26 January 2011

The thrifty way to preserve your jams and sauces

Let me start this by saying there are many ways to sterilise food by water bath.  This is how I do it and having been doing it for many years. I'm still here to tell the tale, but be warned, you need to do this carefully.

If you're a keen home cook and have ventured into making sauces, relish, chutney, bread and butter cucumbers or pickled beetroot, there will come a time when you might want to sterilise your jarred products so you can store them in your pantry  for eating later in the year.  I've written before about how we in the warmer climates tend to do less preserving/canning than our northern hemisphere friends - our gardens produce food almost all of the year, and here where I live it is quite easy to keep a kitchen garden going all year.  So instead of putting up our beans, carrots, soups and stews, we tend to eat our vegetables fresh, or if there is an excess, we freeze it.

Tomato relish and ginger beer.

Preserving/canning plays a part for us when we make a great pasta sauce or excellent relish, that is much tastier, healthier and cheaper than the store bought varieties, and we want to make a lot of it to use in the following months.  This is when we need to preserve/can what we cook.  Sauces, chutney and relish, in fact most foods with herbs and spices in them, will improve in flavour when preserved and left to develop flavour for a couple of months.  If you've never done it before, or only do a small amount each year, it's probably not financially sound to buy special equipment.  Here is a good way to sterilise your preserves in a water bath, without special equipment and by using what you already have in the kitchen.

Use modern recipe books for preserving|canning, or recipes from a trusted source, don't rely on very old canning books - some of the old methods of preserving|canning were unsafe.   When you first start doing this, use small quantities and small jars; when you know what you're doing, go bigger.  

You'll need a large saucepan like a stockpot, if it's not a stockpot, it has to be a pot big enough for all the jars to sit under the water.  I use recycled jars that have already been used for jam or honey.  You'll need metal lids that have plastic coating inside the lid to stop the food acids reacting to the metal.  Most of these lids have a little metal indent button that will indent when it's sealed correctly. Take a bit of time with the jars, they could be the difference between success and failure.  Check the rims by running your finger around the opening.  Make sure there are no chips or cracks and the lids are not dented or rusty.  Wide mouth jars are best because it's easier to fill them.

To sterilise your jars, wash them in warm soapy water, rinse, then place them in a low oven - 150C|300F for about 20 mintues.  You want to fill hot sauce into the still hot jars so do this while the sauce is cooking.

When you fill the jars, you fill it almost to the top, without spilling over the side.  You want a bit of what is called head space because some foods swell and bubble when they're heated and need this space to expand.  If you don't allow enough headspace the food might force the lid up and you won't get the jar to seal properly.  The general rule is  7mm|¼ inch for jams and jellys and 12mm|½ inch for tomatoes and fruit.

Before you fill the stockpot|saucepan, place either a round cake rack that fits well on the bottom of the pan, a folded tea towel or folded newspaper on the bottom of the pan so the jars don't sit directly on it.  Instead of using a wide mouth canning funnel, scoop the jam up in a medium sized jug to fill the jars.  Instead of canning tongs to lift the jars, you'll have to use the same jug to scoop some of the hot water out of the pot and when the jars are uncovered, pick them up with a tea towel folded a few times.

These are just some of my jars and bottles.  I never throw out wide mouth jars or interesting bottles and I buy some larger preserving jars.

When you finish filling your jars wipe them to make sure they're clean then, with the processing pot sitting on the stove, place the jars in the pot so they fit well without touching the jar next to it. Fill the pot with cold water, using a saucepan filled at the tap, then bring the pot to the boil - this will take 45 to 60 minutes. When it's slowly boiling, hold it at a slow boil for another 45 minutes for small jars and 1 hour for large jars. When the time is up remove the jars to sit on a tea towel on the bench to cool slowly for 24 hours. The prolonged heat will form a vacuum in the jars and you'll notice the lids will be slightly inverted, or you'll hear them pop as they cool down.

And that's it!  You don't need to buy all sorts of equipment, but like most things, if you really get into this you might want to expand on your utensils and equipment if you do a lot of preserving.  The important thing here is to try it and if it's a good fit for you, it's another useful and productive skill you have in your move towards a more sustainable life.

PLEASE BE AWARE: Low acid foods like meat, beans, carrots, peas, soup etc are not suitable for this type of preserving|canning.

Go here to read an older post of water bath processing.

ADDITION: Here our tap water isn't really cold and it's fine to use tap water on hot jars to fill the pot.  If you're in a colder place, you'll have to heat the water in the pot first, then place the jars.



  1. Thanks for the tips! I will use them this weekend when I teach some friends how to make marmalade

  2. Thank you for yhis post. Rhonda. I have never bottled in srewtop jars before but will give it a go as the Fowlers jars can be expensive. I would like to recommend Fowlers' simple preserver unit (electric)as it is relatively cheap (about $180 includes 3 jars & book). It is very easy to use & I have had great success with it. The whole process takes only 1 hour from start to finish for most size jars (not the really big ones).

  3. Rhonda, I have never heard of using old jam containers. Perhaps (in America) we have different canning rules than you all do? I have always been told to ONLY use new canning lids along with my reusable canning rings and jars. What a great thing to be able to reuse your lids too!

  4. Thanks for this! Just in time as I have a huge bowl full of davidson plums to jam today.
    In the past I've made pickle and just put the hot mixture into hot jars and that's it. Is a water bath really necessary?

  5. As always, an excellent & interesting post. Thanks so much for taking the time to help us become more earth friendly/frugal.

  6. letthismingbeinyou, my understanding is that the US had a number of deaths from botulism cause by eating canned food in the 70s and 80s. Your general rules of canning changed then to be super safe. Also, you can things like meat and fish there, we rarely do that here. It is better to be safe than sorry and while you can try this method, when you process low acid foods, I urge you to do it according to your American standards.

    I believe that all the extra care you in the US take isn't necessary for things like jams, relish etc. You don't even have to process them at all if you keep them in the fridge - they'll last safely for many many months. I'm pretty sure many people preserve in a similar way to mine in the UK and NZ.

    Suzi, for pickles, a water bath isn't necessary, just the fridge will do.

  7. I've read it through a couple of times, but just wanted to clarify your instructions - when you fill the stockpot with water (with the jam jars in it), I'm assuming you cover the jam jars with water, above the lids?

    Thanks Rhonda - I've never heard of processing jams this way (I've only just started doing it, and have done as my mum does - sterlise the jars as you describe, and then store in the cupboard - often the heat of the jam will suck the pop-seal in; and sauces were only ever done in the Fowlers' unit).

    - Jen (http://grow-it-eat-it.tumblr.com)

  8. Full of great tips and also very inspiring.
    You've broken the jam making (in previous post) and preserving methods down into very enjoyable demos :D

  9. Jen, yes, you cover the jars with water above the lids.

  10. The jar lifter (canning tongs) is very inexpensive (in the US), and I found it made a huge difference in ease of canning. I had been canning jams for years without one, and now wish I had spent the money sooner.

  11. Hi Rhonda. A nice post, we might try the stove top method soon as we now have a stockpot big enough to do it. We have, however, in the past done it using the oven method described in River Cottage Handbook No. 2 Preserves, by Pam Corbin. That is a good method if you don't have a big enough stockpot.

  12. This is funny...

    I always can my jam in boiling water bath, mostly same as you... but I boil the water 1st, add my jar of jam, wait returning of boiling water (take around 5-10 minutes), count 5 minutes and remove the jar from the water and let cool down for 12-24h.

    (45 minutes seems long for me)

  13. Thanks for the information on preserving. My Mom showed us how to can and freeze produce so I've been doing it for many years now. I was interested that you sterilize your jars in the oven. I didn't know it could be done that way. I've sterilized jars in boiling water and in the dishwasher, always keeping them hot until they are filled. Then right into the water bath for processing. I'll have to try the oven next time.

  14. At last, some sensible advice on preserving set-ups, thank you! For years I avoided anything that required waterbath processing as I thought I didn't have the right equipment. This summer I thought I'd treat myself to a preserving kit but the $350 NZ price tag made me look a little closer at what it included - a whole lot of stuff I didn't need. I already have a large stockpot and found a round pie/pizza dish with holes in the bottom that sits in my pot inverted and that's all the kit I need plus it doesn't take up extra space for the rest of the year. The only thing I would recommend though is jar tongs - they really do make a difference. I'm curious that you process jams though - I never have and they last for months on the shelf due to the preservative action of the sugar. Happy preserving!

  15. I agree. I think here in America, we have become super safe and some people are just crazy about the whole idea and tell you that you are "risking your families lives" if you don't do it exactly as you are supposed to. I have a 1973 canning book that I use all the time because it has recipes that you can't get now that we are "super safe". I have often wondered about the jars I have seen on other sites where people who aren't in America are canning. I even had a Australian friend who told us how to can in the microwave (I never did try it, by the way, our American brainwashing I guess. I thought it sounded unsafe, lol). I do can meat but not with a water bath canner; with a pressure canner.
    My understanding of what you are saying is that these jars are fine for things like jams, jellies, and pickled things that are going to be water bath canned.
    Now did you water bath can the ginger beer? I wanted to know since I bought ginger to make ginger beer today.
    Thanks for posting this!

  16. Islandhome, I didn't process the jam, but I would if I wanted to keep it for a long time.

    Becky, yes, these recycled jars are fine in a water bath. I've never used a pressure canner so I can't comment on that. We don't process the ginger beer. It's made and stored in the fridge. Good luck with your ginger beer. I hope you enjoy the making and the drinking of it.

  17. I prefer to use the microwave method for my jams, it only takes a couple of minutes and therefore uses far less electricity/gas.

  18. Thanks Rhonda. I've wanted to try preserving sauces recently, but didn't want to invest in all the equipment. I remember my Gran bottling like you describe, but i wasn't sure if this method was still considered safe. Thanks for shraring. I'll give it a go.

    I bottled some tomato sauce recently, but i went with a recipe high in vinegar because I understood that meant I wouldn't have to go through the preserving process. Is that correct? Things high in vinegar or sugar keep without being sterilised through a heating process? i simply sterilised the jars and put in the hot sauce.

  19. Love making jam, but we don't eat it too much because of all the sugar...

    You forgot something on your blog today though - HAPPY AUSTRALIA DAY!!

  20. Most jam makers I have met here in Tassie including my grandmother and myself have never waterbathed their jam and their jam remains good for over a year. Maybe it's because you live in a hot climate perhaps. It's like Island Home said, the sugar does the trick.


  21. Thanks Nicky.

    Tricia, I have found in my climate, pickled and sugar preserves last about six months without processing. If you're in a colder climate, it would be longer.

    Deb, yes, it's a climate thing. I must remember that when I write about it again.

    I was also reminded about loading the pot with cold water on hot jars. Here our tap water isn't really cold and it's fine to use tap water on hot jars to fill the pot. If you're in a colder place, you'll have to heat the water in the pot first, then place the jars.

  22. How interesting! Thanks for sharing your method!

    I too have been warned about reusing jars and lids. This post makes me want to try a small-scale canning experiment with the few random jars I have been saving because I can't recycle them here, but couldn't stand to just throw out!

  23. Always a good idea to put up some jam .. it's great to bring out in the winter .. just a little taste of summer on your toast :)

  24. I've been reading your blog and love it! What little canning I've done in the past, with new jars and lids, I've done in much less time than 45 minutes. Does it take longer when reusing the jars and screw top lids? I'm always adding to my list of things I can do myself and want to better understand the process. I like the idea of reusing what you have. Thanks!

  25. I use the same basic method for canning, however I have always been told not to reuse "grocery store jars" because the glass is not thick enough to safely handle the canning process and may break. I've also been told that even if you do get reused lids to seal initially, that they are not meant to be reused and you run the risk of the seal loosening prematurely (and not noticing it if you arent checking regularly). I reuse my canning jars with new lids.

    I'm in the US, and I know we have stricter canning guidelines, but I'm wondering if your glass grocery store jars are the same thickness as ours here? Some companies here (such as Classico Spaghetti sauce) use actual Mason jars that are safe to reuse, but for the most part companies use thinner glass jars.

    Does anyone have any thoughts about this? Ever had any problems reusing jars that aren't "canning" jars?

  26. It's always interesting to see how things are done in different places. I produce a few thousand jars of jams, jellies, marmalades and chutneys each year, which I sell at farmers markets. I'm in Canada, which would have similar regulations to the United States.
    According to the health board I have to use new lids on my jars, but can reuse jars.
    I sterilize them in the oven also, and could never understand why you are told not to. I have my oven at 240 F. Since my jam is stirred for 5 minutes after boiling, it has cooled down slightly, so I don't want the jars too hot or there is more chance of them cracking when the jam is poured in if the temperature difference is too great.
    I have a canning pot boiling on the stove, and as soon as the lids are on the jars, they go into the canner, the water is brought back up to a boil,(adding the jars cools it down a bit) and they are boiled for 5 minutes. The chutney is boiled for 10 minutes. (boiling it for 45 minutes seems very excessive, unless you are making a very low sugar jam, and even then...)

    I do wear canning pots out, they get rusty in the bottom and develop tiny holes, but are quite often easy to pick up at thrift shops and garage sales for a very low price. I also use a jar lifter (which is very cheap to buy) although all the jars can be lifted out at once with the wire rack, which has handles. Some of my jars are 125 ml, which can easily slip off the rack as they aren't tall enough to be caught by the top ring of wire, so I lift them off individually before carrying the rackfull over to the counter to cool.
    I do use some jars that are not officially canning jars, and have heard the same thing, that they break easily, but I have rarely had that happen, and I have gone through a lot of them. I can only use the sizes that take the canning lids.

  27. hi

    i do a lot of canning for my family. when i make jam or other fruits canning, i only putt the preserves on the jars, putt the lids on and turn the jars upside-down for 5-10 minutes, and store them in the storage room. the only thing you have to pay attention to is that the jam have to be very hot when you fill up the jars. for the jars do not brake when you do that, just place something made by metal under the jars (2-3 knifes, spoons etc.). the metal will absorb the hit and the jars don't brake. if i make compot, i fill up the jars with fruits, i add the sugar, the water, i putt the lids on and i boil them in the oven into the oven-tray, with 2cm of water in the tray and boil for 15 minutes since the water from the jars start to make bubles. after that you take the jars out, turn them upside-down for a few minutes and that's all, you can store them for 1 year+. when i make preserves from vegetables, i pay attention to the vegetables to be very well cooked and when they are very hot i fill up the jars, i putt the lid on, i turn the jar upside-down for a few minutes and after that i cover them with blankets until they cool off, for about 2 days. and i do recycle the jars and the lids too.


    ps: sorry for my english, i learned it using only a dictionary, i never had a teacher.

  28. Hi, I have just made tomato sauce and have left a 2 inch gap. Will this be ok?

  29. Hi, I am wanting to pickle some carrots, what is the best way to can them at home (I don't have any fancy canning equipment), if they are in a vinegar and salt brine would it be ok to use the above canning method?

    1. Sorry, I've never canned carrots so I can't give you any advice.


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