Step-by-step water bath canning tutorial with pictures, easy-to-follow-instructions, video, and safety advice. "Put up" your produce to enjoy all year!
After freezing, preserving produce in jars by boiling water canning so that they can be stored on a pantry shelf is my favorite way to "put up" food. There are actually a number of reasons why you might want to can your own food to be shelf stable:
- shelf space is more plentiful than freezer space, so you can put up more
- opening jars is more convenient than defrosting, especially for things like tomato sauce
- some produce stores better in cans than freezer like pickled foods
- canned jams, pickles, chutneys and sauces make terrific gifts
- seeing the rows of home-canned goods in your pantry = love
Canning is not hard - really! It doesn't take too much time, especially if you do a number of small batches instead of days-long marathons, and is perfectly safe when you follow USDA general guidelines and trusted recipes. If you have a garden,belong to a CSA, or shop regularly at farmer's markets, you'll want to use your produce for all kinds of wonderful things that you can't find in the stores or are expensive to buy (and you are in control of what goes in the jars!).
When I first tried canning years ago I had never canned before, but I had picked buckets of strawberries and decided to put them up in jars. I didn't have anyone to show me how, so I bought the "gold standard" of canning books, Ball Blue Book of Preserving and followed the instructions (yes, waaay before the internet…). I was nervous about the timing and cleaning, but it all came out fine. And what a feeling when those jar lids start "pinging" to seal- success!
Water Bath Canning Tutorial
There are basically two kinds of canning approved by the USDA and tested as safest from spoilage (affiliate links included):
1. Hot Water-Bath canning which involves submerging sealed jars in boiling water for a specified length of time in order to tightly seal the jars. You can use an enamel pot made specifically for water bath canning (like pictured above) or a large stock pot. This method works only for high-acid foods like fruit (jams, jellies, juices, chutneys, etc.), tomatoes and tomato sauces (though some varieties are less acid now and it is recommended that lemon juice be added), and any kind of pickled food.
2. Pressure Canner where the jars are enclosed within the pot for a certain time and at a certain level of pressure using a canner like this one with a pressure dial you can read (very important). This method MUST be used for low-acid foods like corn, beans, and any meats, stews, etc. This is the ONLY way to can these safely at home and it can be dangerous not to follow directions exactly. Some people use this method all the time and find it the best way to can.
I only tried pressure canning a few times, and only because I had a good friend to walk me through it. It's way more nerve-wracking to me, so I don't do much of it- I stick to freezing my corn and beans and use the water bath for pickling beans.
- Like I mentioned, a big enamel canning pot or stock pot (12 to 16-qt is best) with a metal rack in the bottom. They are pretty inexpensive and I'm always seeing them at the thrift stores (just not during the canning season!), and you will have it for years, so it's a worthwhile investment.
- Flat canning rack. If your pot is used and didn't come with a rack or it's rusted, this is the rack I recommend. In fact, I like this so much better than the standard divided rack that I would suggest everyone upgrade to this. Smaller jars sit so much better with little tipping and you can fit more jars into a load. There are other rack options, too, and this one may fit a 12-qt pot for smaller batches.
- Canning jar lifter. This is the safest way to transfer hot jars to and from your pot. Yes, I tried to cheap out and use tongs - and lost a jar. So yes, highly recommended!
- Stainless steel canning funnel. I do not recommend plastic canning funnels (which is why I don't recommend a canning "kit") because I don't like the idea of super hot foods being poured into it. Lets use metal and all rest easy, okay?
- Canning jars in size needed for recipe (1/2-pint, 12-oz, pint, or quart). They aren't that expensive by the case, though you can find them at thrift stores and garage sales, too. The key is to look the other part of the year and not just when it's canning season. It's much more difficult to find them in August, September, and October.
- Lids and screw bands (2-piece lids). If you buy a new case, the jars will come with a set of bands and lids. You can re-use the screw bands until they get rusty, at which point they could make the jar not seal. But the lids that seal must be bought new each year to ensure a tight seal. (I've read where people reuse these, but here's my take: I'm not going to all this work and time to save $1.50 and not have my food seal properly. It's just not worth it to me.)
- Other standard kitchen items needed: metal ladle, non-metalic flat spatula or knife (to remove air bubbles), dampened rag or paper towel, teaspoons for citric acid, if using for recipe.
Step-by-Step Guide to Water Bath Canning
Step 1: gather your produce and equipment.
Decide the size jar you'll need and gather the amount the recipe calls for, or what your canner will hold.
Step 2: prepare your food according to the recipe.
Step 3: wash jars and keep them hot and wash used screw bands and NEW lids at the same time.
While the food or brine is cooking wash the jars using soap and hot water and scrub well (I use an old baby bottle brush). You can run the jars through the dishwasher, too, I just have a hard time planning that well: to have the room in the dishwasher and be able to wait until it finishes the cycle. Do whatever works to get them clean.
Keep the jars hot so they won't crack from the hot food or when they are put in the hot water. There are a couple of options to keep them warm:
- Fill with hot tap water and leave in the sink after washing (this is what I do and is pictured). Since I'm usually washing the jars just a few minutes before I need to fill them, the hot water keeps them hot enough. If it ever takes longer and the water has cooled some, I simply refill.
- The Ball Blue Book of Canning instructs you to put the jars in your canner with the water simmering while you prepare the food. When ready to use the jars, use tongs to pull them out and carefully dump the water from the jar back into the canner.
- Keep the jars upside down on a towel-lined cookie sheet in a very low oven (100-150 degrees). I have a friend who does this and it's nice that the jars are dry when you want to fill them. However, even at the low temperature, I've managed to scorch a couple of towels, so I usually just use the first option.
NOTE on lids: the recommendation to heat lids in hot water for a set number of minutes was changed in 2014 to simply washing them. You can read more about that here.
Step 4: Fill the canner 3/4 full with water and set on high.
Step 5: Pack the jars according to the recipe.
Use the ladle and wide-mouth funnel to fill your prepared jars. Do one jar at a time, completing all the steps and setting the jar in the canner before filling the other jars.
Step 6: Check the headspace, which is the amount of space left between the food and the top of the jar.
Each recipe will require a different size headspace, but it's usually 1/4" or 1/2" and it's important to have this space to seal properly. I would suggest using a ruler until you're familiar with where the 1/4" or 1/2" falls according to the threads of the jar.
Step 7 (optional with some foods): Remove air bubbles with a non-metal spatula or knife.
Not all recipes call for this, it's mainly for packed produce (pickles, peaches, etc.) where air can get trapped or thick sauces like the BBQ sauce pictured. This will sometimes cause the liquid to fall below the headspace requirement, so you may need to add a bit more liquid.
Step 8: wipe rims.
Use a damp cloth (here an old t-shirt rag) or paper towel to wipe the rim and threads, making sure any food residue is removed.
Step 9: seal jars.
Center the clean lid on the jar. Screw the band on "finger-tip tight" and no more. Just screw on until there's some resistance - don't over-tighten.
Step 10: place the jar in simmering water in canner.
Use the jar lifter (see the rubber ends that hold the jar securely?) to lower each jar into the simmering water in the canner. If your rack sits on the edge of your canner/pot like the one pictured, fill the rack and then submerse all the jars at once. Otherwise, lower each jar to the rack on the bottom of your pot.
Step 11: Fill & seal remaining jars.
Continue filling each jar and placing in the canner. When all the jars are added, make sure the water is at least 1" above the jar lids, adding hot water as necessary.
Step 12: Process jars for specified time.
Turn the heat up to high, place the lid on the canner and bring to a roiling boil. When it boils, set the timer for the specified time in the recipe, and lower the heat to medium-high to keep at a steady roiling boil (with the lid on) for the entire time.
Lift the lid once in awhile during processing to make sure the boil is gently roiling and adjust the heat if needed. Also, if processing a long time (some tomatoes), the water may need to be refilled (with boiling water from a teakettle) to keep the water 1" above the jars.
Step 13: Remove jars from canner.
Remove the jars to a towel-lined surface, to absorb any water and cushion the jars. Tip: I line a tray with a towel so I can then move the jars to a place they won't be disturbed.
Step 14: Let them sit for 24 hours undisturbed.
The lids will start their "pinging" sound which indicates the lids have sealed. The sound of success!
Step 15: After 24 hours, remove the bands and check the seal.
The lids should be concave and not spring back. Also, try to gently remove the lids with your fingertips to make sure the seals are strong enough. I have had some lids that seemed sealed, but the lids popped right off, so I always do this check.
If some did not seal (it happens all the time), put them in the fridge to use within a couple of months. You can reprocess with a new lid, but I usually can't be bothered and if it's a pickled item that would be too much cooking for it anyway.
Even though it seems like a lot, once you get the hang of it, it moves fairly quickly - often taking just an hour for quicker recipes.
Ready to can? Start with just one or two things that sound good to get the routine down. I'm sure you'll be doing more when you realize how easy it is and what a thrill you get from seeing the jars lined up on the pantry shelf.
You can watch our video of this tutorial for even more on canning:
Note: this article was originally published in 2009 and has been updated with current information, all new photos, video, clearer formatting and new pinnable image for your pinning pleasure!
For all my favorite canning recipes, be sure to check out all our preserving recipes!
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