Water Bath Canning and Pressure Canning: Explained

Master water bath canning and pressure canning and there'll be nothing you can't can.
By the United States Department of Agriculture
July 14, 2011
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Don't let a little steam and boiling water scare you. Pressure canning and water bath canning are safe methods to preserve your food. Learn how with this excerpt from the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning.
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If you’re new to canning, deciding between water bath (boiling-water) canning and pressure canning can be a difficult task. Water bath canning seems easier, and works for fruits and pickles, but can’t be used for low-acid foods such as red meat and some vegetables. Pressure canning, on the other hand, can be intimidating to novices, particularly if you’ve heard the old tales of exploding canners. With this helpful excerpt from the United States Department of Agriculture's Complete Guide to Home Canning, you'll learn the difference between pressure canning and water bath canning to decide which is best for you. Use this and our other canning resources to stock up after your harvest.

The following is an excerpt from the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning covering how to can carrots.

Food Acidity and Processing Methods 

Whether food should be processed in a pressure canner or boiling-water canner to control botulinum bacteria depends on the acidity of the food. Acidity may be natural, as in most fruits, or added, as in pickled food. Low-acid canned foods are not acidic enough to prevent the growth of these bacteria. Acid foods contain enough acid to block their growth, or destroy them more rapidly when heated. The term “pH” is a measure of acidity; the lower its value, the more acid the food. The acidity level in foods can be increased by adding lemon juice, citric acid, or vinegar.

Low-acid foods have pH values higher than 4.6. They include red meats, seafood, poultry, milk, and all fresh vegetables except for most tomatoes. Most mixtures of low-acid and acid foods also have pH values above 4.6 unless their recipes include enough lemon juice, citric acid, or vinegar to make them acid foods. Acid foods have a pH of 4.6 or lower. They include fruits, pickles, sauerkraut, jams, jellies, marmalades, and fruit butters.

Although tomatoes usually are considered an acid food, some are now known to have pH values slightly above 4.6. Figs also have pH values slightly above 4.6. Therefore, if they are to be canned as acid foods, these products must be acidified to a pH of 4.6 or lower with lemon juice or citric acid. Properly acidified tomatoes and figs are acid foods and can be safely processed in a boiling-water canner.

Botulinum spores are very hard to destroy at boiling-water temperatures; the higher the can­ner temperature, the more easily they are destroyed. Therefore, all low-acid foods should be sterilized at temperatures of 240 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, attainable with pressure canners operated at 10 to 15 PSIG. PSIG means pounds per square inch of pressure as measured by gauge. The more familiar “PSI” designation is used hereafter in this publication. At temperatures of 240 to 250 degrees, the time needed to destroy bacteria in low-acid canned food ranges from 20 to 100 minutes. The exact time depends on the kind of food being canned, the way it is packed into jars, and the size of jars. The time needed to safely process low-acid foods in a boiling-water canner ranges from 7 to 11 hours; the time needed to process acid foods in boiling water varies from 5 to 85 minutes.

For more information on which foods are high or low in acidity, check out the Slideshow.

Recommended Canners

Equipment for heat-processing home-canned food is of two main types — boiling water can­ners and pressure canners. Most are designed to hold seven quart jars or eight to nine pints. Small pressure canners hold four-quart jars; some large pressure canners hold 18 pint jars in two layers, but hold only seven quart jars. Pressure saucepans with smaller volume capaci­ties are not recommended for use in canning. Small capacity pressure canners are treated in a similar manner as standard larger canners, and should be vented using the typical venting procedures.

Low-acid foods must be processed in a pressure canner to be free of botulism risks. Although pressure canners may also be used for processing acid foods, boiling water canners are rec­ommended for this purpose because they are faster. A pressure canner would require from 55 to 100 minutes to process a load of jars; while the total time for processing most acid foods in boiling water varies from 25 to 60 minutes. A boiling-water canner loaded with filled jars requires about 20 to 30 minutes of heating before its water begins to boil. A loaded pressure canner requires about 12 to 15 minutes of heating before it begins to vent; another 10 minutes to vent the canner; another 5 minutes to pressurize the canner; another 8 to 10 minutes to process the acid food; and, finally, another 20 to 60 minutes to cool the canner before remov­ing jars.

For examples of water bath canners, pressure canners and illusrated examples of how to use each, check out the Slideshow.

Boiling-Water Canners 

These canners are made of aluminum or porcelain-covered steel. They have removable perfo­rated racks and fitted lids. The canner must be deep enough so that at least 1 inch of briskly boiling water will be over the tops of jars during processing. Some boiling-water canners do not have flat bottoms. A flat bottom must be used on an electric range. Either a flat or ridged bottom can be used on a gas burner. To ensure uniform processing of all jars with an electric range, the canner should be no more than 4 inches wider in diameter than the element on which it is heated.

Using Boiling-Water Canners 

Follow these steps for successful boiling-water canning:

  1. Before you start preparing your food, fill the canner halfway with clean water. This is approximately the level needed for a canner load of pint jars. For other sizes and numbers of jars, the amount of water in the canner will need to be adjusted so it will be 1 to 2 inches over the top of the filled jars.
  2. Preheat water to 140 degrees  for raw-packed foods and to 180 degrees for hot-packed foods. Food preparation can begin while this water is preheating.
  3. Load filled jars, fitted with lids, into the canner rack and use the handles to lower the rack into the water; or fill the canner with the rack in the bottom, one jar at a time, using a jar lifter. When using a jar lifter, make sure it is securely positioned below the neck of the jar (below the screw band of the lid). Keep the jar upright at all times. Tilting the jar could cause food to spill into the sealing area of the lid.
  4. Add more boiling water, if needed, so the water level is at least 1 inch above jar tops. For process times over 30 minutes, the water level should be at least 2 inches above the tops of the jars.
  5. Turn heat to its highest position, cover the canner with its lid, and heat until the water in the canner boils vigorously.
  6. Set a timer for the total minutes required for processing the food.
  7. Keep the canner covered and maintain a boil throughout the process schedule. The heat setting may be lowered a little as long as a complete boil is maintained for the entire process time. If the water stops boiling at any time during the process, bring the water back to a vigorous boil and begin the timing of the process over, from the beginning.
  8. Add more boiling water, if needed, to keep the water level above the jars.
  9. When jars have been boiled for the recommended time, turn off the heat and remove the canner lid. Wait 5 minutes before removing jars.
  10. Using a jar lifter, remove the jars and place them on a towel, leaving at least 1-inch spaces between the jars during cooling. Let jars sit undisturbed to cool at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours.

Pressure Canners 

Pressure canners for use in the home have been extensively redesigned in recent years. Models made before the 1970’s were heavy-walled kettles with clamp-on or turn-on lids. They were fitted with a dial gauge, a vent port in the form of a petcock or counterweight, and a safety fuse. Modern pressure canners are lightweight, thin walled kettles; most have turn-on lids. They have a jar rack, gasket, dial or weighted gauge, an automatic vent/cover lock, a vent port (steam vent) to be closed with a counterweight or weighted gauge, and a safety fuse.

Pressure does not destroy microorganisms, but high temperatures applied for an adequate period of time do kill microorganisms. The success of destroying all microorganisms capable of growing in canned food is based on the temperature obtained in pure steam, free of air, at sea level. At sea level, a canner operated at a gauge pressure of 10.5 lbs provides an internal temperature of 240 degrees.

Two serious errors in temperatures obtained in pressure canners occur because:

  1. Internal canner temperatures are lower at higher altitudes. To correct this error, canners must be operated at the increased pressures specified in this publication for appropriate altitude ranges.
  2. Air trapped in a canner lowers the temperature obtained at 5, 10, or 15 pounds of pressure and results in under processing. The highest volume of air trapped in a canner occurs in processing raw-packed foods in dial-gauge canners. These canners do not vent air during processing. To be safe, all types of pressure canners must be vented 10 minutes before they are pressurized.

To vent a canner, leave the vent port uncovered on newer models or manually open petcocks on some older models. Heating the filled canner with its lid locked into place boils water and generates steam that escapes through the petcock or vent port. When steam first escapes, set a timer for 10 minutes. After venting 10 minutes, close the petcock or place the counter­weight or weighted gauge over the vent port to pressurize the canner.

Weighted-gauge models exhaust tiny amounts of air and steam each time their gauge rocks or jiggles during processing. They control pressure precisely and need neither watching during processing nor checking for accuracy. The sound of the weight rocking or jiggling indicates that the canner is maintaining the recommended pressure. The single disadvantage of weight­ed-gauge canners is that they cannot correct precisely for higher altitudes. At altitudes above 1,000 feet, they must be operated at canner pressures of 10 instead of 5, or 15 instead of 10, PSI.

Check dial gauges for accuracy before use each year. Gauges that read high cause under-pro­cessing and may result in unsafe food. Low readings cause over-processing. Pressure adjust­ments can be made if the gauge reads up to 2 pounds high or low. Replace gauges that dif­fer by more than 2 pounds. Every pound of pressure is very important to the temperature needed inside the canner for producing safe food, so accurate gauges and adjustments are essential when a gauge reads higher than it should. If a gauge is reading lower than it should, adjustments may be made to avoid overprocessing, but are not essential to safety. Gauges may be checked at many county Cooperative Extension offices or contact the pressure canner manufacturer for other options.

Handle canner lid gaskets carefully and clean them according to the manufacturer’s direc­tions. Nicked or dried gaskets will allow steam leaks during pressurization of canners. Keep gaskets clean between uses. Gaskets on older model canners may require a light coat of vege­table oil once per year. Gaskets on newer model canners are pre-lubricated and do not benefit from oiling. Check your canner’s instructions if there is doubt that the particular gasket you use has been pre-lubricated.

Lid safety fuses are thin metal inserts or rubber plugs designed to relieve excessive pressure from the canner. Do not pick at or scratch fuses while cleaning lids. Use only canners that have the Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL) approval to ensure their safety.

Replacement gauges and other parts for canners are often available at stores offering canning equipment or from canner manufacturers. When ordering parts, give your canner model number and describe the parts needed.

Using Pressure Canners  

Follow these steps for successful pressure canning:

  1. Put 2 to 3 inches of hot water in the canner. Some specific products in this Guide require that you start with even more water in the canner. Always follow the directions with USDA processes for specific foods if they require more water added to the canner. Place filled jars on the rack, using a jar lifter. When using a jar lifter, make sure it is securely positioned below the neck of the jar (below the screw band of the lid). Keep the jar upright at all times. Tilting the jar could cause food to spill into the sealing are of the lid. Fasten canner lid securely.
  2. Leave weight off vent port or open petcock. Heat at the highest setting until steam flows freely from the open petcock or vent port.
  3. While maintaining the high heat setting, let the steam flow (exhaust) continuously for 10 minutes, and then place the weight on the vent port or close the petcock. The canner will pressurize during the next 3 to 5 minutes.
  4. Start timing the process when the pressure reading on the dial gauge indicates that the recommended pressure has been reached, or when the weighted gauge begins to jiggle or rock as the canner manufacturer describes.
  5. Regulate heat under the canner to maintain a steady pressure at or slightly above the correct gauge pressure. Quick and large pressure variations during processing may cause unnecessary liquid losses from jars. Follow the canner manufacturer’s directions for how a weighted gauge should indicate it is maintaining the desired pressure.

IMPORTANT: If at any time pressure goes below the recommended amount, bring the canner back to pressure and begin the timing of the process over, from the beginning (using the total original process time). This is important for the safety of the food.

  1. When the timed process is completed, turn off the heat, remove the canner from heat if possible, and let the canner depressurize. Do not force-cool the canner. Forced cooling may result in unsafe food or food spoilage. Cooling the canner with cold running water or opening the vent port before the canner is fully depressurized will cause loss of liquid from jars and seal failures. Force-cooling may also warp the canner lid of older model canners, causing steam leaks. Depressurization of older models without dial gauges should be timed. Standard-size heavy-walled canners require about 30 minutes when loaded with pints and 45 minutes with quarts. Newer thin-walled canners cool more rapidly and are equipped with vent locks. These canners are depressurized when their vent lock piston drops to a normal position.
  2. After the canner is depressurized, remove the weight from the vent port or open the petcock. Wait 10 minutes, unfasten the lid, and remove it carefully. Lift the lid away from you so that the steam does not burn your face.
  3. Remove jars with a jar lifter, and place them on a towel, leaving at least 1-inch spaces between the jars during cooling. Let jars sit undisturbed to cool at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours.

Selecting the Correct Processing Time 

When canning in boiling water, more processing time is needed for most raw-packed foods and for quart jars than is needed for hot-packed foods and pint jars. To destroy microorganisms in acid foods processed in a boiling-water canner, you must:

  • Process jars for the correct number of minutes in boiling water.
  • Cool the jars at room temperature.

The food may spoil if you fail to add process time for lower boiling-water temperatures at altitudes above 1,000 feet, process for fewer minutes than specified, or cool jars in cold water. To destroy microorganisms in low-acid foods processed with a pressure canner, you must:

  • Process the jars using the correct time and pressure specified for your altitude.
  • Allow canner to cool at room temperature until it is completely depressurized.

The food may spoil if you fail to select the proper process times for specific altitudes, fail to exhaust canners properly, process at lower pressure than specified, process for fewer minutes than specified, or cool the canner with water.

Using Tables for Determining Proper Process Times  

This set of guides includes processing times with altitude adjustments for each product. Pro­cess times for 1/2-pint and pint jars are the same, as are times for 1-1/2 pint and quart jars. For some products, you have a choice of processing at 5, 10, or 15 PSI. In these cases, choose the canner pressure you wish to use and match it with your pack style (raw or hot) and jar size to find the correct process time. The following examples show how to select the proper process for each type of canner. Process times are given in separate tables for sterilizing jars in boiling-water, dial-gauge, and weighted-gauge pressure canners.

Example A: Boiling-Water Canner  

Suppose you are canning peaches as a hot-pack in quarts at 2,500 ft above sea level, using a boiling-water canner. First, select the process table for boiling-water canner. The example for peaches is given in Table for Example A in the Slideshow. From that table, select the process time given for (1) the style of pack (hot), (2) the jar size (quarts), and (3) the altitude where you live (2,500 ft). You should have selected a process time of 30 minutes.

Example B: Dial-Gauge Pressure Canner 

Suppose you are canning peaches as a hot-pack in quarts at 2,500 ft above sea level, using a dial-gauge pressure canner. First, select the process table for dial-gauge pressure canner. The ex­ample for peaches is given in Table for Example B in the Slideshow. From that table, select the process pressure (PSI) given for (1) the style of pack (hot), (2) the jar size (quarts), (3) the process time (10 minutes), (4) the altitude where you live (2,500 ft). You should have selected a pres­sure of 7 lbs for the 10 minutes process time.

Example C: Weighted-Gauge Pressure Canner 

Suppose you are canning peaches as a hot-pack in quarts at 2,500 ft above sea level, using a weighted-gauge pressure canner. First, select the process table for weighted-gauge pressure can­ner. The example for peaches is given in Table for Example C in the Slideshow. From that table, select the process pressure (PSI) given for (1) the style of pack (hot), (2) the jar size (quarts), (3) the process time (10 minutes), and (4) the altitude where you live (2,500 ft). You should have selected a pressure of 10 lbs for the 10 minutes process time.


Have a smartphone or tablet? Download the free MOTHER EARTH NEWS library app for access to our How to Can resource (also free!). Find it in the iTunes App Store and Google Play. It’s the power of canning know-how in the palm of your hands!


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