Step-by-step water bath or boiling water canning tutorial with pictures, easy-to-follow-instructions, video, and safety advice. Use this simple method to "put up" your produce to enjoy all year long!
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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 some pickled foods (though the fridge is my preferred storage for crisp dill pickles and sliced jalapeños!).
- Canned jams, pickles, chutneys and sauces make terrific gifts.
- Seeing the rows of home-canned goods in your pantry = love.
Water bath 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 the ingredients 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 as a jam.
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 keeping everything clean, but it all came out fine.
And what a feeling when those jar lids start "pinging" to seal- success!
Two Types of Canning Methods
There are basically two kinds of canning approved by the USDA and tested as safest from spoilage:
1. Hot Water-Bath Canning
This 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.
What Can Be Water-Bath Canned?
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 Canning
In this method the jars are enclosed within a special canning pot for a certain time and at a certain level of pressure using a pressure canner like this with a pressure dial you can read (very important).
What Can Be Pressure Canned?
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.
However, if you're like me and don't really like the taste/texture of canned beans, corn, potatoes, etc. you might find water-bath canning and freezing to be enough for your purposes. (What do we prefer instead? Frozen beans, peppers, and corn!)
I've done both methods and not only do I find pressure canning to be cumbersome and more difficult, our family really didn't like the results (smushy beans, etc.).
I can do all the things we love - all the tomato products, condiments, salsas, and jams - using quick and easy water bath canning.
Do try it and see if you like it, too!
Boiling water canning (water-bath) Video Tutorial
Water Bath Canning Tutorial
1. A big enamel canning pot or stock pot (12 to 16-quart).
They are pretty inexpensive and I'm always seeing them at the thrift stores (just not during the canning season!).
UPDATE: Instead of the flimsy enameled pot shown above, I invested in a quality, encapsulated bottom, stainless steel canning pot with a glass lid and it was the BEST DECISION EVER. I wish I had found it earlier!
Here's why a stainless steel canner is better:
- The bottom is FLAT, which means no rocking around AND it can safely be used on glass top stoves.
- You can keep watch on the level of boil in your pot WITHOUT raising the lid which lets heat escape and then alters the level of boil.
- It doesn't rust or lose enamel spots like my old pot was starting to do.
- It's much easier to clean.
- You can use it as a large stock pot for big recipes if you'd like.
I highly recommend using a flat canning rack whether your canner came with one or not (the stainless doesn't).
It is SO much better than the standard divided rack - I would suggest everyone upgrade to this if you haven't already.
Smaller jars sit so much better with little tipping (unlike the divided racks) 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.
You'll also need:
3. Canning Jar Lifter (pictured on the right)
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 um, highly recommended!
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, potentially leaching plastic into our home canned foods.
Let's use metal and all rest easy, okay?
5. Canning Jars
You'll need different sizes for different recipes (1/2-pint, 12-oz, pint, or quart) in both regular mouth and large mouth.
Jars aren't that expensive by the case, though you can find them at thrift stores and garage sales, too.
TIP: the key is to look other times of the year and not just when it's canning season - it's much more difficult to find them in August, September, and October.
6. Lids and Screw Bands (2-piece lids)
If you buy a new case of jars they 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 separate sealing lids must be bought new each year to ensure a tight seal.
Note: I've read where people reuse these, but here's my take: I'm not going to all this work and time to save a couple dollars and not have my food seal properly. It's just not worth it to me.
7. Other Standard Kitchen Items Needed:
- Metal Ladle (again, avoid plastic with hot foods)
- Non-Metallic Flat Spatula, Knife, or Chopstick (to remove air bubbles)
- Dampened Rag or Paper Towel
- Teaspoons for Citric Acid or Lemon Juice
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 produce amounts your recipe calls for.
Step 2: Prepare Your Food According to the Recipe
Step 3: Wash Jars and Keep Hot and Wash 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 for you 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.
Here are a couple of options to keep the jars warm:
- Fill with hot tap water and leave in the sink after washing (this is what I do and what 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 old recommendation to heat lids in a pot of 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 Canner 3/4 Full of Water and Set on High
Step 5: Pack Jars According to 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
The headspace is the amount of space left between the food you ladled in 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: Remove Air Bubbles with a Non-Metal Spatula or Knife (optional with some foods)
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 jar Rims
Use a damp cloth (I use 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 new, clean lid on the jar.
Screw the band on "finger-tip tight" and no more. Just screw on until there's some resistance - do not over-tighten.
Step 10: Place Jar in Simmering Water in Canner
Use the jar lifter (see the rubber ends that hold the jar securely- that's the key) 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 it 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 (no need to lift the lid with the glass lid on the stainless canner!).
Also, if processing a long time (like some tomato recipes), the water may need to be refilled (with boiling water from a teakettle) to keep the water 1" above the jars.
UPDATE: The USDA is now suggesting that all boiling-water recipes have a 5-minute rest time in the canner after processing. So now:
When timer goes off, turn off burner, remove lid, and set a new timer for 5 minutes. THEN remove the jars. (This helps reduce the shock of going from boiling water to cooler air and improves sealing.)
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 Jars 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 Bands and Check Seals
You want to store all home canned jars without the screw bans attached. It's easier to see if there is spoilage and the bands won't be able to disturb the seal if moved.
To Check Seals:
- The sealed 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 lids did not seal (it happens all the time), put them in the fridge to use within a couple of months.
You can reprocess the contents with a new lid (reheating, etc.), but I usually can't be bothered and if it's a pickled item that would be too much cooking for it anyway.
That's it - you're now a canner!
Even though it might seem like a lot of steps, 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 started with jams and moved to salsas and then other tomato products.
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.
For all my favorite canning recipes, be sure to check out all our preserving recipes!
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!Disclosure: affiliate links in this article will earn commission based on sales, but it doesn't change your price. Click here to read our full disclaimer and advertising disclosure.