It has occurred to me that I do a whole lot of canning, and I have written a few posts about canning various vegetables and fruits. And I’m not finished yet! So, I thought it would be wise to write a post about water bath canning basics. I think it would be silly to keep writing the same procedure over and over in my individual canning posts! Also, if you are canning something completely different, this could be a great quick reference guide!
Before I begin, I must say that everyone has their own style of canning. There are things that work for some people, and things that do not. There are aspects to different kitchens that make various changes unavoidable. Please understand that is perfectly fine! I have found what works for me in my kitchen, and I am going to share it with you in hopes that it helps you find a starting point! Or, if you’ve experimented with different ways of canning and have not found something comfortable yet, this may be it!
Water bath canning uses a large stockpot in which water is boiled and jars are placed inside. This heats the jars, cooks the contents, and when they are removed and begin to cool, the lids seal.
Water bath canning is appropriate for high acidity foods, like fruits and pickled items. Yes, I know people who water bath plain vegetables. Yes, I water bath canned green beans one time. However, if you choose to use the water bath canner for non-acidic foods, that is up to you, but I do not recommend it. That would be considered “at your own risk.” I know people who have been doing it this way for years and have never gotten sick. But for me, there are so many articles about botulism that had me so terrified that my husband and I invested in a pressure canner, just to be on the safe side. I feel much more comfortable canning and eating vegetables now!
Clean Lids and Jars
Working with very clean items is imperative! To ensure that all of my jars and lids are clean, I wash them in warm, soapy water with two drops of tea tree or lemon essential oil in the water. I always use a clean dish cloth as well. As soon as the jars are washed and rinsed, I set them directly in the oven. You can put them on baking sheets if you’d like, but I just lay mine directly on the oven racks. If the jars are not dry, it is no big deal, because they will dry in the oven.
Once all of the jars are washed and in the oven, heat the oven to 215 degrees Fahrenheit. I like to heat the jars along with the oven, just to prevent breakage. I make a big enough mess in the kitchen, I do not need to be cleaning up glass shards as well!
Wash the lids and rings in the same water as the jars, and then place them in a saucepan, cover them with water, and heat them on the stove. I keep the heat setting low, because I do not want the water to boil, as it may mess with the seals on the lids.
Water Bath Canner
I usually start by filling the canner about half full with water. I try to make sure I do not have too much water in, because I do not want it to overflow when I lower the jars into the canner! Personally, I prefer to have too little water, because I can always add more after the jars are situated.
I bring the water up to almost boiling just before I begin packing jars. This way, by the time I am finished filling my jars, the water is fully boiling and I can set the jars right in!
Hot Jars and Food
Because I put the jars directly into boiling water, it is important to have everything hot so the jars have less of a chance of breaking! This is why I keep the jars hot in the oven, lids and rings hot on the stove, and the food and/or brine boiling on the stove.
This may differ for everyone, but for me, a certain arrangement of pots on my stove works best. On the front left burner (my “power boil” burner) I place the canner. On the front right burner, the contents of my jars or brine cook. This provides easy filling access! The lids and rings go on the back right burner, so they are out of the way, but still easy to get to when I need them.
My parents have a propane camp stove with two burners that we can put outside to heat the water bath canners. That is very helpful in that it does not heat up the kitchen more on hot days and it frees up some stove space if we need it.
Making the Contents of the Jar
I start cooking whatever I am canning at different times. For instance, when canning relish, it needs to cook for about 30 minutes. So, I start cooking the relish before I heat the canner.
But, for pickling foods, such as red beets or peppers, the brine just needs to boil. So, I can start heating the water bath first, and then start heating the brine afterwards.
Timing can be tricky, and I still do not have it all down! My goal is always to get everything heated at the same time, so nothing is boiling for longer than it needs to be. That’s a great goal, but I do not think I have achieved it yet! Maybe someday! A little extra heating time really does not hurt jars or canners.
Packing the Jars
Having multiple sets of hands makes this step much easier for canning things like peaches and beets! But there is a way to do it on your own! You are just going to need to find your own rhythm.
For me, I get all of the tools I will need ready ahead of time. I have an “L” shape in my kitchen counter on the right side of my stove. That is where I fill my jars. I put a towel down where the stove meets the countertop so I do not slop brine down the side of the stove. I get a ladle, plastic knife, canning rack, tongs, funnel, an oven mitt, and clean dish cloth ready to go. Then, I place them so they are at the correct spot when I reach for them.
When it comes time to fill the jars, it’s off to the races! I use the oven mitt on my right hand to grab a jar out of the oven and set it on the towel on the edge of the stove. I switch hands with the mitt, so I can hold the jar with my left hand.
Put the canning funnel on top of the jar. (You can purchase a canning funnel here.) I use a ladle (or sometimes a glass measuring cup) to fill the jars. How high I fill the jars depends on how much head space is required in the recipe. Head space is the area between the top of the contents and the lid.
If I am canning pickled items, I pack the vegetables tightly into the jars first, and then pour the brine over the top.
After the jars are filled, I take a plastic knife and slide it down the inside edge of the jar. I pull the top of the knife gently toward the center of the jar. I do this about three times around the jar. This allows any air bubbles to escape and the contents to settle. We call it “burping” the jars when we can foods at my parents’ house! If need be, I add more brine or vegetables to get the proper fill level.
Then, take a clean, lightly damp dish cloth and wipe the rim of the jar.
I use salad tongs to grab a lid and a ring out of the hot water. Carefully set the lid onto the top of the jar, and then get a ring from the water using the tongs. Twist the lid onto the jar until it is fingertip tight. You do not have to tighten it like crazy! It’s not going to go anywhere.
Once all of that is accomplished, set the jar into the canning rack for easy lifting into the canner.
For some things, like peaches, we fill the jars with the fruit and syrup one by one as the peaches come available and then set them back into the oven until we have enough jars to fill the canner. This prevents the peaches from turning brown and keeps the jars and contents hot while the other jars are being filled.
Processing the Jars
Once all of the jars are on the canning rack, carefully lower it into the boiling water in the canner. I use oven mitts to hold the handles of the rack so I do not burn myself!
The water should cover the jars, and should be about an inch over the top of the jars. If I need to add more water, I just add some hot tap water. This may stop the water from boiling for a brief amount of time.
When the water begins to boil again, set a timer for the proper amount of processing time. I usually put the lid back onto the canner, but leave it off to the side a little so that some steam can escape.
When time is up, take the lid off of the canner and use the oven mitts to lift the canning rack out of the canner. There are notches in the rack that allow it to set on the edge of the canner. So, I set the rack full of jars on the edge of the canner.
Use a jar grabber (which you can purchase here) to lift the jars out of the canner. I always use an oven mitt on one hand to put under the jar when carrying it, just to be on the safe side!
I set the jars on a towel on the counter. Make sure they are spread out and are not touching. This way, the air can get to all sides of the jars and properly cool them. My parents use cookie cooling racks to set their jars on.
As the jars sit on the counter, they start to seal. That little “pop” noise they make as they seal is such a satisfying sound!
So there you have it! The basics of canning, with a few helpful hints along the way! If you are new to canning, I hope you find this post helpful! If you are feeling ambitious, here are some links for you to try your hand at canning:
If you have been canning for a while, I would love to hear any other helpful hints that you have learned over the years! Feel free to comment and add more tips to this post!
(Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. Read my disclosure policy here.)