Do I choose a water bath canner or a pressure canner? And why?
That is a common question ~ and a good one. The canning methods you choose are the most important factor in canning safety.
This Page Includes:
How to Choose the Right Canning Method
Choose the Food You Want to Can
First, you need to choose the food or product you intend to can.
And then, remember that low acid needs the pressure canner and high acid needs the water bath. (more on that in a moment).
When selecting your food, it is important to keep the following things in mind:
- Try to select local fruits and vegetables. If you leave near an orchard or u-pick farm, purchase your produce directly from the farmer. Not only is the quality better, it helps support your local community. Make sure to call before your visit to see what is available.
- Look in your own garden. Do you have a strawberry patch? Try making strawberry jam.
- What does your family eat on a regular basis? Does your family eat a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Try making your own grape jam.
- Start with something simple, something that you will be excited to eat and share. If you preserve something you love, you will be encouraged when you open a jar. You’ll be able to say, I did this! It will motivate you onward and upward.
Once you decide what food you’d like to can, you must choose a canning method to match the food type. The two recommended, safe methods are pressure or hot water bath.
Are You Preserving Low- or High-Acid Foods? Do You Know the Difference?
The canning methods you choose will depend on the acidity of the food you are preserving. If you are like me, you have absolutely no idea of the pH levels in your foods. So just remember two easy things:.
- Low-acid foods contain very little natural acid. They will have a pH of 4.6 or higher. Vegetables, meats, dried beans and all soups are low-acid foods. These will need to be preserved using a pressure canner.
- High-acid foods contain enough acid to have a pH level of 4.6 or lower. Most fruits and fruit products, jams, jellies, and fruit spreads such as apple butter are included in the high-acid group. These will need to be preserved using a water bath canner.
A few notes…
Pickles also may be safely water bath canned because of the added vinegar or fermentation. This adds to the acidity of the food.
Tomatoes are a special case. The most recent recommendations indicate that you should add lemon juice to acidify tomatoes before canning.
There are also unsafe methods that you should avoid. Methods that your grandmothers may have used with no problems and taught you about. You have to decide if you want to take the risks associated with these. There is a list of them at the bottom of this page to help you decipher what is still valid and what you should consider changing.
Botulism is a type of food poisoning that thrives in low acidity. This is why it is important to process low-acid food by pressure canning. A pressure canner obtains the high level of heat necessary to kill botulism spores.
Still Feeling Overwhelmed By the Choice?
If you are just learning to can, I recommend starting with fruit and a water bath canner. Of the two canning methods, the water bath is more beginner friendly.
The black canner you see here is inexpensive and can often be found used. Personally I love my stainless steel water bath canners; they are beautiful as well as useful. But if price is holding you back, try the less expensive route to get started.
Water bath canning is less intimidating. Plus, the results are so yummy! Achieving a delicious product will encourage you to continue canning.
Once you’ve gotten your feet wet, you’ll realize canning is a fun, satisfying and valuable hobby. Or a way to bring healthier foods into your diet.
For the ambitious!
I don’t even like to use the phrase ambitious because it makes it sound so scary and hard. It is not! For those who are ready to plunge in…start pressure canning. Really, it is not hard. Just do it right, and you will be filling your pantry in no time at all.
Canning Methods from the Past
“But my grandmother always did it this way.” Canning methods have come a long way since Grandma’s time. Yet, some canning methods are still being used that are not considered safe anymore.
Don’t risk it, leave it in the past. I have an entire section on various canning safety questions you may have.
If you are using home canning recipes handed down from your mother or grandmother…be aware of the safety issues.
Some of those recipes are fine! Go ahead and use them. But be aware of current USDA recommendations. Things have changed since Grandma’s times. New bacteria have developed. Acidity levels have changed in our foods. Check out those recipes against new studies.
Side Note: A more recent canning method is called “dry canning” and involves canning food without liquid, which isn’t safe. Read more about dry canning here.
USDA Extension: Do They Really Know Best?
Now I can just hear some of you saying…that the USDA is just being overly cautious. You don’t trust their recommendations. I truly have considered that issue. I’m not one to just go with the govt flow. So when I hear that the recommendations are over the top too conservative, I really DID think about it. Honestly!
Maybe they are… However, I decided for myself that my peace of mind is worth the small amount of effort to abide by the suggested procedures. You have to decide too.
This is what it comes down to for me. Remember, you can’t see, smell, or taste botulism. It is not a risk worth taking.
Now for some of the canning methods that I see that are NOT considered safe.
Open Kettle Canning
In this method hot, sterilized jars are filled with hot food. The seals and lids are placed on the jar and the food is allowed to cool. Often with jams and jellies, the jars are inverted on their tops. Thus this is sometimes called the “inversion method”.
This usually creates a good seal. However, while placing your food in the hot jar, the food is exposed to air and the utensils used to transfer it into the jar. Even during this short time, your food may become contaminated. While you have food that is sealed, it is not necessarily sterilized. Spoilers may have entered your jars.
I know women who do this with their Jam Recipes and Jellies. They would probably roll their eyes at me. They have had no problems…yet.
I have been tempted to try this method. After all, they didn’t have any problems…
However, every time I think about it, I’m uneasy. I decided to take the extra step and process using the suggested recommendations. I LOVE peace of mind. Why take the chance? The added effort is minimal.
Oven canning or oven processing is another unsafe method. This involves processing the filled jars in the oven. Ovens are not consistent enough to be sure they reach the heat level needed to kill botulism.
Oven temperatures may vary. The dry heat produced in ovens does not penetrate the jars as quickly. Heat circulation is not the same in an oven.
There is also a method of preserving dry goods that is called ‘oven canning’. This is not canning at all, so don’t get them mixed up. And oven canning dried goods is not safe either. By heating in the oven, you will most likely introduce moisture into your jar of dried goods. Then the jar seals that moisture in and spoilage is likely.
Other Unsafe Methods
How about processing your jars in a dishwasher? No, not safe.
You can certainly use the dishwasher to wash your jars and keep them warm before packing. But it is not safe to try to process food packed jars using a dishwasher.
How about adding aspirin to your jars? Nope…NOT safe either.
Decision Time: You have to decide for yourself.
Botulism is food poisoning caused by improper processing and handling. Thankfully, it’s very easy to avoid it altogether with some common sense and best practices. SimplyCanning explains here.
This page has to do with the issue of boiling low-acid foods prior to eating them – not during the processing! SimplyCanning clears a few things up about this misunderstanding.
There are many misunderstandings in canning pertaining to “Grandma’s techniques” from a few generations ago that are no longer safe. Learn why you should use up-to-date methods at SimplyCanning.
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Page last updated: 10/21/2021