Canning and Preserving: Water Bath Method - Modern Alternative Mama

Canning and Preserving: Water Bath Method

admin September 14, 2011

The water bath method of canning is the most popular and common, because it’s the easiest.  It doesn’t require much special equipment (as I said in last week’s post, you can use most regular stock pots, you don’t have to buy a special pot) and it works for many common foods.

But not all foods can be safely canned using the water bath method.  This is for high-acid foods like apples, pears, peaches, tomatoes.  Low-acid foods like most vegetables, any meats or fish, soups or stock, etc. cannot be safely canned using the water bath method, and require a pressure canner.

(I suspect that a lot of “canning safety” is really extra caution and not necessary.  The way foods used to be canned was to cook them until they were boiling, sterilize the jars, pour the boiling food into the jars, cap them and turn them upside down.  They sealed this way, and no further processing was done.  A few people who learned to can from their mothers or grandmothers still do this.  But, it’s not recommended any longer.  I bet it usually works fine, but let’s call it “not for beginners.”  Water bath canning is much safer and really not any harder.)

So how do you do the water bath method?  Don’t forget to check out what equipment you need first!

First, you need to put your lids into a pot of hot water.  I just use really hot tap water.  You can put it on the stove to simmer, but don’t let it boil.

Then, you need to fill your prepared, clean jars.  I don’t bother to “sterilize” mine because, frankly, once they’re exposed to air again they’re no longer sterile.  Why take the extra step when they won’t stay sterile?  Assuming they ever were. Most people just run them through a dishwasher.  Do make sure they are clean, though!

Wipe the rims of the jars to make sure they’re clean (the funnel helps with this, but still).  If they’re not, the lids may not seal.  Then, place the lids onto the jars.

Now, put the rims on and tighten just until they are firm.  Don’t tighten them as much as they will go.  Most call this “fingertip tight.”

Now your jars are ready for the water bath!

Put your pot protector or jar rack on the bottom of your pot.  Then, load your jars into your pot.  Some people like to pre-heat the pot filled with water and then add the jars.  I think you’re more likely to burn yourself and break your jars.  Doing it this way I have never broken a jar.

Now, add your water — warm if your jars are warm, cool if they are cool (you can ‘cold pack’ foods too, which I’ll tell you about in a minute).  The idea is not to shock the jars with a drastic temperature change.

Fill the pot most of the way, until the water is at least 1″ above the jars.

Turn the pot on and allow it to come to a boil.  Start the timer for the amount of time called for in your recipe once the pot reaches the boiling point.

Once the timer goes off, turn the pot off and give it a minute to cool down and stop the rolling boil.  Then, use the jar lifter to remove your jars.  You can start a new canner load now if you want to (and I don’t pour the water out, I just keep going with it).

No, I didn’t put a lid on my pot.  Most do.  But as long as the water’s at least an inch above the jars, they will seal fine.  I don’t use a lid because when I did, the boiling water knocked it off and splashed water all over the kitchen.  I figured that was not safe.  I rarely have a jar that doesn’t seal, and none of the ones that did seal went bad last year, so this worked fine.

If you don’t have a full canner load, you can add an empty (no lid) jar and fill it with water to take the place of a full jar, so that the jars don’t fall or break.  However, do NOT add that empty jar completely empty (without water) to a pot of hot water!  EVER!  Pushing it under the water will make the hot water jump up and splash you.  This works fine with cool water and even if that splashed, wouldn’t hurt anything.  But the hot water will bubble up and burn you.  I burned myself badly making this mistake, so don’t do it!  Four days later my blisters are just starting to really heal.  Just don’t do it.

Cold Pack Method

Instead of pouring boiling hot food into jars, you add cold food and liquid to it.  This works well for fruit slices and other foods that don’t need to be cooked at all.  I used this for our peach slices, diced pears, and diced tomatoes.  I’ll be posting the recipe for the diced tomatoes in a week or two, so you’ll see more details on this at that point.

One note: add 5 minutes to the processing time if you choose to cold pack instead hot pack.  

And no matter what method you choose, always check your jars to make sure they are sealed!  If they are not and you put them away, they could go bad.  

How to Handle an Unsealed Jar

First, I often put unsealed jars that I’m not quite ready to can in the fridge overnight, and can them in the morning.  You’re probably not “supposed to” do this, but I have never had an issue with it.

The same goes if you have a jar that doesn’t seal after the waterbath.  You can put it in the fridge and eat it in the next 2 – 3 days, or you can put a new lid on the jar and re-process it immediately (within 24 hours, refrigerating in between if you need to).  Always use new lids!

Do you have any questions about canning?  What method do you use, and what have you learned while doing it?

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  1. I am a lady nearing 70, I live alone in a small house in California. I am new to canning but in looking for a way to make a bit of money and seeing a way to make jam without using sugar. I found, online, another way to ‘can’ (why do we call it ‘canning’ when it’s put into jars?) using honey and an organic pectin I decided it was time for me to learn. I first began with freezer jam as a friend had mentioned it and I’d never heard of freezer jam, found the recipe online. I made some from the yellow plums off my son’s tree and that turned out good. I then went on to the water bath method of jam making. There’s a book just out from the people who make Pomona’s Organic Pectin and I bought that. They have some recipes online so I began with Cranberry-Strawberry. It turned out very tasty, so I made some Cranterine (Cranberries and Nectarines) I already had lots of cranberries in the freezer and a friend had given me lots of nectarines so I made that, it was good too. I have sold a few jars and so far have had no complaints. I use only 1/2 cup honey in 5 jars that hold 4.5 ozs. I really like making the jam with honey instead of sugar. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share what I have learned. ~Blessings, Anna


  2. I love canning and I do it pretty much the same way you do… I don’t cover the jars with water though. I learned to do it by filling the pot with water just to the neck of the jars. I’ve had a few fail to seal, but only rarely!


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Hi, I’m Kate.  I love medical freedom, sharing natural remedies, developing real food recipes, and gentle parenting. My goal is to teach you how to live your life free from Big Pharma, Big Food, and Big Government by learning about herbs, cooking, and sustainable practices.

I’m the author of Natural Remedies for Kids and the owner and lead herbalist at EarthleyI hope you’ll join me on the journey to a free and healthy life!

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