be safely canned will need a pressure canner.  Pressure canning is a topic for a different day.  The following foods can be safely water bath canned:

Safe & Unsafe Foods to Water Bath Can

Safe to Water Bath Can
  • High Acid Foods
  • Most fruits
  • Tomatoes
  • Salsa
  • Pickles
  • Relishes
  • Chutney
  • Pie Filling
  • Fruit Sauces
Unsafe to Water Bath Can
  • Low Acid Foods
  • Meat
  • Seafood
  • Vegetables (except for tomatoes and pickled foods)
  • Soups/Stews/Stock
  • Meat sauces
  • Grandma’s Random Recipe

 

If you have never done any canning before I highly encourage you to go to the National Center for Home Canning Food Preservation (NCHCFP) website at: www.nchfp.uga.edu.  I’m a home cook.  These guys are the professionals.  They have so much information on canning.  It’s well worth taking a look.

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Tools for Canning

There are many different tools all over the internet for canning.  Some of them are necessary, some are splurges and some you could really do without.  While the $400 pressure canner is nice, you don’t need it right now.  Today we are only going to discuss the items that you really need to begin water bath canning.

You will need:

Large Stock Pot with a lid or water bath canning pot (at least double the height of your largest canning jar)

Canning rack that fits inside the bottom of your pot (I use a circular stainless steel cookie rack)

A small pot

A Kitchen Scale

Funnel that fits both a standard and wide mouth jar

Canning tongs (AKA a Jar Lifter)

Chopstick or Bubble popper tool (many have headspace measurers on them)

Headspace measuring tool or ruler

Magnetic lid lifter

White Vinegar

Mason jars (new jars are easier for first time canners as are the wide mouth version)

Paper towels or very clean cotton towels

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Stainless Steel Utensils

This is not a must but I definitely feel it’s worth mentioning.  When I first started out I purchased a standard canning kit.  Almost all of the parts were plastic.  What I didn’t know was that most of them were not heatproof.  Many of the parts ended up going bad or melting.  Some of the melted pieces even ended up getting sealed into my jam (seriously!).  Since the plastic jam incident, I replaced most of my canning hardware with stainless steel versions.  Yes it’s a little more expensive.  Yes, it’s worth it.  I’m pretty sure my funnel will outlive me and I won’t be feeding my friends plastic.  They don’t know it, but they’re thanking me for it.  As an added bonus, I can sanitize the daylights out of it.  If you can’t afford the nicer hardware or you just aren’t sure if you want to commit to canning, then purchase the starter set.  Just make sure you wash it well and don’t leave it in boiling water for too long. 

Sanitization

The most important thing you can do when canning is to sanitize your work area.  Take the time to make sure your workstation is clean and neat.  Set up a simple area that has everything you need.  The last thing you want to do is stop in the middle of jam making to search for your canning funnel.  Yes I have done it and it causes unneeded stress.  Pull everything out and have your work station ready.  Once your work station is clean you need to make sure anything you are using is clean and/or sterilized as well.  These include your canning funnels and labels.

Next you want to sterilize your canning jars.  The nice thing about purchasing new jars is that they come pre-sterilized.  So all you need to do to clean them is wash them in warm, soapy water and they are good to go.  Also, per the NCHCFP you do not need to sterilize canning jars that will be canned for longer than 10 minutes.

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How to do it

1) Take your large stock pot and fill it with water.  Fill the pot at least to where the jars will sit.  Add your rack and two tablespoons of white vinegar.  The vinegar keeps the minerals in the water from sticking to your jars and pots.  Unless you plan on using distilled water you will end up with ugly, spotted jars you just have to clean later.  It’s my favorite trick to keeping my jars spotless.  

2) Put your canning jars in the large pot before you turn on the stove.  Never put cold jars into hot water or you risk cracking and breaking them.  If you will be doing multiple canning batches, run the second batch of jars under warm water just before putting them in your canner.  This will help keep them from being too cold when you put them in.  Turn the stove on and bring to a boil with the lid on.  Once you hit a boil, turn the stove down until you are ready to use.  If you are sanitizing jars, you will need to do that first before turning down the stove.

3) Fill a second smaller pot with water and a splash of vinegar.  Set on high to boil.  This will be your pot for your lid rings to go in as well as any other tools that need to be sanitized.  Boil for 10 minutes to sterilize.  Then turn down to warm.  Just let them sit in the water until you are ready to use them.  Again you want everything to be about the same temperature. 

A small cooking pot filled with canning tools. Someone is pouring white vinegar into it.

4) Once your food is ready to be canned, take your tongs and carefully remove one jar from your water bath canner and place it near your cooking pot.  When removing the jar from the pot there will be boiling water inside the jar.  Carefully turn the jar on its side and let the boiling water pour back out into the pot.  Then you will need your canning funnel.  Place it on the empty jar to be filled and carefully ladle in your food.  Each recipe will require the jar to be left with a certain amount of headspace.  This is the room at the top of the jar.  Make sure to follow the recipe instructions on headspace.  It’s important.

A small mason jar with a canning funnel on top is filled with jam. A mason jar sits on top.

5) Remove any air bubbles before you check for the proper headspace by using a chopstick or a bubble tool and sticking it in the jar all the way to the bottom.  I do this a few times in each jar depending on the thickness of the food to make sure it sinks properly.  Bubbles left in the jar lead to exploding food out of the jar.  You will end up with jam leaking out all over the place.  It ruins your seals as well.

A canning funnel sits on top of a mason jar filled with jam. A chopstick is inside the funnel

6) Now use the head space tool or a ruler to measure from the top of the jar to the top of your food.  This is your headspace.  Adjust the amount of food in your jar up or down so that the proper headspace is achieved. 

A small jar of jam is being measured with a canning headspace tool.

7) Once that is done take a gently moistened paper towel or damp cloth towel and wipe the top of your jar.  Make sure any excess food is removed as it can prevent a proper seal from forming.

A person is wiping down a canning jar filled with jam with a damp paper towel

8) Take your magnetic lid lifter and pick up a mason jar lid with it.  Place it over your jar checking that it fits properly.  

A canning lid is being placed on a mason jar with a magnetic lifting tool.

9) Then, take you magnetic lid lifter and pick up a lid ring to place it on the jar.  Once you have it on rotate the ring clockwise using just the tips of your fingers to tighten.  You want this to be “finger tight”.  No more, no less.  When the jars are in the canner, gas needs to be able to escape your jars.  If you over tighten then you won’t be able to do this.  If you under tighten you will risk your food escaping.  But, if you don’t get it right on the first try don’t stress.  I’ve messed it up too.

A canning ring is being placed on a mason jar with a magnetic lifter.

A person is using two finger to tighten the canning ring on a mason jar. This demonstrates the “finger tight” method.

10) Once the jars are sealed you will use your canning tongs to place your jar in the hot water on top of your canning rack.  Repeat steps 4-9 until your pot is full.  When placing your jars in the canner you need to make sure to leave space between the jars.  This will allow the boiling water to circulate around your jars.  It will also keep the jars from being so tight they risk breaking from banging together.  

A set of canning tongs is being used on a mason jar to lift it into the canner.

11) After filling the water bath canner with jars, make sure your water covers at least one to two inches above the jars.  If it doesn’t you will need to add water.  Turn your stove up to high until you get a full rolling boil and then place the lid on.  Start your time once the water is fully boiling and allow it to remain boiling until your processing time is done.

Seven filled mason jars are inside a large water bath canning pot of boiling water.

12) Once your processing time is done, turn the stove off and allow the jars to cool down for 5 minutes before trying to retrieve them from the water.

13) Remove the jars using your canning tongs.  Remove each jar straight up vertically out of the water.  Try not to let the jars tip too much.  The seals will be soft and too much movement can loosen them.  There may be a little water on the tops of the jars.  It’s totally fine.  If there is a lot you can lean the jar slightly to get rid of most of the excess.  Place each jar on a clean towel to cool.  Don’t try to remove the rings until the jars have cooled.  As they cool they will loosen up and come off easily.  If you remove them early, you risk damaging the seal on your jars.

Storage

Once the jars have cooled you will need to take off the rings for storage.  Do not leave them on.  Leaving rings on during storage can cause seal issues as well as rust.  Also, make sure when you store your jars that nothing gets stacked on top of them.  Only one layer of jars please.  Putting jars on top of jars puts you at risk for seal failure and botulism.  

Before storage, check each of the seals by pressing the center of them.  They should not move or “pop” up and down.  You may hear a popping sound while the jars are cooling.  This is normal.  Please know that the popping sound alone is not an indicator of a good seal.  Check each jar. 

If you spot any jars that do not seal properly, then you will need to store them in the fridge and use as soon as you can.  They are perfectly fine to eat.  They just can’t be stored at room temp.  If you have food residue on your jars, be sure to remove before storage.  You can wipe them down with a damp towel.

A Word About Headspace

Headspace is very important.  It ensures a vacuum seal.  Too much food in your jar will expand out and will prevent a proper seal.  Too little food in your jar will cause the jar to not seal properly and will cause the food itself to discolor at the top.

A Word About Altitude 

Make sure to check the NCHCFP website regarding the altitude where you live.  Most recipes will have the altitude set for sea level.  Higher altitudes require more processing time AKA more boiling.  Lower altitudes require less processing time.  Processing time is very important.  If you want your food safe to eat, check your processing time.

Final Thoughts

I know this seems like a ton of information (and it is!). But keep in mind,  water bath canning is really only complicated the very first time.  Each time you go through the process it will get easier.  Soon enough you won’t even need the instructions.  It will just become reflex.  So don’t stress.  If you mess it up (and I have more than once), just try again.  You may need to eat your failures super fast.  But don’t worry.  Soft jam still tastes amazing.  Liquid jam, is just a cocktail mixer.  Sometimes my greatest failures have been my favorite recipes. 

I hope this helps.  Please let me know what you try to water bath can and how it turned out. Feel free to download and print the instructions below for easy reference.

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Water Bath Canning 101

Here is a step by step instruction on how to water bath can. Print it for easy use when canning.
Author: Self Made Modern

Equipment

Instructions

  • Take your large stock pot and fill it with water.  Fill the pot at least to where the jar will sit.  Add your rack and two tablespoons of white vinegar.  The vinegar keeps the minerals in the water from sticking to your jars and pots.  Unless you plan on using distilled water you will end up with ugly, spotted jars you just have to clean later.  It’s my favorite trick to keeping my jars spotless.  
  • Put your canning jars in the large pot before you turn on the stove.  Never put cold jars into hot water or you risk cracking and breaking them.  If you will be doing multiple canning batches, run the second batch of jars under warm water just before putting them in your canner.  This will help keep them from being too cold when you put them in.  Turn the stove on and bring to a boil with the lid on.  Once you hit a boil, turn the stove down until you are ready to use. If you are sanitizing jars, you will need to do that first before turning down the stove.
  • Fill a second smaller pot with water and a splash of vinegar.  Set on high to boil.  This will be your pot for your lid rings to go in as well as any other tools that need to be sanitized.  Boil for 10 minutes to sterilize.  Then turn down to warm.  Just let them sit in the water until you are ready to use them.  Again you want everything to be about the same temperature. 
  • Once your food is ready to be canned, take your tongs and carefully remove one jar from your water bath canner and place it near your cooking pot.  When removing the jar from the pot there will be boiling water inside the jar.  Carefully turn the jar on its side and let the boiling water pour back out into the pot.  Then you will need your canning funnel.  Place it on the empty jar to be filled and carefully ladle in your food.  Each recipe will require the jar to be left with a certain amount of headspace.  This is the room at the top of the jar.  Make sure to follow the recipe instructions on headspace.  It’s important.
  • Remove any air bubbles before you check for the proper headspace by using a chopstick or a bubble tool and sticking it in the jar all the way to the bottom.  I do this a few times in each jar depending on the thickness of the food to make sure it sinks properly.  Bubbles left in the jar lead to exploding food out of the jar.  You will end up with jam leaking out all over the place.  It ruins your seals as well.
  • Now use the head space tool or a ruler to measure from the top of the jar to the top of your food.  This is your headspace.  Adjust the amount of food in your jar up or down so that the proper headspace is achieved. 
  • Once that is done take a gently moistened paper towel or damp cloth towel and wipe the top of your jar.  Make sure any excess food is removed as it can prevent a proper seal from forming.
  • Take your magnetic lid lifter and pick up a mason jar lid with it.  Place it over your jar checking that it fits properly.  
  • Then, take you magnetic lid lifter and pick up a lid ring to place it on the jar.  Once you have it on rotate the ring clockwise using just the tips of your fingers to tighten.  You want this to be “finger tight”.  No more, no less.  When the jars are in the canner, gas needs to be able to escape your jars.  If you over tighten then you won’t be able to do this.  If you under tighten you will risk your food escaping.  If you don’t get it right on the first try don’t stress.  I’ve messed it up too.
  • Once the jars are sealed you will use your canning tongs to place your jar in the hot water on top of your canning rack.  Repeat steps 4-9 until your pot is full.  When placing your jars in the canner you need to make sure to leave space between the jars.  This will allow the boiling water to circulate around your jars.  It will also keep the jars from being so tight they risk breaking from banging together.  
  • After filling the water bath canner with jars, make sure your water covers at least one to two inches above the jars.  If it doesn’t you will need to add water.  Turn your stove up to high until you get a full rolling boil and then place the lid on.  Start your time once the water is fully boiling and allow it to remain boiling until your processing time is done.
  • Once your processing time is done, turn the stove off and allow the jars to cool down for 5 minutes before trying to retrieve them from the water.
  • Remove the jars using your canning tongs.  Remove each jar straight up vertically out of the water.  Try not to let the jars tip too much.  The seals will be soft and too much movement can loosen them.  There may be a little water on the tops of the jars.  It’s totally fine.  If there is a lot you can lean the jar slightly to get rid of most of the excess.  Place each jar on a clean towel to cool.  Don’t try to remove the rings until the jars have cooled.  As they cool they will loosen up and come off easily.  If you remove them early, you risk damaging the seal on your jars.

Notes

Storage
Once the jars have cooled you will need to take off the rings for storage.  Do not leave them on.  Leaving rings on during storage can cause seal issues as well as rust.  Also, make sure when you store your jars that nothing gets stacked on top of them.  Only one layer of jars please.  Putting jars on top of jars puts you at risk for seal failure and botulism.  
Before storage, check each of the seals by pressing the center of them.  They should not move or “pop” up and down.  You may hear a popping sound while the jars are cooling.  This is normal.  Please know that the popping sound alone is not an indicator of a good seal.  Check each jar. 

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