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Taking the Plunge into Water Bath Canning

Sheila JulsonCanning in all forms scared me, mostly due to the thought that if done incorrectly, I could accidentally poison myself or loved ones with botulism. I purchased books about canning and preserving, but had yet to crack one open. They eventually found their way to my donation pile for Goodwill. I stuck to the safe route of a freezer to preserve summer produce from gardens and farmers’ markets. The method is rather foolproof, and the only gear needed are some good freezer bags and containers.

Then four quart-sized glass jars of my homemade vegetable stock expanded and cracked apart in my freezer. I endured a few tiny, painful cuts while cleaning up the mess. Maybe the freezer method was not always foolproof.

“Canning’s no big deal,” people told me. They explained how they just poured hot food into a hot jar that had been sterilized in an oven or dishwasher and then made sure the seal had popped. That seemed too easy. I was still skeptical.

“You don’t boil anything in a water bath kettle or pressure canner?” I asked.

“Nah!” This answer was often accompanied by a dismissive wave of the hand. “I’ve been doing it this way for years, and I’m still alive.”

People also once thought it was no big deal to ride in cars without seat belts, or let kids play with mercury. I felt more research was necessary, so I dug out the canning books from my donation pile. The more I read, the less intimidated I felt.

For low acidic foods, like most vegetables, a pressure canner was required. That sounded scary. My wild imagination quickly envisioned the thing blowing its lid in my kitchen, food splattered everywhere, like something you’d see the Three Stooges do. I decided that I’d get to pressure canning later.

Yet water-bath canning, used for high-acidic foods like most tomatoes, looked pleasant, like, well, a calm and relaxing bath. It seemed that if you can boil water, use basic measurements, and watch a clock, there should be no problem. I found Canning and Preserving for Dummies and Easy Homemade Preserves really good resources for learning the basic method.

First, I had to get some tools. I picked up a canning set that included a water bath kettle, a jar rack, and all the fun gadgets like a see-through wide-mouth funnel and a magnetic jar lid lifter. My local True Value had just as fine a selection of canning gear as any big-box store. The utensils to get started, including new jars, cost under $50. The kettle is well constructed and will likely outlive me, and it is so large that you could bathe a baby in it.

water canning kettle
My water canning kettle and the fun gadgets that came with it.

I started with something simple – salsa. I confess that I did stray from the recipe slightly, despite warnings in my how-to book to follow recipes exactly. I’m brave and usually willing to face spicy foods head-on, but 10 jalapeno peppers just seemed a bit too much. Yet I briefly wondered if omitting a few peppers would end up poisoning anyone.

My boyfriend Doug often broke away from his Guitar Player magazine to check my progress. He gave a satisfying sniff over the kettle of boiling salsa and returned to the living room, carrying a contented smile with him.

I was ready to can my creation. Using the jar lifter, I removed the empty sterilized jars from the boiling water to dry ... but how? The book didn’t specify. Air-dry? Wipe with a towel? No, that wouldn’t make sense to wipe sterilized jars with anything. I panicked and returned the jar to the bubbling water. The online canning community concurred that air-drying jars was just fine. I set the jars on a baking rack, but still worried if we’d end up poisoned.

Using the wide-mouth funnel, I filled the jars, mindful of the headspace. I secured the lids with the screw bands and submerged the filled jars in the boiling water bath for the required time. Was my water hot enough? Would we end up dead around the table? I left the jars in for an additional five minutes, just to be sure.

Doug returned to the kitchen to watch me gingerly remove the jars from the boiling water. Shortly after I placed the jars on the baking rack, we heard that sucking POP. We high-five’d, but the true test was still yet to come. Would we wind up on our way to the hospital in an ambulance?

After consuming all three jars of salsa within two weeks of my first canning experiment, we’re still alive and didn’t come close to a trip to the ER. I’ve since gained confidence and canned more salsa and tomato sauce. The how-to canning books are now on a shelf in my kitchen.

While my first canning experience went seamlessly, has anyone ever had a first-time canning disaster? And has anyone ever shared my paranoia of accidental poisoning? 

My first canning experiment - salsa - was a success.