Canning 101: Why You Shouldn’t Can Like Your Grandmother Did

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When I first started canning in earnest, every few months, I’d wrap up a collection of full jars and ship them off to my parents. I just couldn’t resist sharing all the delicious things I was making with them. One evening, my dad took a moment to call and thank me for the orange marmalade I had recently sent his way. During that phone call, he also made a request. Could I possibly make grape jelly sealed with paraffin wax, like his Grandma Bartlett used to make?

I adore my dad and am nearly always willing to go pretty darn far out of my way to do something to make him happy. Sadly, this was one request that I had to turn down. The reason? It’s just not safe to do it the way Grandma Bartlett used to do it.

Some of the vintage techniques you should avoid include:

Open Kettle Canning: This is the sealing method in which you pour hot jam, jelly or other preserves into a hot jar, quickly wipe the rim and apply the lids and rings. Then you simply allow the heat of the product to produce a seal. While this will typically produce a seal, you don’t have the back-up of the boiling water process, which means that you run a higher risk developing mold or other bacteria in your preserves.

Paraffin Wax Seals: The method my father remembers so fondly. In this technique, you pour thin layers of wax over your jam, until you built up about 1/2 an inch of wax on top of your product. The primary issue with this method is that there’s no way to check your seal. Additionally, these seals have a high rate of failure. My mother remembers her aunt frequently opening jellies sealed in this manner, only to discover that they were furry with mold under the wax.

Upside Down Sealing: This is sealing method found most often in Europe and is a variation on the Open Kettle approach. In it, you fill your jars, wipe rims, apply lids and rings and then, instead of processing you invert the jars and cover with a kitchen towel until they’re cool. While this technique will give you a concave lid and a fairly firm lid, it does not always produce a quality seal (and again, you lack the safety insurance that the boiling water process grants you). Additionally, if you do this with a firm setting jam or jelly, you’ll end up setting your jam up against your lid and not down at the bottom of the jar where it should be.

Steam Canners: A steam canner is a piece of equipment that looks like a cake carrier. It has a very shallow base with a high domed lid. You place it on the stove, pour a small amount of water into the shallow pan, put your jars on top and then cover with the domed lid. The steam then circulates to heat the jars. However, while steam can be hotter than boiling water, it can also exist at much lower temperatures as well. Additionally, it doesn’t have the same heat penetrating abilities as boiling water, so the heat of the processing pot will not penetrate to the core of your jars. In 2016, Atmospheric Steam Canners were approved for home use. More info here.

The way I look at canning is this. We all invest our time, money and equipment into our canned goods. It just makes good sense to use the most reliable processing techniques available, to ensure the best outcome possible. As far as I know, the most reliable process (for high acid foods) is a boiling water bath for the length of time prescribed by your recipe.

I think even Grandma Bartlett would change her ways if she was canning in the 21st century.

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129 Responses to Canning 101: Why You Shouldn’t Can Like Your Grandmother Did

  1. 1
    Jennifer says:

    i just did my first Jam. 3 cans of boysen berry jam! still waiting for a plink noise but it looks great!

  2. 2

    Confession time. When it comes to jam, and jams alone, I totally do the open kettle method. And in over 10 years of canning on my own I’ve only ever had 1 jar go bad.

    • 2.1
      Marisa says:

      Cheryl, sounds like you’ve had a long streak of good luck! My mom used to be a open kettle person herself, until an entire batch of apple butter molded within weeks of sealing.

      • Jason says:

        My grandmother used to seal with the open kettle method. I don’t know what her success/failure rate was, but we recently opened a jar of 30 year old green beans and ate them for supper. Very delicious and fresh!

        • Marisa says:

          I dearly hope those green beans were pickled or canned in a pressure canner. Otherwise they are decidedly unsafe.

  3. 3
    Katyo says:

    you forgot the oven canning method as another one of grandma’s old tricks.. you fill the jars then bake them in the oven for X amount of time.. I have an old ‘oven caning guide’ for my vintage stove. not planning on using it, but thought I’d mention yet another method that has gone by the wayside over the years.

  4. 4
    Jill says:

    I was hoping you’d have something to say about pressure canning in this post. Anything? I’m pretty new to canning, and started using a water bath, but I got this great pressure cooker with canning kit and have been using that since. It seems to work well. Is there anything I should know about safety issues with pressure canning?

    • 4.1
      Marisa says:

      Jill, pressure canning is a fantastic technique for canning low acid foods like vegetables, stocks and beans. I was only writing about high acid canning techniques in this post, which is why I didn’t mention it. However, stay tuned for some pressure canning info coming soon.

  5. 5
    Digital Duchess says:

    My grandma used the paraffin method and open canning method in all her canning – her tomatoes, jam, and corn relish were always a 50/50 for mold. I would kill for her old Swedish steam juicer, she made the most delicious blackberry juice with it. I’ve tried and tried to duplicate it, but that old steam juicer was the magic touch.

  6. 6
    Jenn A says:

    Thanks for posting this, Marisa. With so many new canners it’s critical that they start with the proper and safe *modern* methods.

    I hope you’ll do a canning 101 on why to use the proper method for your canning: boiling water bath for high-acid foods and pressure-canning for low-acid ones. I’ve read so many comments online over the years that went along the lines of “My grandma canned green beans in boiling water and nobody ever got sick, so I do it, too” that I want to scream.

    We put so much time, effort, energy, and love into our canning, doesn’t it make sense to follow proper modern techniques with knowledge that wasn’t available to our grandmothers and ensure our families’ health?

    • 6.1
      Marisa says:

      Jenn, that’s my feeling exactly. Just because the old techniques work doesn’t necessarily make the best or most safe.

      • Toni says:

        I’ve heard that to process green beans in a boiling water bath canner years ago it took 4-41/2 hours not to mention all the heat and energy used….give me a pressure cooker and 30 min anyday…rightfully so people were afraid of pressure cookers back then …they were molded/ made from 2 pieces….today they are machined from one piece of metal

  7. 7

    The oven-processing method mentioned by Katyo actually hasn’t gone by the wayside. I know canning pros who use it. I use only the water-bath method, but I’m curious, Marisa, whether you have an opinion on sterilizing and processing jars in the oven.

    Nice post. Cute jar! 🙂

    • 7.1
      Marisa says:

      Shae, I don’t use the oven techniques (primarily because my oven is tiny and it would take a lot of disassembling to make a tray of jars fit) but I do believe they work. I also believe that you have to know what you’re doing in order to use that approach, and so for beginning canners, I don’t think it’s the best.

  8. 8
    shenna says:

    thank you thank you thank you again – for stressing safety and giving the reasons why some ‘old-fashioned’ methods just shouldn’t be used. No one’s health is worth the risk. Kudos!

  9. 9
    Miranda says:

    Me and my family has done the open kettle method for more than 60 years now and I don’t recall one single jar that has gone bad. If you pay attention to the quality of fruits and work accurately I don’t see any problems with this method. Maybe Europeans are not as hypersensitive when it comes to food safety 😉

    • 9.1
      Heather says:

      I wonder if it has to do with where one lives. In Hawaii, stuff molds fast…I wonder if Digital Duchess isn’t also from a humid area where you can’t leave bread on the counter, or it molds. When I lived in Paris, food didn’t rot as fast.

  10. 10
    India says:

    Open kettle: It’s basically all I do. I can’t get a pan deep enough to cover reasonable-sized jars to do water-bath. In addition, open kettle jam and chutney is what we still do in Scotland and no ill effects. I’ve just opened a jar of jam from 2005- granted it isn’t at it’s best ;0) but perfectly edible. IF I did have a deep pan I’dd do more canning of veges and things, but I’d still open kettle jam.
    Love your blog.

    • 10.1
      Heather says:

      I bet as long as the liquid in the jar is boiling after the water bath, it’s fine for high acid foods anyway.

  11. 11
    kitchenMage says:

    Nice summary of a few major bad ideas. When I started canning, parrafin was still pretty common for jam – I remember picking the waxy bits off the jam and being annoyed about having to give up even that tiny bit. What is surprising to me is that many writers, including some pretty influential bloggers, are still recommending some of those methods. I cringe every time I see it.

  12. 12
    Amelia says:

    I found a canning book in a used book store one time and it had things with pasta and other no no’s in it for canning.

  13. 13
    bushidoka says:

    Katyo – sounds like you have never read a book on canning. You SHOULD NOT be canning without having read a book. Period. This is a great website, and Marisa knows her stuff, but I’m sure she’d agree with me that it should not be your only resource.

    The USDA Home Canning Guide is a good free book that will tell you all you need to know.

    Hint : pressure canning is SAFER than boiling water. But READ THE BOOK!

  14. 14
    bushidoka says:

    p.s. another one I’ve seen – a friend saw this on a TV show a few years ago – is canning in the dishwasher! YIKES! Run away, run away screaming!

  15. 15
    Layla says:

    Add me to the list of folks who pretty much only open kettle can for high-acid foods. I’ve never had anything turn bad. I pressure can low-acid veggies, but for jams/jellies/preserves and tomato products, the open kettle method seems perfectly fine. My grandmother says she can count on one hand the number of things she’s had go bad in her 65 years of canning. Contrast that to my mother-in-law who is super-paranoid and waterbaths everything and lost two entire batches to poor seals (one of chutney, one of jelly) last year alone.

    I love this blog, but this particular post makes me roll my eyes a bit.

  16. 16

    Marisa, Have you ever used Tattler Reuseable Canning Lids? I’m hosting a give-away this week on my blog. Besides being reuseable,they are also BPA free and made in the USA.

    http://homesteadrevival.blogspot.com/2010/08/tattler-bpa-free-canning-lids-give-away.html

  17. 17

    My grandmother and mother made grape jelly with the wax. My brother and I loved it and I didn’t realize it was not safe.

    My mother and grandmother have been cleaning out my grandmother’s attic. they found boxes of jars used for canning. My mother wanted to throw them in the recycling bin because most of them were mayonnaise jars that my grandmother re-used to can. My grandmother didn’t want to throw them away because she heard that more people are canning again and she was sure someone could use them. My mom tried to explain that they weren’t safe for canning and my grandmother wouldn’t hear it. Somehow we all survived back in the day, but those jars did get thrown away.

  18. 18
    Marisa says:

    Miranda, India and Layla – I’m not trying to dictate how you can. I’m simply attempting to offer the best and most current canning information possible, particularly for first time preservers.

    Amy, I have some of the Tattler lids, but I haven’t used them yet. Planning on it soon, though.

    Kristia, good for you getting rid of those old mayonnaise jars! They’re definitely not advisable for canning.

  19. 19
    bushidoka says:

    “Somehow we all survived” – the thing is that the people who got killed by unsafe canning techniques are not around to tell their story. So of course, all we ever hear is “well, we were OK”.

    Good luck with your canning Layla. I hope you never end up killing someone you love. I’ll trust the scientists over the grannies any day of the week.

  20. 20
    Margo says:

    I’ve updated some of my mother and grandmother’s methods: I don’t re-use lids or re-use mayo jars for canning. I do still open kettle can pickles. I like to blend common sense and modern advances in technology.

  21. 21
    rachel says:

    I can’t imagine putting all that work into canning something only to end up with a 50% success rated. I’d cry!

  22. 22
    rachel says:

    Also, in my quest to read every canning book my library has to offer, I did noticed several “modern” (last 10 years or so) still including the oven method. I am intrigued but a little scared.

  23. 23
    Linda says:

    Why are Americans so paranoid about food safety? All my friends use the open kettle method, it is standard for homemade jams in Europe, you can find it in every cookbook and I never heard about any problems with it. If people are too stupid to prepare food the correct way, they might as well kill themselves by preparing fish.

    In a country that allows everybody to carry a weapon and still offers XL fast food menus, I’d say canning is your tiniest health problem 😉

  24. 24
    Charlotte says:

    The other day I saw a reference somewhere to microwave canning. I had never heard of it. What do you know about it?

  25. 25

    […] Food In Jar discusses UNsafe ways to can […]

  26. 26
    Kim W. says:

    To “Linda,” No. 27 —

    I’ll say this for the OP — she only said that avoiding the open-kettle method was the safest way. She didn’t go on to say that the people who still did do that anyway were “stupid” or “paranoid”, or cast dispersion on European’s health.

    If you’ve been lucky enough to successfully use the open-kettle method for this long, bully for you. I don’t see why you felt the need to then go on and accuse “Americans” of being “Paranoid” or “stupid” — that was very unkind and a little unfair; and, I have to be honest, it sounds a little defensive, as well.

  27. 27
    Ana says:

    Thanks for this easy breakdown of the flaws in these older techniques. I’ll be teaching some canning classes in the upcoming months for our University Married Student Garden and was looking for some solid facts to refute the inevitable questions and comments (mostly about open-kettle canning).

    I still see the first two methods taught in classes occasionally held by my church’s women’s society. I think people can get a little lazy and use the quickest method, but I like a sure bet.

    By the way, are these methods also no longer safe due to changes in fruit/vegetables and acidity? It might make sense.

    Thanks,
    Ana

  28. 28
    Marisa says:

    Ana, essentially they were never particularly good ways to can. In the past, home canners experienced more seal failures and spoiled jars than we do today. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with changes in produce over the years. The reason for the changes in best practices is that we know more about canning than we once did. There’s been a ton of research that’s led to these recommendations.

  29. 29
    Mikaela says:

    Question:
    I’ve only ever made my blueberry jam with the open kettle method, but I pour the hot jam into hot jars just taken out of boiling water and seal them with just-boiled lids, too. They all ping and seal, and I’ve never had mold. So the question is, if there is no mold are they definitely safe?

  30. 30
    Marisa says:

    Mikaela, as long as there’s no mold, they should be safe. However, there’s always a chance that a jar could go bad.

  31. 31
    Megan says:

    This post was very informative, thanks! My grandma did the open kettle method, but since I don’t have her around to teach me (sniff), and because I’m paranoid anyway, I’m going to stick to the USDA suggestions.

    Europeans, it’s not about you. Chill.

  32. 32
    Robin says:

    Simple Bites advised using the open kettle method in their canning 101 series last month. I commented that it was not recommended anymore and was surprised to find them writing about it. Your blog reminds me that I am not silly for sticking to updated guidelines for canning. Thanks! This is the simple bites link about using open kettle canning: http://www.simplebites.net/in-the-pits-canning-stone-fruits

  33. 33
    Marisa says:

    Yikes Robin. I’m quite surprised that Simple Bites recommended the open kettle method. You are not silly, it is always best to go with the most recent and safe methods.

  34. 34
    Cherish says:

    I’ve only started reading recently that steam canners are unsafe, and everything I’ve found said they aren’t even sure yet. I was given one and that’s what I use, but now I’m starting to worry. (sigh) I try to be SO careful with my canning to follow all the rules.

  35. 35
    Bee says:

    My two cents worth. As someone who has lived in a number of countries it seems that the accepted/recommended modern methods are a little different around the world. As Marissa says, the Upside Down method is common in Europe. In Australia, the open kettle method is the accepted modern method for the high sugar/high acid/high salt preserves like jams and chutneys but post-bottling boiling is required for other preserves. And the USA/USDA have taken a more conservative approach than many countries and their modern method is that all preserves need boiling after bottling. I guess what I’m trying to say is that not all these methods are old fashioned, they are just not what is recommended in the USA.

    Also with the open kettle method you shouldn’t get moulds. If you do it means something has happened to contaminate your preserves. e.g. a non sterilised spoon was used to transfer the preserves into the jars, jars were allowed to cool too much before the preserve was poured in, jars not sealed quickly enough etc. This ocassionally happens to all of us and we can just throw the offending jars away (no more risk here than if your milk goes off in the fridge and you take a drink of it before realising). My understanding was that post bottling boiling was actually about the more insidious invisible problems like botulism and that this is a problem in lower acid preserves and hence these really do need to be boiled after bottling for the recommended times. No ifs, no buts, no cultural differences.

    Having said all that. I love you blog Marissa. I find it very inspiring. I just translate some of it into my own country’s modern best practices 🙂

  36. 36
    Annie says:

    Thanks for posting this. People who rely on Grandma’s methods (another one is using those old baling wire canning jars) are just courting disaster.

    I do use the open canning method for jam but only if I have made just enough to refrigerate it afterwards – 3-4 jars max. I figure between the faux seal and refrigeration the jam will keep as long as it lasts in our refrigerator.

  37. 37
    Jennie says:

    A few weeks ago I was talking with someone who teaches canning in northern Europe. She said that they consider the US ways old fashioned. That boiling water canning was what they did 20 years ago. I don’t think anyone has used a pressure canner there though, but they tend to eat more seasonally anyways so putting up tomatoes and such isn’t a concern.
    It’s almost impossible to find jars with two part metal lids anymore there. It’s all the bail and rubber gasket.
    Looking at it from the USDA standpoint… I’m following their suggestions but overall USDA is overkill on most things. Plus since USDA started inspecting things food borne illness has gone up… latest being the eggs…

  38. 38

    […] canned fruit aisle. I didn’t do the “proper” canning procedure with it, just the highly suspect “open kettle” method we’re not supposed to use any more, because I plan to drink it all within the next week or so […]

  39. 39
    Char says:

    Another down side to the sealing with paraffin wax is if you ever develop a mice problem (our neighbor had a brush pile she never cleaned up, just always added to, and we got a few mice in our house because of it) the mice happily eat right through the wax to get the the yummy jelly below.

  40. 40

    […] Why You Shouldn’t Can Like Your Grandmother – Canning science has evolved over time. Educate yourself! […]

  41. 41
    Maryse says:

    My grandmother and my mother used a stove-top canning pot still widely used in Europe today together with the special glass jars from “Weck”, a german brand.
    These are all glass and you put a rubber isolating band between the jar and the glass lid. To go in the pot, you have to put metal clips on.Afterwards you have to take them off.
    It is a large pot with a rack where you put the filled jars and immerse them in water the same temperature as your canned goods. The water has to be level with the top of your jars. Then you put a special thermometer in as well and start heating.
    Most items get sterilized for more than 1 hour at 100 degrees Celcius.
    This method is really secure and gets good reviews as the most secure way to can from several european food labs, because of the special jars.
    If your preserve goes moldy or even badder ( botulism), the lid will open automatically, because the gases produced by these bacteria will change the internal pressure and thus open the lid. If you use jars with a mechanical closure system or twist off glasses, you will not be able to tell if the preserve has gone bad, therefore you should always use these jars.
    Pressure canners are not used in most european countries( although some people use their steam cooker to can) mostly because of the complete loss of vitamins occurring with this method. The temperatures of 100 Celcius reached in the regular canning pot are already killing most vitamins, but heating them even above most certainly kills even the small rest of nutritients left.

  42. 42
    Cheryl Morrison says:

    To everyone who thinks, ‘oh, it’s safe enough…’ Think again. I had never heard of anyone suffering from food borne illness from open kettle canning. That is, until my neighbor came down with botulism poisoning from his wife’s pumpkin butter which she had been making every year for 25 years. He ate a small amount on toast at 8am. By noon that day he was blind and couldn’t move his arms. By 3pm he was paralyzed and in a coma. He didn’t recover for nearly six months and almost died.

    It’s just better to go overboard and be safe.

    • 42.1
      Ma Pickle says:

      Pumpkin butter is dangerous for the home canner. Plus there are more people now with poor immune systems (due to chemo etc) than in the old days. Better to be safe than sorry.

  43. 43
    maxie says:

    I know this is an old post, but just have to add my 5 cents.

    I’m your old grandma that used to make jams/preserves back in the 50s/60s and just pour paraffin on top. I never had a jar go bad and I think if you are careful to sterilize properly and use correct ratios of fruit to sugar, high acid fruit jams/preserves are *probably* safe.

    HOWEVER, I stopped doing it that way years ago–why take chances? Plus, while it takes a little longer to BWB, I think it’s much easier than all the precautions we used to have to take.

    Also, @Cheryl, I think you’re trying to compare apples to oranges. I doubt anyone is saying it’s safe to open kettle pumpkin butter; it’s not even safe to pressure can it.

    • 43.1
      Ma Pickle says:

      Hi Maxie et al,

      My Mom used to do jam/jelly with wax. That’s what you did back then. There is enough acid/sugar in jam/jelly that normally there is not a botulism issues and if they go bad you get mold. She very rarely had a bad seal (and you just scraped off the mold if you found it.)

      Our canning methods have improved as we learn more about food safety. I’ve heard some charming stories about canning green beans for hours in a horse trough covered with a blanket over a fire. Makes good reading for Little House on the Prairie. Not happening in my kitchen.

  44. 44
    ixonia says:

    I have used the open canning for everything and Have had no trouble, but some times the lids can be bad, meaning not enough rubber on them my mother years back wrote to the Ball co, and got a responds and free lids. You have to check very possiable reason before you foo foo what are Grandmother’s did and like myself I do not have the money to afford all the new equipment that they want you to use I am unemployed and my Husband is also , so we have a big garden and do it very year for at least 30 years . We also hunt off are land to get by. When this happens to you, you have to live off the land like our parents did in the depression…. A lot of the kids today just don’t know .

    • 44.1
      Marisa says:

      Just because you’ve been doing it for years doesn’t necessarily make it a recommended technique. Keeping up with the most up-to-date developments in canning ensures that you will make a consistently safe product.

  45. 45

    […] note that it’s much, much better to do water bath canning. My new go-to source on canning, Food in Jars, has a great post about why some methods besides water bath and pressure canning aren’t always that […]

  46. 46
    Heather says:

    Thank you for the article! I can star fruit chutney from my tree. I guess I should have read a book first, I just read the instructions on the box. Since it’s a high-acid fruit, I suppose I don’t have to worry much. The fruit is boiling when it comes out of the deep water bath, though the jars aren’t covered. Now I’m concerned a bit, more research, great place to start, thanks again!

  47. 47
    Satearn says:

    What an interesting post…I have a dilemma in my case…

    I’m starting a canning business in Thailand, and my competitors use open kettle AND are FDA Thailand approved…I suspect German and European pickles companies also do the same.

    I have no problem with water bath canning but it makes the Thai cucumbers shrivel, there is no way around it…even with 30 minutes 180-185 method. Even with making toothpick holes in them, soaking in cold water, soaking in brine, soaking in brine/vinegar, fresh cucs, nothing works, they all shrivel. But open kettle works.

    I have pH meters and follow vinegar to water quantities according to USA FDA.

    Any links to European or Australian canning guidelines?

    I’m convinced that open Kettle is fine for high acid foods and that the USA is paranoid, but I would like some scientific evidence. The pH of my brine is 3.5 and after sitting in jars for 7 days pH is still wayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy under 4.6, so what is the danger really? Listeria?

    • 47.1
      Marisa says:

      The canning recommendations details on this site are designed for home canning. There’s a whole different set of guidelines for commercial producers. Even here in the US, large scale producers use steam canning and open kettle canning, because they can more accurately control their environment and prevent the transfer of bacteria. The boiling water bath process is there to kill bacteria and other agents that could spoil the finished product. As long as your produce, canning environment, and equipment are meticulously clean, there’s really no reason why you can’t use the open kettle method.

      I don’t have any information about the canning standards in other countries.

      • Melinda says:

        In Australia the best thing to do is refer to the USA Guidelines. People here still use cellophane covers, and most haven’t heard of water bathing jams and pickles after bottling.

        I sell a lot of products, so water bathing makes sense as far as I’m concerned. I still get asked “why I bother” the answer is always because none of my products have ever gone off!!!!

        I’ve just invested in a pressure canner as well.

  48. 48
    Melinda says:

    I’ve had this argument with a relative recently, she kept insisting that boiling my lids would make the jam go moldy, I tried to explain that I was a bout to water bath the jars, which would kill any mold spores, and I was told that I didn’t need to, she has never done it this way..etc

    Wouldn’t even believe me when I explained that the health Inspector had told me that this was correct.

  49. 49
    Olivia says:

    For nostalgia’s sake you could do batch of jam and then seal 1 jar with wax so your dad could have the joy of prying the wax apart. Sometimes I have stuff stuck in my head as being “the best” because of the memories. In reality the jam in jars tastes the same as those sealed with wax, but I am sure in your dad’s mind taking off that wax seal was some sort of passage to a delicious batch of jam. 🙂

  50. 50

    […] water-bath canning, don’t invert the jars to cool them. Why do people do this?? I know the rings were screwed on good and tight, but the sticky mess that […]

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