Water Bath Canning – Simple Steps


Have you wanted to try water bath canning but were nervous about doing it? Canning can be a safe and economical way to preserve your garden and have great produce in your pantry. Food you grew, and know what is in it. Some people don’t like to can food, I think it’s because they were forced to do it as kids. I actually enjoy canning and find it fun and relaxing. Water Bath Canning - Simple Process

Cleaning the Prep Space

I store all my canning stuff in my she shed. When it’s time to can produce from my garden, I make sure all my surfaces are clean. All the counter tops, my sink, stove top are all clean. I bring in all my canning supplies and wash them in hot soapy water.

Supplies for Water Bath Canning

Water Bath canners are made of aluminum or porcelain-covered steel. They have removable perforated racks and fitted lids. The canner must be deep enough so that at least 1 inch of briskly boiling water will be over the tops of jars during processing. Some boiling-water canners do not have flat bottoms. A flat bottom must be used on an electric range.

Either a flat or ridged bottom can be used on a gas burner. To ensure uniform processing of all jars with an electric range, the canner should be no more than 4 inches wider in diameter than the element on which it is heated


  • Large Stainless Steel Pot with Lid (or designated Water Bath Canner)
  • Canning Rack
  • Canning Tongs
  • De-Bubbler (plastic)
  • Funnel (plastic also shows headspace)
  • Jars – pint or quart (regular or large mouth)
  • Lids and Rings to fit jars

How Canning Works

The high percentage of water in most fresh foods makes them very perishable. They spoil or lose their quality for several reasons:

  • growth of undesirable microorganisms—bacteria, molds, and yeasts,
  • activity of food enzymes,
  • reactions with oxygen,
  • moisture loss.

Microorganisms live and multiply quickly on the surfaces of fresh food and on the inside of bruised, insect-damaged, and diseased food. Oxygen and enzymes are present throughout fresh food tissues.

Proper canning practices include:

  • carefully selecting and washing fresh food,
  • peeling some fresh foods,
  • hot packing many foods,
  • adding acids (lemon juice or vinegar) to some foods,
  • using acceptable jars and self-sealing lids,
  • processing jars in a boiling-water or pressure canner for the correct processing time.

All together, these practices remove oxygen; destroy enzymes; prevent the growth of undesirable bacteria, yeasts, and molds; and help form a high vacuum in jars. Good vacuums form tight seals which keep liquid in and air and microorganisms out. You will hear the jars make a POP sound during the cooling process, which tells you the jar is vacuumed sealed.

Canning Safety Practices

Growth of the bacterium Clostridium botulinum in canned food may cause botulism—a deadly form of food poisoning. These bacteria exist either as spores or as vegetative cells. The spores, which are comparable to plant seeds, can survive harmlessly in soil and water for many years.

When ideal conditions exist for growth, the spores produce vegetative cells which multiply rapidly and may produce a deadly toxin within 3 to 4 days of growth in an environment consisting of:

  • a moist, low-acid food
  • a temperature between 40° and 120°F
  • less than 2 percent oxygen.

Botulinum spores are on most fresh food surfaces. Because they grow only in the absence of air, they are harmless on fresh foods. Most bacteria, yeasts, and molds are difficult to remove from food surfaces. Washing fresh food reduces their numbers only slightly. Peeling root crops, underground stem crops, and tomatoes reduces their numbers greatly.

Blanching also helps, but the vital controls are the method of canning and making sure the recommended research-based process times, found in these guides, are used. The processing times in these guides ensure destruction of the largest expected number of heat-resistant microorganisms in home-canned foods. Properly sterilized canned food will be free of spoilage if lids seal and jars are stored below 95°F. Storing jars at 50° to 70°F enhances retention of quality.

pH the Measurement of Acidity and Alkalinity

Whether food should be processed in a pressure canner or boiling-water canner to control botulinum bacteria depends on the acidity of the food. Acidity may be natural, as in most fruits, or added, as in pickled food. Low-acid canned foods are not acidic enough to prevent the growth of these bacteria. Acid foods contain enough acid to block their growth, or destroy them more rapidly when heated.

In technical terms, pH is the hydrogen ion activity in a solution. It’s measured on a scale of 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral. Effective monitoring of pH in the food industry begins with testing raw materials and continues throughout production to the finished product.

The term “pH” is a measure of acidity; the lower its value, the more acid the food. The acidity level in foods can be increased by adding lemon juice, citric acid, or vinegar. Low-acid foods have pH values higher than 4.6. They include red meats, seafood, poultry, milk, and all fresh vegetables except for most tomatoes. Most mixtures of low-acid and acid foods also have pH values above 4.6 unless their recipes include enough lemon juice, citric acid, or vinegar to make them acid foods.
pH food chart

Acid foods have a pH of 4.6 or lower. They include fruits, pickles, sauerkraut, jams, jellies, marmalades, and fruit butters. Although tomatoes are usually considered an acid food, some are now known to have pH values slightly above 4.6. Figs also have pH values slightly above 4.6. Therefore, if they are to be canned as acid foods, these products must be acidified to a pH of 4.6 or lower with lemon juice or citric acid. Properly acidified tomatoes and figs are acid foods and can be safely processed in a boiling-water canner.

Canning and Altitudes

When canning you will want to know what altitude you live in. Water boils at lower temperatures at the higher altitudes. If you live in altitudes at 1000 feet or higher, you will need to take this into consideration. Increasing the process time or canner pressure compensates for lower boiling temperatures. Therefore, when you use the guides, select the proper processing time or canner pressure for the altitude where you live. If you do not know the altitude, contact your local county Extension agent. An alternative source of information would be the local district conservationist with the Soil Conservation Service.

Canning High Quality Food

Begin with good-quality fresh foods suitable for canning. Quality varies among varieties of fruits and vegetables. Many county Extension offices can recommend varieties best suited for canning. Examine food carefully for freshness and wholesomeness.

Discard diseased and moldy food. Trim small diseased lesions or spots from food. Can fruits and vegetables picked from your garden or purchased from nearby producers when the products are at their peak of quality-within 6 to 12 hours after harvest for most vegetables. For best quality, apricots, nectarines, peaches, pears, and plums should be ripened 1 or more days between harvest and canning. If you must delay the canning of other fresh produce, keep it in a shady, cool place.

To maintain good natural color and flavor in stored canned food, you must;

  • Remove oxygen from food tissues and jars
  • Quickly destroy the food enzymes
  • Obtain high jar vacuums and airtight jar seals.

Follow these guidelines to ensure that your canned foods retain optimum colors and flavors during processing and storage

  • Use only high-quality foods which are at the proper maturity and are free of diseases and bruises
  • Use the hot-pack method, especially with acid foods to be processed in boiling water
  • Don’t unnecessarily expose prepared foods to air. Can them as soon as possible
  • While preparing a canner load of jars, keep peeled, halved, quartered, sliced, or diced apples, apricots, nectarines, peaches, and pears in a solution of 3 grams (3,000 milligrams) ascorbic acid to 1 gallon of cold water.
  • Fill hot foods into jars and adjust headspace as specified in recipes
  • Tighten screw bands securely, but if you are especially strong, not as tightly as possible
  • Process and cool jars
  • Store the jars in a relatively cool, dark place, preferably between 50° and 70°F
  • Can no more food than you will use within a year.

Raw packing vs Hot Packing

Many fresh foods contain from 10 percent to more than 30 percent air. How long canned food retains high quality depends on how much air is removed from food before jars are sealed.

Raw-packing is the practice of filling jars tightly with freshly prepared, but unheated food. Such foods, especially fruit, will float in the jars. The entrapped air in and around the food may cause discoloration within 2 to 3 months of storage.  Raw-packing is more suitable for vegetables processed in a pressure canner.

Hot-packing is the practice of heating freshly prepared food to boiling, simmering it 2 to 5 minutes, and promptly filling jars loosely with the boiled food.

Whether food has been hot-packed or raw-packed, the juice, syrup, or water to be added to the foods should also be heated to boiling before adding it to the jars. This practice helps to remove air from food tissues, shrinks food, helps keep the food from floating in the jars, increases vacuum in sealed jars, and improves shelf life. Preshrinking food permits filling more food into each jar.

Hot-packing is the best way to remove air and is the preferred pack style for foods processed in a boiling-water canner. At first, the color of hot-packed foods may appear no better than that of raw-packed foods, but within a short storage period, both color and flavor of hot-packed foods will be superior.

Having the Correct Headspace

The headspace is the unfilled space above the food in a jar and below its lid. Directions for canning specify leaving 1/4-inch for jams and jellies, 1/2-inch for fruits, pickles and tomatoes to be processed in boiling water.

Half Inch Headspace

For Pressure Canner processing, headspace is from 1- to 1-1/4-inches in low acid foods to be processed.

This space is needed for expansion of food as jars are processed, and for forming vacuums in cooled jars. The extent of expansion is determined by the air content in the food and by the processing temperature. Air expands greatly when heated to high temperatures; the higher the temperature, the greater the expansion. Foods expand less than air when heated.

Prepping Jars and Cleaning

Before every use, wash empty jars in hot water with detergent and rinse well by hand, or wash in a dishwasher. Unrinsed detergent residues may cause unnatural flavors and colors. Jars should be kept hot until ready to fill with food. Submerge the clean empty jars in enough water to cover them in a large stockpot or boiling water canner. Bring the water to a simmer (180°F) and keep the jars in the simmering water until it is time to fill them with food.

A dishwasher may be used for preheating jars if they are washed and dried on a complete regular cycle. Keep the jars in the closed dishwasher until needed for filling. These washing and preheating methods do not sterilize jars. Some used jars may have a white film on the exterior surface caused by mineral deposits. This scale or hard-water film on jars is easily removed by soaking jars several hours in a solution containing 1 cup of vinegar (5 percent acidity) per gallon of water prior to washing and preheating the jars.

Sterilization of Jars

All jams, jellies, and pickled products processed less than 10 minutes should be filled into sterile empty jars. To sterilize empty jars after washing in detergent and rinsing thoroughly, submerge them, right side up, in a boiling-water canner with the rack in the bottom.

Fill the canner with enough warm water so it is 1 inch above the tops of the jars. Bring the water to a boil, and boil 10 minutes at altitudes of less than 1,000 ft. At higher elevations, boil 1 additional minute for each additional 1,000 ft elevation. Reduce the heat under the canner, and keep the jars in the hot water until it is time to fill them.

Remove and drain hot sterilized jars one at a time, saving the hot water in the canner for processing filled jars. Fill the sterilized jars with food, add lids, and tighten screw bands.

It is also unnecessary to pre-sterilize jars for fruits, tomatoes, and pickled or fermented foods that will be processed 10 minutes or longer in a boiling-water canner.

Lid selection, preparation, and use

The common self-sealing lid consists of a flat metal lid held in place by a metal screw band during processing. The flat lid is crimped around its bottom edge to form a trough, which is filled with a colored gasket compound. When jars are processed, the lid gasket softens and flows slightly to cover the jar-sealing surface, yet allows air to escape from the jar.

The gasket then forms an airtight seal as the jar cools. Gaskets in unused lids work well for at least 5 years from date of manufacture. The gasket compound in older unused lids may fail to seal on jars. Buy only the quantity of lids you will use in a year. To ensure a good seal, carefully follow the manufacturer’s directions in preparing lids for use. Examine all metal lids carefully. Do not use old, dented, or deformed lids, or lids with gaps or other defects in the sealing gasket.

When directions say to fill jars and adjust lids, use the following procedures: After filling jars with food and adding covering liquid, release air bubbles by inserting a flat plastic (not metal) spatula between the food and the jar. Slowly turn the jar and move the spatula up and down to allow air bubbles to escape. (It is not necessary to release air bubbles when filling jams, jellies or all liquid foods such as juices.) Adjust the headspace and then clean the jar rim (sealing surface) with a dampened paper towel.

Place the preheated lid, gasket down, onto the cleaned jar-sealing surface. Uncleaned jar-sealing surfaces may cause seal failures. Then fit the metal screw band over the flat lid. Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines enclosed with or on the box for tightening the jar lids properly.

Do not retighten lids after processing jars. As jars cool, the contents in the jar contract, pulling the self-sealing lid firmly against the jar to form a high vacuum.

  • If rings are too loose, liquid may escape from jars during processing, and seals may fail
  • If rings are too tight, air cannot vent during processing, and food will discolor during storage.

Over tightening also may cause lids to buckle and jars to break, especially with raw-packed, pressure-processed food. Screw bands are not needed on stored jars. They can be removed easily after jars are cooled. When removed, washed, dried, and stored in a dry area, screw bands may be used many times. If left on stored jars, they become difficult to remove, often rust, and may not work properly again

Following the recipe

you are new to canning I recommend using some canning recipe books. They tell you how to prepare the food and the processing time, including headspace needed for each type. I have a couple USDA books to recommend for canning recipes for water bath canning.

Pickles and Jars

Water Bath Canning – Processing the Jars

Follow these steps for successful boiling-water canning:

1. Before you start preparing your food, fill the canner halfway with clean water. This is approximately the level needed for a canner load of pint jars. For other sizes and numbers of jars, the amount of water in the canner will need to be adjusted so it will be 1 to 2 inches over the top of the filled jars.

2. Preheat water to 140°F for raw-packed foods and to 180°F for hot-packed foods. Food preparation can begin while this water is preheating.

3. Load filled jars, fitted with lids, into the canner rack and use the handles to lower the rack into the water; or fill the canner with the rack in the bottom, one jar at a time, using a jar lifter. When using a jar lifter, make sure it is securely positioned below the neck of the jar (below the screw band of the lid). Keep the jar upright at all times. Tilting the jar could cause food to spill into the sealing area of the lid.

4. Add more boiling water, if needed, so the water level is at least 1 inch above jar tops. For process times over 30 minutes, the water level should be at least 2 inches above the tops of the jars.

5. Turn heat to its highest position, cover the canner with its lid, and heat until the water in the canner boils vigorously.

6. Set a timer for the total minutes required for processing the food.

7. Keep the canner covered and maintain a boil throughout the process schedule. The heat setting may be lowered a little as long as a complete boil is maintained for the entire process time. If the water stops boiling at any time during the process, bring the water back to a vigorous boil and begin the timing of the process over, from the beginning.

8. Add more boiling water, if needed, to keep the water level above the jars.

9. When jars have been boiled for the recommended time, turn off the heat and remove the canner lid. Wait 5 minutes before removing jars.

10. Using a jar lifter, remove the jars and place them on a towel, leaving at least 1-inch spaces between the jars during cooling. Let jars sit undisturbed to cool at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours.

Cooling jars

When you remove hot jars from a canner, do not retighten their jar lids. Retightening of hot lids may cut through the gasket and cause seal failures. Cooling jars at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours. Cooling jars on racks or towels to minimize heat damage to counters. The food level and liquid volume of raw-packed jars will be noticeably lower after cooling. Air is exhausted during processing and food shrinks. If a jar loses excessive liquid during processing, do not open it to add more liquid. Check for sealed lids

Testing jar seals

After cooling jars for 12 to 24 hours, you will want to do some testing jar seals, by removing the screw bands and test seals with one of the following options:

Option 1. Press the middle of the lid with a finger or thumb. If the lid springs up when you release your finger, the lid is unsealed.

Option 2. Tap the lid with the bottom of a teaspoon. If it makes a dull sound, the lid is not sealed. If food is in contact with the underside of the lid, it will also cause a dull sound. If the jar is sealed correctly, it will make a ringing, high-pitched sound.

Option 3. Hold the jar at eye level and look across the lid. The lid should be concave (curved down slightly in the center). If center of the lid is either flat or bulging, it may not be sealed.

Reprocess an unsealed jars

If a lid fails to seal on a jar, remove the lid and check the jar-sealing surface for tiny nicks. It may be possible to reprocess an unsealed jar, If necessary, change the jar, add a new, properly prepared lid, and reprocess within 24 hours using the same processing time. Headspace in unsealed jars may be adjusted to 1-1/2 inches and jars could be frozen instead of reprocessed. Foods in single unsealed jars could be stored in the refrigerator and consumed within several days.


Storing your canned foods

When lids are tightly vacuum sealed on cooled jars, remove screw bands, wash the lid and jar to remove food residue; then rinse and dry jars.  Label and date the jars and store them in a clean, cool, dark, dry place.  When storing your canned foods, do not store jars above 95°F or near hot pipes, a range, a furnace, under a sink, in an uninsulated attic, or in direct sunlight.

Under these conditions, food will lose quality in a few weeks or months and may spoil. Dampness may corrode metal lids, break seals, and allow recontamination and spoilage. Accidental freezing of canned foods will not cause spoilage unless jars become unsealed and recontaminated. However, freezing and thawing may soften food. If jars must be stored where they may freeze, wrap them in newspapers, place them in heavy cartons, and cover with more newspapers and blankets.

Happy Planting!

I hope you found this post helpful. Please leave me a comment below, let me know if you have water bath canned before? Did you enjoy it? What did you water bath can? What were your trials or triumphs. I would love to hear from you.



Chris - FounderGardening Tips for Beginners

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9 thoughts on “Water Bath Canning – Simple Steps”

  1. Hello Chris. Waterbath canning is the traditional way my grandparents used to can food. I use this method to preserve nectarines and sour cherries. After the jars are filled with fruit, I fill them with boiling light syrup. Then I put the sealed jars in a large oven-safe pot, fill it with water and place it into the preheated oven. This way I can easily control the temperature and use a larger pot in the oven than what fits on the stove. Waterbath canning is the best way to preserve fruit and veggies without added chemicals.



    • Thank you for sharing how you water bath can.  I only heard recently in my research that some people use the oven vs the stove, that’s awesome.  I water bath canned apple sauce last year.  It was really good.

  2. Hi Chris. Thank you for very interesting article. I have large garden and every summer Im struggling with extra amount of fresh vegetables. I never tried water bath canning but its seems as a perfect way to preserve food. Its natural, quite easy to follow and will give my family opportunity to eat healthy vegetables whole year. Looking forward to test it in practice.

    • Hi Cogito,

      Thank you for your comments.  Just remember most vegetables have a high pH and would need to be pressure canned.  You can can pickles, tomatoes, stewed tomatoes, jellies, jams and preserves with water bath canning.  You can pickle other vegetables too using water bath canning.  Follow an approved recipe, for safety.

  3. Thank you for this post. I have a good experience canning. I remember going to visit my nonna (grandma) and she would tell my siblings and me stories about the war and her town while we canned for a couple of hours. It was a delightful time.

    I prefer hot-packing. it is definitely the best.

    • Hi Paolo,

      We just canned a bunch of spicy pickles with my
      sister in law, cousin and our husbands.  We had a good time all doing it
      together.  We made a day of it.  When I can tomatoes, apple sauce and
      the brine for pickles are all hot packed.  The pickles go in cold.  I
      enjoy canning, I just picked it up a couple years ago.  Thank you for
      your comments and experiences.

  4. Hi Chris, I was really paying attention to all the precautions you describe here. We have been canning tomato sauce and apple sauce for some years now. Our assumption has been that because we cook the tomatoes and the apples to make the sauces, separately, of course, we didn’t have to worry too much about sterility. We do wash the jars and lids thoroughly in the dishwasher and we always pour the sauce while still as hot as we can keep it and then seal the jar. We usually only put the jars for immediate use in the refrigerator, while the others we will freeze. Do we run any risk with the apple sauce for example? My daughter likes to eat that cold. The tomato sauce we will heat when we add to pasta so that would seem to be less risky. Thanks, much appreciated. Andy

    • Hi Andy,

      They still recommend sterilizing the jars.  When I can tomatoes and apple sauce, the tomatoes and apple sauce I hot pack (separately, of course).  This helps remove the air from the sauce.  Tomatoes are normally acidic, they can boarder on 4.6 pH, so I add some lemon juice to make sure the acidity is 4.6 or lower.  If the water bath canning is done correctly and has the vacuum seal, there is no reason why your daughter can’t eat the apple sauce cold after it was canned.  Thank you for your comments and questions.  I hope I answered your questions.


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