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Basic Canning Instructions

Basic Canning Instructions

If you can boil water and follow simple instructions, you can can – it’s not nearly as complicated as people think. The canning process uses heat to kill potentially harmful microorganisms in your food.  The heat also creates a vacuum within the jar that hermetically seals (airtight) the lids thus preventing recontamination.

This post explains water bath canning (boiling) which is the simplest and most popular home canning method.  It’s the method of choice when canning fruit/jams/jellies, tomatoes and pickled veggies.  Water bath canning is suited for highly acidic foods, classified as having a pH 0f 4.6 or less.  This includes almost all fruits except figs, tomatoes and some melons which are borderline.  Borderline foods and combinations of high and low acid foods, require the addition of an acid such as lemon juice.  Low acid veggies also require additional acid, usually  brine or vinegar (ex. Pickles, sauerkraut).  Without added acid, low acid foods (pH 4.6 or greater) such as vegetables and meats require a pressure canner in order to be canned safely.  Pressure canning isn’t difficult but it requires some special equipment and is beyond the scope of this post.

 How to Can


  • Large Stockpot – if you want to buy a fancy boiling water canner, be my guest.  But if you’re canning on a small scale, a simple stockpot is totally adequate.  Look for a pot that’s at least 3 inches taller than your jars so they can be fully submerged during the process.
  • Canning jars – these are sturdy, heat safe jars often referred to as mason jars.  I use Ball brand which can be found in most grocery stores and sometimes even the hardware store.  I primarily use quart and pint size jars.  I strongly prefer wide mouth jars because they’re easier to fill and to clean.
  • Canning lids & screwbands – canning lids consist of two pieces, a flat lid and a screwtop that holds the lid in place.  Screwtops can be used multiple times as long as they’re rust free and in good condition.  However, the lid itself should only be used to can once.  When it seals, the heat forms an impression on the underside of the lid and it won’t seal as securely if used again.  Used lids are no longer good for canning but you can clean them and use them to cap jars of dry goods or other perishable food items.  Replacement lids can typically be found at the grocery store and online.
  • Optional extras (in order of helpfulness):
    • Jar lifter – Trying to get jars in and out of scalding water is hot and awkward.  These big old prongs are designed to easily lift jars out of hot water.  This is the one extra I would highly recommend.
    • Canning rack – this is a rack that sits on the bottom of the pot.  It raises the jars off the direct heat, helps prevent breakage and promotes even heating.  It’s very nice but not necessary.
    • Funnels – help fill the jars without spilling.
    • Manetic wand – a long stick with a magnet on the end.  It’s used to fish lids out of hot water.
    • Chopstick – this serves as a handy tool to slide around the sides of your jars (before they’re boiled) to release air bubbles.


  • Sterilize:
    • Fill a large stock pot with enough cold water to completely cover your jars.
    • If using a rack, place it in the bottom of the pot.  Place the jars on the rack or simply on the bottom of the pot.  If you don’t have a rack and you’re worried about jars breaking, you can place a small dishtowel on the bottom of the pot.
    • Heat water to boiling and then immediately reduce heat to a simmer for 10 minutes.  Keep the pot covered to reduce evaporation.
    • Keep the jars in the water until they’re ready to be filled (adding hot food to a cold jar stresses the glass).
    • Meanwhile, put the lids in a heatproof bowl to be softened (full boiling is not necessary).  Ladle a couple scoops of just boiled water from your canning pot over the lids.  Keep them in the bowl until you’re ready to use them.  Screwbands don’t need to be heated.
  • Fill:
    • Prepare the contents of  your jars according to your recipe.
    • Lay a towel on your counter and place jars on the towel (placing them directly on a cold surface can break or strain the glass).
    • Fill each jar with desired food.  In general pickled veggies, tomatoes, whole/chunky fruit and condiments require ½ inch of head space.  Fruit juice and soft spreads like jelly and jam require just ¼ inch.  Follow the directions on your recipe because proper headspace helps ensure a good seal.
    • Repeat until all jars are filled.  If the last jar is only partially filled, don’t bother to can because it won’t seal properly.  Just pop it in the fridge and eat that one first.
    • Slide a chopstick or similar utensil (preferably nonmetallic) along the edges of the jar to release air bubbles.
    • Wipe the rims clean, place a lid on each and tighten the screwband fingertip-tight (don’t make it super tight because they need a little room to vent when boiled).
  • Boil:
    • Place filled jars back in the stock pot, making sure they’re completely covered with water.
    • Cover the pot, bring to a full boil and maintain the boil for 10 minutes.
    • After 10 minutes, turn off the heat, remove the pot’s lid and let sit for 5 minutes.
  • Cool:
    • Remove the jars and allow to cool, undisturbed and away from drafts, for 12-24 hours.
    • The next day check all jars to make sure they sealed properly – press the center of each lid.  It should be slightly depressed and should not move when you press on it.
    • Any lids that move or become unsealed should be refrigerated and eaten promptly.
  • Store:
    • Label every jar with its contents and the date.
    • Store in a cool dark place for up to a year.
    • Properly canned foods are extremely safe and spoilage is rare but it can happen.  Do not use any jars that become unsealed during storage.  Also avoid any that smell bad, omit gas, grow mold, slime or otherwise look gross.  In other words – use your common sense!

Note: Altitude affects the canning process – higher altitudes require additional boiling time based on the following guidelines:

  • 1,000-3,000 feet above sea level: Add 5 minutes to the boiling time
  • 3,001-6,000 feet: Add 10 minutes
  • 6,001-8,000 feet: Add 15 minutes
  • 8,001+ feet: Add 20 minutes

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