7 Water Bath Canning Tips for Beginners

I started water bath canning thirteen years ago. The first thing I canned was applesauce with apples picked from my tree. I got hooked and have since found ways to make canning simple and easy.

Water bath canning is essentially filling sterilized jars, putting a lid on them, and boiling them until everything inside is pasteurized (approximately 180 degrees internal temperature).

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The first point of business when water bath canning is a pot. The best part is that you don’t have to spend much money on a name-brand or fancy pot.

I have an eighteen dollar and twenty-four dollar canner that I use for all my water bath canning, and those are the ones I recommend folks get if they don’t already have something functional. The first one I really like is the Granite Ware brand 21-quart canner (a big pot with a rack insert).

It’s the pot my mother has and my wife’s grandma had. I literally just bought one at Menards for $24.99 regular price. It’s a lighter-weight enamel-covered steel pot with a good lid and a rack to keep jars off the bottom of the pot (an absolute requirement). They caner will last a long time if you take care of it.

The second one I recommend is the Granite Ware Multi-use Pot. It’s a 7-1/2 quart pot with a strainer/steamer rack that fits inside of it. The rack also holds cans off the bottom. It holds two quart jars or four pint jars.

I like this pot because it’s cheap. I just paid $18 for one. It’s also super useful for general cooking of noodles or vegetables. I really do recommend that pot for every kitchen.

Even a pressure canner like this can work for water bath canning as long as you don’t fully close the lid. This is the pot my wife defaults to using for water bath canning.

Use a Pot You Already Have

You can use a pot you already have if it has a lid and will hold at least one jar covered with boiling water. If you have a big soup pot of stock pot with a lid, that will probably work perfectly for canning if you can purchase or improvise a canning rack.

A lid is important because it will keep your pot from boiling dry. It collects a lot of the steam as condensation and drips it back into the pot. A lid will also allow the pot to heat up faster and to require less energy to keep at a boil.

When water bath canning, you want the jar completely covered with water. A little of the jar sticking out is fine after you’re done, but you shouldn’t allow very much of the water to boil out. For that reason, a big pot with a lid is usually a better option. You just need a rack or trivet of some sort.

A fairly traditional jar rack like this is nice, but not al all needed.

Use a Rag Instead of a Jar Rack

You can improvise a jar rack (literally just something to keep jars off the bottom of the pot) with a small towel or rag. It’s an old method that works fine. Sure, there are fancy silicon or chromed steel racks, but you absolutely don’t need them.

When I started, I used an upside-down enameled steel dinner plate as a rack. It worked. It would have been better if I drilled holes in it because the boiling water would lift it up a bit, but it was also my dinner plate so I wasn’t about to wreck it.

If you look around your kitchen and garage, you just might find the perfect thing to re-purpose as a durable canning rack. Of course, you can buy a fancy one for ten to twenty dollars. My point here is, you can often just use what you have and not need to cave in to marketing and buy more stuff.

Reuse Your Boil Water

You will have at least one or two pots of boiling water used for the sterilization procedures prior to processing your jars. After sterilization and filling, put all pre-heated water in your canning pot. It saves a lot of time.

You will need a pot of boiling water to dip your jars in for sterilization prior to filing. Your lids should also be dipped in boiling water for sterilization. I usually use a separate pot for both. The canning pot works well for the sterilization of jars. Fill it just enough to cover a sideways jar with water and get it boiling.

When it’s a rolling boil, slowly lower one jar into the water and let it sit for 30 seconds. Then remove it, fill it, and put a sterilized lid on it. Once all your jars have been sterilized, filled, and have a lid, slowly lower one at a time back into the canning pot with a rack or something on the bottom.

I use a small saucepan or small pot to boil water for the lids. It’s easier that way. I like to keep the water at a low boil with all the lids in it, then use a magnetic lid picker-upper tool to grab a single lid at a time as I fill jars. When I’m done, the water can be added to the canning pot if needed.

Buy Extra Lids Without Rings

If you do much canning, you’re probably going to be overrun with rings. These are the outer pieces of the common lid system. They screw down and secure the lid so the jar will create a vacuum and pull the lid tightly against the mouth of the jar for a permanent seal. You remove the rings after processing and cooling jars, they’re just for the processing step.

All new jars come with rings and lids. Rings are reusable. Lids are, well lids are supposedly not reusable. There are some designs that are but the common design is sold as non-reusable and the USDA says it’s not safe to reuse them. Even though a lot of people reuse them a few times until they stop sealing.

Regardless, lids will never last as long as rings, That means you don’t need to buy rings every time you buy lids. But, most people make that mistake. It’s because you can buy lids with rings and lids without rings. It can be confusing. And, some stores only sell the lids with rings.

Not only is it a slight extra expense, you will be swimming with little steel rings that are a pain to store. If You should replace rings that are getting fairly rusty because that can mess up the seal of the lid, but don’t buy lids with rings unless you need the rings too.

This is freshly canned lard from our Asian Heritage Hogs. The lids (not just the rings) on these jars are on their fourth use.

Reuse Jar Lids

Some lids can be re-used. I reuse the regular two-piece (ring and lid) canning jar lids. I’ve never had one fail to seal with less than four uses, except for the ones from 1886 that I found in last summer in a box from my aunt. Even then, three out of four sealed.

You will be able to recognize a failure to seal because the lid will be popped up in the middle. Even if it’s still stuck down, if the lid is popped up, it’s not adequately sealed. The good news is that any jar that breaks its seal within 24 hours is considered fine to eat because you sterilized it well.

That’s one reason why you should check on your jars about 24 hours after processing them. Most of the time, a failure to seal is noticeable immediately as the jar has cooled. Sometimes it takes longer to break a poor seal. 24 hours is the optimum test period for that.

If a jar fails to seal, you should eat it within 24 hours, re-process it with a new lid, or put it in the fridge. If the seal breaks within 24 hours, it should be eaten or refrigerated. Anything longer than that and it should be tossed out.

You can also buy reusable jar lids. These designs have not been tested by the USDA that one time they actually did test things and form safety recommendations. These products have been tested by private laboratories and are safe for home use.

There are lug lids, which are the one-piece type lid that comes on sauce jars from the grocery store. I like lug lids because they’re a simple design. Not all lug lids will fit a common home canning jar, but some will. That takes a bit of research. I know that an Amish grocery store near us sells lug lids that fit a regular mouth (not wide mouth) canning jar.

There are tattler lids. My grandma used those ones, They have a lid with a separate rubber seal o-ring and are used in combination with normal lid rings. They are expensive but quite reusable and durable.

There is also the old bail-top lid. I have a dozen of those old jars. They have a wire spring bail that pushes the glass lid down on a rubber o-ring and seats the whole ensemble against the mouth of the jar. It’s an old design, but it still works. I still need to get the rubber rings for my old jars.

That salsa jar has been used three times for home canning. It may last one more time before the lid’s seal gives out.

Reuse Sauce Jars

The last trick I have for you, and no it’s not a USDA-approved practice, is that you can reuse sauce jars from the grocery store. Those jars and lug-style lids can usually be reused 3 times without failure. I have tested this myself for years and none have ever failed on the 3rd re-use. about half of them failed on the fourth.

Whenever I buy something in a jar, be it a gallon of pickles or some spaghetti sauce, We’ll clean the jar and set it aside for re-use. If one fails to seal, it’s just as noticeable as with the normal home-canning lids. I like to buy jars of sauce from the dollar store for this reason. One dollar for sauce, plus a jar and lid I can use.

To be fair, I feel I should warn you. Some people are militantly against my last two points. If you delve into the canning groups on Facebook, you will find that most of them will chastize, publicly shame, and or kick out anyone who mentions any canning practice other than what the USDA tested back in the 70s.

The USDA tests included one type of jar, one type of lid, and only two the of many processes for canning. They gave safety recommendations on that. Many other independent companies and noteworthy individuals have tested other methods and equipment outside of the small USDA tests.

Be smart. Make your own educated decisions. Govern yourself.

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I practice what I preach. Here in rural west Michigan, me, my wife, and 5 young kids work together to grow food, raise animals, and grow aninmal feed on just 1 acre. I teach homesteading classes locally, and help people where I can.

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