Water Bath Canning

by Terri Peña

Water Bath Canning is an easy way to process jars of acid (think vinegar) or sweet foods so they can be stored on the shelf.   If you have never canned before, you may have visions of a giant pot with a locking lid and a gauge, or thoughts of botulism.  Those ideas belong to pressure canning, not water bath canning.  Water bath canning is easy, safe, and highly satisfying.  There are a few things you will absolutely have to have, and a few things that can be improvised.

Must haves:

~Jars.  The recipes for this month’s column will be using pint sized jars.  If you need to buy new ones, I prefer wide-mouth.  You can pick up a case of new jars for $10-11.  Old jars can be found at thrift stores or garage sales, but you will have to buy lids and rings, possibly for multiple sized jars, so will not save much money.  I recommend that people brand new to canning pick up a case of new jars as they  include the proper lids and rings.

~A big, tall pot with a lid.   The pot needs to be tall enough to cover the pint jars with at least 1 inch of water.  While I have a big enameled canner, I often use a smaller tamale pot.  If you have a large pressure cooker, pasta pot, or asparagus pot, that should work.

~A jar lifter.  These are easy to find at thrift stores.  Google “jar lifter” to see what they look like.  They can also be purchased for very little money at Ace Hardware  or variety stores, and may come in a set with a funnel, which is helpful.

Things to improvise:

~A rack for the bottom of your pot.  Some pots come with a steamer rack, and that will work perfectly.  A small cake cooling rack may fit inside your pot.  If you cannot find a good pot to rack fit with stuff you already have in the kitchen, then you can use a dish towel or two.  The goal is to cushion the jars so they do not break.   A towel placed in the bottom of the pot where the jars sit will help prevent them from breaking while boiling.

~A funnel with a wide opening that sits atop the jar.  This makes filling the jars easier, but is not at all necessary.

That’s it.  A case of jars, a lifter, equipment you probably have in your kitchen, and you are on your way to joining the canning revolution.  Your first couple of canning sessions will be slow and messy, that’s OK, you are learning.
Once you feel comfortable with the steps required, things will speed up.  While I remember my Grandma spending days and days putting up food from the large garden, that is not me.  I tend to do mostly small batch canning, half a dozen jars at a time.  It means I am in and out of the kitchen in about an hour and I find that time to be very relaxing.  Cutting vegetables and stirring pots of jam is a slow, relaxing endeavor.  Your attention is needed, but it is also a time to be with your own thoughts.  During a crazy week, taking a break to play with jars calms everything down in the same way as having fiber slipping through your fingers.  A deep breath in the middle of a hectic day.

Let’s get started.

First thing to do is get your canner ready.  Place whatever rack you will be using in the bottom of a pot that holds enough water to cover your jars by at least an inch.  Fill the pot about half way full, cover, and turn up the heat.  As soon as the water boils, turn off the heat and let the canner sit.  With luck this will happen before you are ready to add jars to the pot.

Wash your jars.  It is not necessary to sterilize them, but get them clean and make sure they do not have any cracks or chips.  Soak your lids in a bowl of hot water.

Once your food is prepared, fill the jars to the proper level called for in the recipe, a wide funnel makes this job easier. The recipe will list “headspace”, this is the amount of space between the rim of the jar and its contents.  The first couple of times you do this, you may need to use a ruler.  After a while you learn where certain measurements land on a jar.  When the jar is filled, use a clean towel to wipe the rim.  It is important for the rims to be clean for a good seal to happen.  Top the filled jars with a flat lid and a screw band and tighten to finger-tip tight.  That means, using two fingers of your non-dominate hand, press down on the center of the lid, and with your other hand, tighten the ring.  Too tight may warp the lid, two loose may let food escape, either thing will cause seal failure.
Using a jar lifter, place the jars one by one in the pot of hot water.
The jar lifter should grab the jars just below the neck (below the ring band of the lid).  Keep the jar straight up and down as tilting may cause food to spill and affect the seal.  Be careful to keep your fingers clear of the water.
The water should cover the jars by at least an inch.  If it does not, add more hot water.

Cover the canner, turn the heat up, and heat until it the water boils.  Once the water is boiling you can begin timing.  Keep the water boiling for the amount of time required in the recipe.  If the water stops boiling at any time, bring the water back up to a boil and start timing again from the beginning.

When the jars have been boiling for the amount of time specified in the recipe, turn off the heat, uncover the pot and let them sit 5 minutes.  After 5 minutes, remove the jars.  Using the jar lifter hold the jars straight up and down (no tilting to remove the pool of water on the lid) from the pot and place on a dishtowel or cooling rack, leaving some space between jars.

As the jars cool you may hear a ping.  This is the satisfying sound of a good seal.  You do not always hear the ping, so do not panic if it does not happen.  Let the jars sit undisturbed until they have cooled.  Do not tighten the ring bands or push on the lids until they have cooled.

Once cooled, remove the ring bands from sealed jars for storage.  If you have a jar that did not seal, put it in the fridge and plan to use it first.  Give the jars a little rinse to remove any residue from the canner and label.  It is very important to label your jars with the contents and date.  I know right now you are certain you will remember what is in the jar and when it was made, but memories can be tricky, labels are factual.
The official guidelines tell you to store your jars in a cool dark place.  Just between you and me, I do not.  I have my jars out for all the world to see.

Not only are they attractive, having them in plain sight means they are more likely to be used.


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