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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.

8/19/2014 2:39:42 PM

Sheila, so enjoyed your canning story. YES, I am there at this time. Scared to death I will do something wrong and cause harm to my family. However, I do realize that in most cases if something smells bad , it probably is. I am a great cook, I have accomplished freezing in freezer bags and just today spent hours freezing tomatoes. After the move back to the Ozarks from Texas, I have just relocated my canning supplies and thinking of trying the salsa, and pickles first. I know there are several of us that have the fear of canning, but I vow to overcome my fear by reading ALL the canning books I have collected over the years, taking a deep breath, and jumping in with both hands! Thanks for the enjoyable article. Linda

10/22/2013 7:28:16 AM

Good heavens! You must have been sitting next to me as you captured my fears exactly. I keep wanting to try my hand at canning but have heard so many horror stories, that I don't even attempt it. You made a good point, start small. I am going to purchase the books that you mentioned, hold my breath and jump in to canning experience. Well, maybe not jump in, just tread lightly. :) Thaks for the encouraging article.

10/15/2013 2:52:07 PM

Thanks to all for the advice and encouragement. I've gained much canning confidence since my first venture, and I've since canned pasta sauce and pickles. I've enjoyed reading all of the blogs, and we have such a good variety on Capper's. I'm pleased to join the community.

erin sheehan
10/9/2013 2:28:12 PM

Your salsa looks beautiful! I laughed at your boyfriend's reading material choice - my husband more often than not has his nose in a guitar magazine. There are lots of "official" warnings about canning you don't have to worry about. Have fun! I hope you have lots of future canning adventures.

10/7/2013 10:10:44 PM

Hi, Sheila! This is Mary from Old Dog, New Tricks blog. I have started canning both water bath and the pressure cooker in the last few years, and I experienced a lot of paranoia, too. Still do, a little. I always helped my mom growing up, but she did all the important stuff. I have personal goals to learn something new continually, so I don't get bored, and I am gaining confidence in the canning area and you will to. If you ever use a pressure cooker, just make sure you stay by it as you follow the directions, and not get distracted and you will be fine. I'm so happy young people are going back to growing and preserving food! Good for you!

10/4/2013 8:10:18 PM

Sheila, Welcome to Cappers Farmer blog community. Water bath canning was a scary experience, huh. It's safe with high acid vegetables like tomatoes. I've water bathed canned tomatoes and actually kept them for over a year without any trips to the ER with stomach issues. Soon you will have the confidence to use the pressure canner. There are built in safety features that prevent any explosions. If you faithfully follow the USDA recommendations, no problems will result because their instructions already have extra precautions in them. People have been doing these preservation methods for many decades without any trouble. The method you describe with the oven is called "hot packing" and I wouldn't recommend that way for any length of time. Four to six weeks maybe but not for long term over winter storage. I actually use canning jars for refrigerated left overs. When packed in a jar hot and allowed to seal up, left overs can be stored in the refrigerator for much longer than the ziploc plastic storage containers. I've eaten things that have been stored two to three weeks without any ill effect. Have a great preserving day.