Don’t let canning intimidate you! It is not hard to safely preserve your favorite foods. This beginners guide will get you set up quickly with the basic equipment and instructions. Pressure canning requires special equipment but water bath canning does not so it is much easier for beginners to get started!
Is this your first time canning? Or maybe you have not canned in years and it is time for a refresher course! Welcome – this article is for you. Each section covers something important you need to know to make great home canned food safely and easily.
Water Bath Canning is a wonderful skill that allows you to preserve high quality food from your garden or local farms in the way that YOU like to eat it. I love that I know as much about where the food came from as I want to and I know exactly what is in the jars because I put it there. Throughout the winter I find it very satisfying to dish up food I made myself and I absolutely love the high quality available in home canning that is not always available at the store.
How to Water Bath Can In 10 Easy Steps
Step #1: Wash canning jars, lids and bands in dishwasher or by hand.
Step #2: Fill your canner half full with water. Put the rack down inside the pot. Make sure to cover the pot when you begin to bring the water to a boil. This keeps the process quick. I also keep a kettle handy in case I need to add more hot water to cover my jars.
Step #3: Prepare your food and fill your jars according to the recipe directions. (Jars should not be any colder than room temperature.) Leave 1/2″ of head space if the recipe gives no instruction for how much space to leave at the top of the jar.
Step #4: For canning thick foods like applesauce that can trap air bubbles run a plastic spatula around the inside of the jar to release any air bubbles.
Step #5: Use a clean, damp cloth or paper towel to wipe the rim of the jar clean. Make sure it is totally clean for a good seal.
Step #6: Put lids on the jars and tighten the bands just until you feel some resistance – this means finger tight. Do not overtighten.
Step #7: Use a jar lifter to set the prepared jars down into the boiling water in your canner one at a time. When you have loaded all the jars they need to be covered by at least 1″ of boiling water. Use a kettle of hot water to add additional water if needed.
Step #8: Keep the water at a rolling boil for the processing time required in the recipe.
Step #9: Use the jar lifter to place jars on a wooden cutting board or a few layers of towel to cool. Leave them to cool for 12 hours.
Step #10: Check the seals on each jar by pressing down on the center of the lid. If the jar pops it did not seal. Any jars that didn’t seal can be refrigerated for up to three weeks. Jars that are correctly sealed should be washed and stored in a cool dark place until use. Jars can be stored with the bands on or off. It is helpful to use a sharpie to label the lid with the date and contents.
Note: As of 2014 there was a major change to canning. The old rules required all jars to be boiled to make them sterile and that lids had to be boiled to soften the adhesive ring before canning. NEITHER of these steps is suggested now. Clean everything well and you are ready to go!
The Equipment you Need for Water Bath Canning
You can get the equipment you need all over the place now. My local grocery store often has canning jars and lids. Farm supply stores and Walmart usually have plenty of canning equipment or you can order what you need online.
Required Equipment for Water Bath Canning
- Canning jars with lids – whatever mason or ball jars you like with lids and rings
- Canner with Jar Rack. They come in several sizes. I have a 21 1/2 Quart pot. It is pretty standard, fits on my stove and can hold 7 quart jars or 19 pints. Mine is a Granite-Ware brand. You can use any pot big enough to hold a canning rack.
- Canning Funnel: I suggest getting one like this that shows how much head space you have in the jar. But they also make stainless steal canning funnels which are wonderful too.
- Jar Lifter – you need some way to get jars up out of the boiling water.
- If you are doing a lot of jam, an immersion blender is perfect. I love my Cuisinart. I have had it for several years and it has held up great. I think buying one with the extra attachments is worth it! Costco sometimes carries this too.
Suggested Equipment for Water Bath Canning
- Big soup pots or stock pots. These are handy for cooking up jams, blanching peaches, or making sugar syrup for canning fruit.
- Large slotted spoon – good for lifting out peaches of scalding water.
- Old towels: Jars need to sit on towels to cool. Often they are sticky and can get your towels really dirty. Use older towels or towels you can bleach after.
Is Water Bath canning a good fit for YOU?!?
I love water bath canning for many reasons but I’ve come to understand that it is NOT the right experience for everybody! Recently I introduced a friend to water bath canning for the first time and to my surprise she HATED it! My friend loves really healthy organic food that is free from unhealthy additives so I thought canning would be a great fit for her. Canning is not a one hour project – it can take you a day if you have a lot of food to put up. Before you commit here are some things to think about before you decide to try canning for the first time:
- Do you value your time or your money more? Canning high quality produce is usually cheaper than buying high quality produce in winter but it takes a lot more time.
- Do you enjoy working with your hands? I find the experience of washing, peeling, cutting, and jar filling deeply satisfying. This domestic task fills my tank and brings me joy. If you find these types of activities to be drudgery canning might not be for you.
- Do you have access to low cost or free high quality produce? Canning is a lot of work so if you also have to pay a lot of money for the fruit it can be frustrating. On the other hand I don’t suggest using low quality produce because it ads so much extra work! One summer I made applesauce from small, organic apples that had a lot of worms. The apples were at least 50% bad and took a ton of time and energy to prep for sauce. It was just not worth the free produce!
- Do you find satisfaction in eating something you made yourself? I find a lot of fulfillment in opening a jar of something I’ve canned for my family. I also love to give homemade jars as housewarming, Christmas and even wedding gifts!
- Do you value getting the BEST flavor for your food? Canning some things – peaches for example – gives you a flavor and quality you just can’t buy at ANY store. I love that summer fresh, ripe peach flavor on my shelves all year long.
Deciding the answers to the questions above will help you decide if YOU will enjoy water bath canning in a way that makes the project worth it to you!
My Best Water Bath Canning Tips and Tricks
If you just landed yourself a 50 pound box of peaches or have some other epic long canning day planned these tips will help it be a great day! Smaller canning projects that just take a few hours need less prep.
- Crank up the AC and put a giant fan in the kitchen to counteract the heat.
- Drink lots of water. Staying well hydrated helps me keep my energy up. It’s so simple but so important!
- Clean the kitchen and prepare everything the day before. I try to have everything set out, jars washed and a clean work space to use the night before. I use the dish washer to wash all of my jars.
- Have a few extra jars clean and ready. Also go through a checklist and make sure you have all the sugar, vinegar or other supplies you need!
- Plan dinner ahead of time. I put something in a crockpot, have leftovers ready to go or just plan to order a pizza.
- Do your canning with friends! Historically women have gathered together to help each other with canning. If you have a lot of food to put up this is still fun! We get pizza for lunch and let the kids play while we put up the food. The day usually ends with a big bottle of wine, sore feet and a lot of laughter.
Water Bath Canning Using an Outdoor Propane Burner
This year I started using a propane burner like this one to do my water bath canning on the deck! I LOVE this method! It heats the water to boiling in my canner much faster and keeps all the heat of processing my jars outside! I made applesauce when it was about 103F outside and the kitchen stayed nice and cool with the jars cooking away outside on the deck!
I suggest you wait to buy one of these until you know you like canning since it is a $50-$100 investment. But for anybody who plans to can every year it is absolutely worth it! This is also a great Christmas gift for a dedicated canner.
One word of warning – make sure you set the burner so that your water is just boiling nicely and don’t turn up the fire as high as it will go. You can get things too hot with propane and explode jars / overcook food. (Also please note that some pressure canner manufactures tell you NOT to use their brand of pressure canners on propane burners. )
Understanding How Altitude Impacts Water Bath Canning
We know cooking is science, right? But we don’t always think of it that way. If you live higher up, water boils at a lower temperature! The temperature of the water is part of how you make sure that food is canned safely in the water bath canning method. Thankfully it is easy to adjust each recipe for exactly where you life!
Every canning recipe will tell you to process jars a minimum number of minutes + additional minutes if you live above 1,000 feet.
Here is how to figure this out for where YOU live!
- Google the altitude of your town. For example, I live in Boise, ID and the altitude is 2,730 feet according to Google.
- Follow the recipe instructions to add additional processing time (boiling time) to your recipe. If your recipe does not include this information you can contact your extension office or you can use this general table to increase your processing times!
- At 1,001 to 3,000 feet above sea level, increase processing time by 5 minutes.
- At 3,001 to 6,000 feet above sea level, increase processing time by 10 minutes.
- At 6,001 to 8,000 feet above sea level, increase processing time by 15 minutes.
- At 8,001 to 10,000 feet above sea level, increase processing time by 20 minutes.
For example since I live just under 3,000 feet I add 5 minutes to the processing time of everything I make in a water bath canner. If you are confused at all please leave a comment and I will help you figure this out!
Where to Get Reliable Safety Information for Water Bath Canning
Water bath canning is easy to do safely! But sometimes you will have questions. You can use the internet to look things up but be sure you are using a good source with reliable information!
I keep a copy of the Ball Blue Book on hand at home. It is the Bible of canning. They usually run under $10 and will cover all the usual issues that come up. The book is much easier to use and more comprehensive than their internet page.
Many communities have an extension service that can answer canning questions from a local perspective. If you are looking online for information you can trust information put out by extension services or universities.
Water Bath Canning With Kids
I love including my kids in the canning process! They learn the skill of preserving food which teaches them about history and prepares them to can their own food in the future if they ever want to. I also value my children knowing where food comes from! Instead of my little ones thinking peaches come in a tin can from the local grocery they understand that we pick the peaches, wash the peaches, and preserve them. Understanding how the world works and where food comes from is a valuable lesson for every child to learn, no matter their age.
It is easy to include older children in the process. They can jump in and do most or all of the things an adult can do. But what about the littles?
I started including my son in jam making just as he was turning four. He could stand on a stool and stir the jam. He could help ladle the jam into jars (this was messier but he felt SO smart that he could do it!) It took me more time but including him gave him a powerful sense of accomplishment. He later took a jar of the jam to pre-school for “J” week and his class had a jam tasting with jam he had helped make! Yes he was proud…
I’ve also had unnerving moments of canning with a two year old. I was making jam and she tugged on a towel, pulling it off the counter. There was a hot jar on the towel mostly full of jam! She tugged hard and the jar fell, splattering hot jam all over and the jar shattered. And of course she was potty training at the time so there was not a lot of clothing on her little person at the time. By the grace of God she was spattered with hot jam but not burned and didn’t get cut. I had turned my back for mere seconds to pull something from the stove and was literally an arm’s length away when this happened!
Including your kids in the canning experience is great but know your kids and know what they are ready for. Any kid old enough to stand on a step stool at the sink can wash apples. But if you have little ones who are not old enough to be trusted around hot liquids, the stove, or knives you may not want to include them or even have them underfoot just yet.
I’ve also learned that kids who are going to be in the kitchen for canning would do well to have shoes and pants on – stuff happens even to attentive moms and this can help protect tender skin! Also a word to the wise – canning and potty training don’t mix for a variety of reasons. You can laugh now – it was as epic as it sounds, and thankfully everything came out all right!
One thing that has worked very well for me in the little years is to get together with one or two other mom’s and all do our canning together. We make a day of it! Sometimes one person picks up all the supplies and we split the cost or everybody will bring their own rings, lids, jars, etc. The younger kids play and one mom can always keep them herded out of the kitchen. Moms can rotate in and out with kids and food prep so that the kids are cared for and the canning gets done.
We order pizza for lunch and sometimes even pop a movie in for the kids later in the afternoon. Sometimes a bottle of wine comes out in the afternoon and there may even be music some kitchen dancing!!! It is a fun, social way to preserve your food together. At the end of the day you split up all your jars and call it a win!
Great Water Bath Canning Recipes To Start With
There are lots of great things you can try preserving with your new water bath canning skills. These are some of my favorites!
- How to Can Summer Peaches In A Water Bath Canner
- How to Can Spiced or Pickled Peaches in a Water Bath Canner
- How to Can Peach Jam in a Water Bath Canner
Not sure where to start? Peaches are easy and popular. You won’t regret having quite a few jars of this summer treasure in your pantry come winter!
This post was originally shared in August of 2014 but was updated in June 2020 to reflect the latest water bath canning recommendations and information.