Water bath preserving

13 October 2007

Preserving food in jars is something of a mystery to many people but bottling/canning is one of the skills of simple living that will allow you to extend the life of some of your seasonal produce, to eat good quality food with no chemical preservatives and to save money.

It's an old skill that our grannies took for granted and we forgot about because we could buy all our goods in jars already processed for us. The problem with those commercially processed goods is that we don't know what's in them and often they contain artificial colourings, flavour enhancers and preservatives that are not good for our health. Home grown and home preserved food, withus adding what we want to suit our own taste, is the way bottled food should be. Pure and simple.

I have never used a pressure canner and when I talk about bottling/canning here, I am only writing about water bath preserving. It is suitable for high acid foods like fruit, or foods that vinegar or lemon juice have been added to. It is not suitable for preserving meat, vegetables, fish, soups or any non-acid food. They must be processed in a pressure canner.

Some will come to this type of preserving as a step towards self sufficiency, others will do it for its economy and others still for the quality and wide variety of jams, chutneys, sauces and pickles that water bath preserving will help you add to your stockpiling cupboard. Last night I used the last of my tomato relish - bottled in November 2006. That one bottling session of about 3 hours last November allowed me to keep my home grown tomato relish in the cupboard for almost a full year. The relish is a recipe I've developed over time, has no chemical preservatives, colourings or flavours enhancers. I use it for pizza bases, on sandwiches, with salads and eggs. It's delicious and it's something I would never be able to buy at a supermarket. But I can make it myself and I make enough for a year and to give as gifts. These treasures should be part of your kitchen tradition. You can start your own tradition and teach it to your children so that these simple skills, even if they are forgotten in the general community, are never forgotten in your family.

The last of the tomato relish, about to be spread on some homemade pizza dough I had in the freezer. On top we had caramelised onions and two cheeses. It was truly a delicious and quick homemade meal.

I am going to warn you that you need to know what you're doing, and the reasons for doing it, if you are to safely preserve food in jars. This way of preserving uses heat to kill bacteria and to seal jars so that new bacteria can't enter while the food is being stored. On the other hand, storing food in a freezer stops most bacteria growing and frozen food can be kept for months. Food stored in a fridge is a kind of short term preserving. It does not kill bacteria, it just slows down the rate at which bacteria multiply. This is why if you keep meat of milk etc in the fridge, it will start to go off after a couple of weeks - the bacteria have multiplied enough to spoil the food. When you process high acid foods in a water bath, it kills the bacteria and the sealed jar stops further contamination - you've sterilised the food. This food doesn't have to be frozen or refrigerated, it can be kept in a cupboard because there is no bacteria present.

Vegetables are low in natural acid and may contain bacteria that is not killed by the heat generated in a water bath. If these foods are stored in a cupboard in a sealed container, the botulism toxin can develop. These foods need to be processed in a pressure canner which can reach the high temperatures necessary to kill this bacteria. In the US, there are about ninecases of botulism poisoning every year. That not a high incidence but botulism poisoning can be fatal.

Fruit is generally high in acid which stops the growth of bacteria and stops the formation of the botulism toxin. If fruit is processed properly, and stored in a cupboard in sealed jars, it is safe to eat. Some properly processed vegetables, with added acid in the form of vinegar or lemon juice, are also safe.

If you are new to bottling/canning I urge you to buy a NEW copy of Secrets of Successful Preserving - Fowlers Vacola Instruction & Recipe Book if you're in Australia or New Zealand. If you're in North America a NEW copy of Ball Blue Book of Preserving and if you're in the UK or Europe a NEW copy of The Basic Basics Jams, Preserves and Chutneys. Or the 9th edition, or later, or Carla Emery's Encyclopedia of Country Living. The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest: 150 Recipes for Freezing, Canning, Drying and Pickling Fruits and Vegetables is also very good. The reason I emphasise a NEW copy, is that all these books have been published for many years and the old versions may contain instructions for the old ways of preserving which are unsafe. If you have preserving books from before the 1990s, the recipes in them probably aren't safe to use. All these preserving/canning processes - worldwide - were updated in the 1980s after many cases of botulism in the US. You must use a NEW book with the updated procedures and processing times.

I hope I haven't scared too many of you off. I would understand that many people would read the information above and decide this is too dangerous and not for you. Please be assured that if you bottle the recommended foods according to the instructions given here or in the new preserving books, you will produce good quality safe food. Following the instructions will protect you, they are there for a reason. One or two preserving/canning sessions will stand you in good stead and set you on the way to safe and delicious preserved food in jars.

  • A large pot, water bath canner or Fowlers Vacola (FV). If you're using a large pot, you'll also need some newspaper or a tea towel on the bottom of the pan to stop the jars having direct contact with the bottom of the pot.
  • Jars - either clip sealed or screw on lids. I use store bought jars for large jars and undamaged recycled jars or good quality for jams and chutneys. You will need to check the lids thoroughly for damage, rust, dents etc. Only use perfect lids.
  • Rubber seals and clips, if you're using FV jars.
  • Canning tongs and wide-mouthed funnel.

If I knew then what I know now I would not have bought FV jars, I would have used all screw top jars. These are freely available on ebay or in supermarkets.

New lids and other preserving accessories are available here.

Further reading here.

There will be another post soon. I'll write about how to process in a water bath and give you some recipes to get you started.


  1. Rhonda,

    We spend a couple days canning in the summer. Nothing beats a fresh pickle or salsa made with your home grown cucumbers and tomatoes.

    Do you have a favorite recipe to share? How about that wonderful sounding tomato spread:)

    Great information!


    From Ky

  2. Hi Rhonda,
    Can you give us your homemade tomato relish recipe? I can still get some local tomatoes at the farmers market and I'd love to try some of this. Looks great for pizza.

    I made some of your bread with a combination of rye, whole wheat and white flour. It is lovely.

    Thanks, Paula

  3. Your relish looks delicious in that jar! I wish I had done some canning this year but I kept putting it off and now it's too late.

  4. I love my FV unit and have finally goten used to the jars - I do think they keep the food better. I also hav ea few of the "mason" jars with the 2 part lids - I tend to give these as gifts (the jars being a boomerang). This year I have saved a few screw top jars so I can make smaller quatities of jams and spreads to give as gifts. As soon as I can find some cheap tomatoes I am going to make up your recipe. Would love to see a tomato sauce recipe too if you have one!

  5. Apparently, my state in the US has very high numbers of the dangerous botulism spores in the air, yet I grew up doing only water bath canning... (my cousin badly burned herself with an accident with the pressure canner and I've been scared off it ever since).

    As our freezer and fridge are now both overfull of garden harvest, I think I may need to resort back to doing some canning (or "bottling" as you call it over there) so I can store food in other places. This is despite my inner child protesting that it never, never, ever wanted to this when I grew up!!! Back then, it really did seem like time wasted away slaving in a hot kitchen. There was a lot of work to do all around when you live on a farm. I so did so much more prefer the work outside -- and still do to this day.

    Thank you for the tutorial. Don't let my complaints worry you -- this is a very valuable skill to have and maintain and share with others.


  6. We just purchased our big pressure canner this year. Imagine my thrill as we walked out of our co-op! (Then I had to make an emergency trip across the USA leaving my husband with the beans that I had just harvested...he was the first one to use the canner)

  7. I have mixed feelings about the whole preserving thing. I followed my parents' example and when I first set up home I used to do it every year - mostly apricots, plums and tomatoes, and apples for the babies. When we moved interstate I took the whole lot to the goodwill store, including about 30 No 3 jars (baby food size - now rare as hen's teeth), swearing I'd never get sucked in again. I found that delicious things were all scoffed within a month or so, and things that weren't so great just lingered on taking up space for years, looking less and less appetising, until they were finally emptied into the compost. Preserving tomatoes is certainly worthwhile if you grow your own, but tomato sauce and chutney are alternatives that can just be bottled and stored like jam. I found we used to preserve a lot of fruit in sugar syrup just because it was there on the trees going to waste - it kind of became an end in itself, virtuous "busy work" if you like. I decided that in Oz whatever was fresh and seasonal really tasted better and was healthier. If you live in a place where it snows all winter and nothing grows, maybe, but I am over sweating over a steaming preserver with bucket loads of fruit in a Sydney summer. I don't think its necessary for a small urban family - it can perpetuate eating a lot of sweet stuff that we can all do without. It was great for my grandmother who had to feed hordes of hungry hard working men on the farm, with no shops nearby, but if there's no tribe around to help preserve it, or eat it, I think I'd rather read a book and eat apples and oranges in winter.

  8. Would it be possible to see up close photos of the jars and lids (both sides of the lid) you are using? They look very different to what I have available here in the US.

  9. Angie, the lids are available here in the U.S. At least in WA state and in TN. I was just at my local Wal-Mart and Food City and they both had them.

  10. I forgot, there are many glass suppliers online that happen to have these same containers and lids. I always use dogpile.com and type in canning jars or glass jars and come up with many different finds.

  11. Hi Rhonda Jean :) Just adding my four stars to your recommendation of the Ball Blue Book. It's a great resource and covers lots of information as well as recipes. Love to you! Q

  12. I pressure cook, too, and have some posts on it under "Food" on my blog.

    Your tomato relish sounds wonderful!!!

  13. If waterbathing with pop tops, how tight do you tighten the lid? And do you have to fill right to the brim?



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