What is a Boiling Water Canner?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

A boiling water canner is a kitchen device that allows you to safely sterilize canned or preserved foods so that you can be assured of their ability to keep well without refrigeration. There are a couple of types. Some styles feature a pot and a wire or metal rack that can hold several mason or glass jars. Others merely refer to the metal rack, which can be placed in any large pot to boil and thus kill any bacteria that might be present on the jars or their lids.

A boiling water canner may be used to safely sterilize canned foods.
A boiling water canner may be used to safely sterilize canned foods.

When jars have been filled with any type of food you wish to can, like jam, pickles or sauerkraut, the jars are place in the rack, and then in the pot. Water is poured into the canner and should cover the jars by at least 1 inch (2.54 cm). Each type of canned food will have different recommendations for the necessary boiling time. You can check updated cookbooks with recipes for canning for the safest recommendations.

A boiling water canner may be used to sterilize jars of jam.
A boiling water canner may be used to sterilize jars of jam.

Once the boiling water sterilizes the exterior of the jars, they are removed and allowed to cool before being stored. Many people also use the boiling water canner to sterilize jars prior to filling them with food they want to preserve. This is an excellent idea, since bacteria in the jars can lead to deterioration of foods even if they are boiled after being sealed.

A jar lifter may be used to remove sterilized jars from a boiling water canner.
A jar lifter may be used to remove sterilized jars from a boiling water canner.

It’s important to note what kind of stove you have when choosing the right boiling water canner for your home. First, electric burner stoves must use pots with flat bottoms so that water heats evenly. Second, the pot’s diameter shouldn’t be any more than 4 inches (10.16 cm) larger than the diameter of your cooking surface or burner, either electric or gas. Otherwise, the jars in the canner may not evenly heat and you won't be able to guarantee the safety of your canned food.

Sauerkraut made in a boiling water canner.
Sauerkraut made in a boiling water canner.

In addition to buying a boiling water canner, you may also need to purchase a jar lifter, a device that will remove the rack from the pot once the jars have been boiled for the appropriate time. Jar lifters sometimes are sold with the canner, but may need to be purchased separately. Having one is an important step in personal safety, since you’ll be removing jars from very hot water.

A jar of pickled gherkins.
A jar of pickled gherkins.

Some styles are versions of pressure cookers and must be used with caution. What is most important is waiting to remove the jars, and release the pressure per the device's instructions. Many of the newer models take less waiting time. If you’re using an older pressure cooker as a canner, you should wait 30 to 45 minutest to depressurize.

Some people might ask why you can’t just set jars in a pot to boil and sterilize them. It’s true that you might get away with this method, but the great thing about the rack in the boiling water canner is that it keeps the jars off the bottom of the pot so that boiling water can circulate underneath them. It keeps the jars separated from each other so that they don’t come together and accidentally break. Using a canner is therefore safer, more effective, and less likely to result in losing the very food you wish to preserve.

It may be easier to control the temperature of a boiling water canner when using a natural gas stove.
It may be easier to control the temperature of a boiling water canner when using a natural gas stove.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

GenevaMech

@ Glasshouse- To can things like meats and vegetables you need to use a pressure canner. Pressure canners prevent the steam from escaping, allowing the water to reach temperatures above 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Pressure canners can reach temperatures high enough to kill all microorganisms, and stave off dangerous microbes like botulism. Canning recipes will adjust the canning methods for pressure canners as needed.

Glasshouse

@ GenevaMech- If you can't use a boiling canner for canning non-acidic foods, then what do you use? How would I go about canning vegetables like potatoes, green beans, or carrots?

GenevaMech

I would like to add some information. Boiling water bath canners are only suitable for foods that have a low pH level. Non-acidic foods must be preserved at higher temperatures than can be achieved with boiling water. Boiling water canners are only suitable for canning things like tomatoes, jams, and anything with a pH less than 4.6. You can use a litmus strip to check the pH of the food that you are canning. If you are close, a little vinegar or citrus juice can be added to lower the pH levels a little more. Non-acidic foods canned in a boiling water canner run the risk of becoming tainted with botulism. Great for botox, but not so great for canning food.

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