Canning 101: Should You Use Steam Canners?

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I’ve gotten a few questions about steam canners recently, and so I thought I’d take a little time to share what I know about this style of canner.

For those of you who don’t know, a steam canner is a devise that looks similar to an old fashioned cake carrier. It consists of a shallow pan, a fitted rack and a high domed cover. It is typically advertised as an alternative to the boiling water bath canner (it is not the same as a pressure canner).

Currently, steam canners are not recommended for home use by either the USDA or the National Center for Home Food Preservation. Their reasoning is that steam isn’t as effective at transmitting heat through to the center of the jars as boiling water is. It’s this heat penetration that ensures both the safety of your product (it kills off any possible contaminants) and the efficacy of your seal.

What’s more, the vast majority of canning recipes just haven’t been written for steam canning. While it may actually be an effective method for canning, the bulk of canning research has been done with a boiling water bath canner. This means that we just don’t know how long it takes to process jars in a steam canner for safe storage.

As I did the research necessary to write this, I came across a post on the Utah State Extension Service website on the topic of steam canners. While it doesn’t go so far to endorse them, it does offer a great deal of useful information on best practices if you have determined to use one.

My feelings about steam canners are fairly simple. I don’t use one and I have no intention to seek one out in the future. I like the fact that boiling water bath canning can be done without any special equipment (my favorite canning pot is my all-purpose stock pot with a cake cooling rack in the bottom). Additionally, I believe there are enough risks in life without introducing extra variables into my preserving practice. I know boiling water bath canning is effective and dependable. Why deviate?

How about the rest of you? Ever used a steam canner?

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165 Responses to Canning 101: Should You Use Steam Canners?

  1. 1

    I’ve never used one despite the temptation. So much less water and fuel! But I’m not a very confident canner anyway and like you said, it just isn’t worth it. So I let the water cool completely and use it to water pot plants and the fuel… well, I just try to be as quick about it as I can and not let it boil forever on the stove while I’m getting stuff ready.

  2. 2
    Julia says:

    I’ve always been interested in these because, as Amy comments, less fuel and water. But, I’ve always stalled at mild curiosity. However, I’d like to see some of those electric water bath contraptions that they have in Germany. What’s up with those?

  3. 3
    Luther says:

    We have a canner like that in our extended family and we have often canned together on production work days over the years. Just like you, nobody had recipes and proceedures. Instead we used it to sterilize jars and rings, it works great for that! and avoids the diswasher cycle, keeps the jars hot. We also sometimes take 9×13 cake pans and put the sterilized jars in the oven at 215 degrees to keep them hot. That works really well for production canning because, well you always have clean hot jars and we frequently run several water bath canners (or pressure canners) at a time. We have propane camp stove burners we set up outside in the summer or fall, under a covered porch, and can away! Many hands (many burners) make light work!

  4. 4

    Thanks, Marisa, for posting this. I’ve also been getting questions and have no idea what to say. Now I’ll just refer them to this post.

  5. 5
    suki says:

    I used a steam canner for years and years. It seemed to work just as well as a water bath canner. I never had any problems with it. It saved tons of water and time (heating all that water). I loved that canner. Unfortunately, I left my canner in Arizona when I moved to Hawaii, so I’m back to water bath canning again.

  6. 6
    Jenn says:

    I don’t trust them, don’t trust them, don’t trust them. I’ll stick with my water & pressure canners. If the NCHFP won’t recommend it, I won’t use it. Period.

    Thanks for posting this & doing the research.

  7. 7
    John Schooler says:

    I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on using water vs. pressure canners though…

  8. 8
    Sandra Ley says:

    I live in a small condo with limited storage and a very small kitchen. When I started to can after I retired, I ordered a steam canner and have used it for several years. I have used it to process jams and jellies, marmalade, pickles and applesauce and so far have had no problems. I usually increase the processing time by 5 or 10 minutes over the time used in a water bath. I think cleanliness during the preparing and processing period is most important. Will certainly continue to use my steam canner.

  9. 9
    Lu says:

    I have one that I use for jams and jellies. I’d love to see more research done on these by the USDA (fat chance, I know …).

  10. 10
    Barb Haas says:

    I have always used a boiling water bath or pressure canner. It’s easy and I just don’t trust a steam canner. My favorite canning book, Putting Foods By, nixed steam so I think that is why I have the same opinion.

  11. 11

    I have never used a steam canner, but I noticed some new canning cookbooks don’t advocate using a water bath canner anymore and instead put jars in a hot oven for 10 minutes. For jam, that is. Anything like whole fruit or tomato sauce I would still water bath.

  12. 12

    I learned to can from someone who used a steam canner. It wasn’t until I started looking into getting my own that I became aware of the warnings about them. She seems to use them with great success and is a master preserver, but I am super cautious and constantly have nightmares of poisoning my family so I just use my water bath canner.

  13. 13
    shenna says:

    when I was started canning 35 years ago – I started with the water bath method. Then the steam canners became ‘popular’ so I bought one. It definitely saved time and consequently energy. And when I was really doing big batches – I’d have the water bath and steam canners both going. I haven’t done much canning for about 15 years and started hearing cautions about the steam canner. Now that I AM canning again – my steam canner sits on my garage shelf and I’m just using the water bath method. If someday – someone comes out with some good research that makes me feel good about the steam canner – I’d definitely be interested in using it again. Until then – I’ll stay cautious and use methods that I know will be safe for my family. Isn’t one of the reasons we are canning because we like knowing what is in our foods and that it’s the highest quality possible? Then I certainly can’t justify using a method that might jeopardize my family….too bad…I really did like that steam canner!

  14. 14
    Bettina says:

    In Germany, when making jams, you never process in a water bath afterwards. You use sterilised jars and lids, and after finishing the jam, you fill it, close it, turn it over on the lid for five minutes, then back and pop it goes and is vacuum sealed.

    I have kept jam like that for two years and it was as good as the first day.

    Even our jam books, etc. do not advocate processing it in a water bath or a canner afterwards.

    • 14.1
      Joe says:

      Wow thanks for this tip! I wondered if you could do this since you boil the jam anyway. I will just be sure to sterilize any utensils I use too like the ladle and the funnel. I guess you turn it upside down to make sure any bacteria that came in while pouring get killed too? You would have to make sure you didn’t let the jam cool before you closed it too I think so keep it on the burner on low and work fast!

      • maxie says:

        That’s the way we used to do jams/jellies back in the dark ages πŸ˜‰ I don’t know anyone who ever got sick from them, so not sure why it’s no longer an approved method in the U.S.

        You did need to be scrupulous with sterilizing everything.

        • smart guy says:

          yes, everybody and their grandmother did it that way — we don’t anymore, because it has been proven unsafe πŸ™‚
          kinda like making sausage, everybody used to make it without nitrates, but then in 1793 the germans discovered botulism in Wildbad
          People die from tainted food every year, they’re not using unproven technology like “steam canners”, why risk it over a few pennies of electricity

  15. 15
    Emma says:

    I held off on getting a steam canner until last summer and used it for almost all my processing without any issues. I added about 10-15 minutes processing time and still sterilized all the jars and lids as usual. So far so good. I do quarts of tomato sauce each year and the water, energy and time involved in bringing my biggest stockpot up to a boil made it an unpleasant experience. I steam canned all my sauce last year and check on all the remaining jars each month without any seal failure.
    I think using common sense combined with being more vigilant over cleanliness can make them safer for most canning.

  16. 16
    Christie says:

    I’ve used a steam canner for over 20 years. I love it. It’s light weight and you don’t have to mess with all the water in a water bath canner. As with any canning, you must be careful. Before my steam canner, I used to “open kettle” can. I have used a water bath before. You always need to check your seals and if you read in any canning information, they suggest, strongly, that you heat any canned items 15 minutes before eating. I feel that yo have the same chance of having problems with water bath canning as you do with a steam canner. It’s all about being precise in what you do and following the instructions exactly.

  17. 17
    Pat Somers says:

    Having a steam canner is a great convenience. It saves energy, plus physical energy and time. After the work of preparation for canning, it’s great to use the pressure canner for 45 min., or less instead of three hours in a water bath canner. I keep my steam canner where I can use it all year, as it’s used the same as a small pressure cooker for food preparing a meal. Please don’t take my steam canner away.

  18. 18

    I am so glad to have stumbled upon your site courtesy of msbetterhomes. I have a question that I can’t seem to get answered. I want to get my master food perservers certificate. I live in Massachusetts and we no longer have the class available. I tried to contact the University of Georgia but they have had big funding cuts and no one is there to even respond to emails. Do you have a certificate and do you know if there is an on-line or mail order course available? I teach food perserving several times a year and the certificate would be most welcome.

  19. 19
    Ginger says:

    I love my steam canner for jams, jellies and other high acid foods. I think the trouble comes in when people think they can substitute a steam canner for a pressure canner, two totally different beasties. The steam canner is a valid substitute for waterbath processing, in my opinion.

  20. 20
    Kandace says:

    Like those above, I use a steamer canner and love it because of the conveniences and speed of it. I’ve never “woken up dead” as my sister calls it, from eating what I’ve canned. (She cans too, and uses a combination of traditional canners and steam canners). I also did a couple pint batches of apricots in my solar oven last year–that worked out really well and required no water or steam!

  21. 21
    Antique Jars says:

    I love your jar collection, by the way! It’s nice to see blue ball jars among clear white ones. Keep up the great work!

  22. 22
    Steve barnett says:

    I use oil to can meats and things that need to beheated to higher temperatures than just water boiling. I get the oil up to 300 degrees and cut the heat down to maintain this. I have a big square pan measuring 3′ by 5′. I had the amount of oil to cover the jars and I put 135 jars into the oil. After they are finished I put the jars in a a rack and hose them down with hot water and wipe them dry. This is a good safe method. You can avoid using a pressure steamer. Plus I can do so many jars. This method requires some more work, but if you set up right it’s the safest way to can things that require more heat than just boiling in water.

    • 22.1
      Steve Barnett says:

      I’d like to make a correction. I meant to say the oil should be 250 to degrees. Once the oil was too hot because the thermostat I had wasn’t working so I don’t know how hot the oil got. We tested some jars and it was too hot, but once we knew the temperature was 250 degrees we never had any problems.

  23. 23
    Shelli Vitale says:

    I have a steam canner also, and I love it. With serious back problems, it’s much easier for me to manage than a huge pot of water. I usually add 5 to 10 minutes to the processing time, too. I always have very tight seals and have never had a problem with anything I’ve canned in it. I intend to continue using it.

    • 23.1
      smart guy says:

      Why would you have to manage a huge pot of water?
      You put empty pot on the stove, you pour a cup of water into it, repeat until you have enough water in the pot
      when you’re finished, you take cup, and dunk it in the pot, then pour out into the sink

      you’re never lifting gallons of water, at most you’re lifting a cup, or a pint (whatever your measure)

  24. 24
    Robin says:

    I use my steam canner all the time for jams, jelly and high acid foods. Love it!

  25. 25
    Suzy Grindrod says:

    I was almost seduced by a steam canner at a local store. When I took it up to the counter to purchase it, the cashier said, “Oh you don’t want to buy that! I tried to talk my manager out of stocking it, but he wouldn’t listen!”

    • 25.1
      Rachel says:

      I would have said you know what mind your own buisness and boughten it anyway. I don’t see why people are so fearful of them.

  26. 26
    Sarrannah says:

    I have used a steam canner for the last 30 years and have never had any problems. I have canned all types of fruits in it and tomatoes, pickles, and relishes. It is not meant to be used with low-acid foods, such as green beans, or used for any kinds of meat. A pressure canner is the only safe way to can those. But for any type of fruit like peaches, pears, cherries,and apricots, I have canned these in a steam canner without any problems – ever. As for time tables, I have always used the times as listed for the water bath canner, but adding 5-10 minutes to it certainly wouldn’t hurt anything, especially if it makes you feel safer.

  27. 27
    Van says:

    I’m one of those odd men who actually enjoy doing the canning at our home! My wife is fully capable, but is glad to let me do it. I’ve used a steam canner for several years and, at first, by following the same time processing recommendations as for the typical water bath method, I was “losing” seals after a few days. We live at about 4500 feet above sea level. I can peaches and grape juice. Then, I decided to extend the processing time in the steam canner by quite a bit. Now, once a full stream of steam is blowing out the holes in the dome of the canner, I set the timer for a full hour. Since then, I haven’t “lost” any seals with either peaches or grape juice and the peaches are still nice and firm when opened to eat. They aren’t overcooked. A full hour of processing, as noted above, might be overdoing it but it seems to work for me. at least so far!

  28. 28
    Shauna says:

    I have used my grandmother’s steam canner to process pears and peaches for the last 9 years and have never had a problem. I am sticking with it despite the lack of research.

  29. 29
    Del says:

    I too am one of thsoe strange guys who like to can along with my wife. We’ve used a steam canner for almost 20 years for fruit, grape juice, tomatoes and other hi acid foods. We usually use the same times as a water bath making sure to start the time once there’s a good head of steam. We always are very careful keeping jars, lids, pans and utensils sterile. In all this time we have never had a problem with jars not sealing or coming loose even after 2 years. We’re very happy with the canner and reccommend them to everyone

  30. 30
    Mary says:

    I am master Food Preserver, and agree that the steam canners are not officially recommended. However, I use mine frequently, as the University of California Extension Nutritionist, who taught the MFP class I took, did extensive tests on foods in steam canners, and found that they got just as hot in the interior of the jar as did water bath foods. If you make sure that the food is processed long enough and you follow other best practices, it is fine to use a steam canner. And saves SO much energy and water, not to mention keeping the kitchen cooler on those hot summer canning days.

  31. 31
    Kenneth Lengtat says:

    We have a family run pomegranate business that specializes in pure pomegranate products; jelly, vinegar, juice, not from concentrate. W use steam canners exclusively for doing our jelly. We have been using them for more than 20 years and do between 900 and 1700 jars of jelly each year. We have had 3 seal failures, that we know of, in all those years. The instructions that come with the “Back to Basics” steam canner, that can be found at Wal-Mart, gives a list of times for different types of canning. We always wait until a heavy stream of steam before setting the timer. The outsides of the jars have to be at boiling temperature for the steam to become steady and strong. Hence the jars then take the same time for the heat to penetrate to the middle as a regular bath canner. We will continue to can with our steam canners.

  32. 32
    Amy says:

    I have used a steam canner for many, many years without any problems. It takes so much less water and energy. I do steam a bit longer than water bath simply because there are few good instructions around. Canning methods fall in and out of favor and much of it has to do with liability. There are never any sure bets no matter what you do, and the only canned food I’ve ever had go bad was pressure canned by all the rules.

  33. 33
    Anne says:

    I purchased a steam canner last summer and used it to can almost everything. I LOVE it and will probably not go back to a water bath canner. I have a glass top stove and always worried about breaking it with the heavy water bath canner. My steam canner is much quicker and works great. I haven’t had any trouble with it!

  34. 34
    Judy in aw says:

    I too have used a steam canner for years. I have back problems, as well as fatigue and other issues. But I love to make jams, applesauce, etc. . I came across thistype of canneryears ago and jumped on it because of my physical limitatiions and how much work canning is. I also liked that it used so much less energy and water. Safer, cheaper, better on the environment. I have never had any problems. I learned how to use it on the Iowa university home economics web site and have been perfectly happy. I followed their canning guidelines, which seem to be about 5-15 min longer than boiling water bath, depending on jar size. though I have recommended it to many, there are many
    skeptics and I leave it up to them to decide. But I’m happy and so are my family and gifted friends! Enjoy!

  35. 35
    Terry says:

    Steam canners work very well for acidic and sugary products, as previously posted.
    Same as a water bath and about the same timing. I have used the steam canner for 20 years with no ill effects.
    I defy anyone to state a death or sickness that has come from a product properly canned in a steam canner.
    The folks in government agencies and universities are to over-educated and under-experienced to know what works in the real world.
    Regards, and happy canning,

  36. 36
    Joyce says:

    I have used a steam canner for years and years and years… Never ever had a problem. I am a clean and careful canner, and I follow the instructions for high altitude. Please read the newest comments, especially by Mary #30. Yeah, pressure canners are the latest craze… and I may get one for veggies and no-acid foods. But for now… my 2 steam canners are keepers!

  37. 37
    Bonnie McPartland says:

    I am an experienced canner, both water bath and pressure. I am interested in using a steamer. I live at 7200 feet. Adding 5-10 minutes to water bath time seems logical. Any pearls of wisdom for me? Also, has any one used the Tattler “seals” which are supposed to replace the metal seals? I like the idea of having re-usable rubber rings and the ceramic “seals”. Thanks for any/all opinions.

  38. 38
    Judy Fraser says:

    I am new to canning and trying to decide about equipment. You all represent such a lot of canning know how! Have to say all you in the steam canner camp make a good case, the electricity, glass top stove use, and amount of water and heat generated seems to all point to steam canning. So for the simpler canning I plan to do, like peaches, tomatoes, pickles, sauerkraut, are okay to do with the steam canner? Also like Bonnie would love to hear any experience with the tattler reuseable lids. Last, do you always need to have hot jars? Thanks

  39. 39
    Lily says:

    For high acid foods, I have always used a steam canner, following the same time allowances as for a water bath, and have never experienced any spoilage or failure to seal. All my fruit and pickles are canned this way. But for tomatoes (I don’t like adding lemon juice to my purees or sauces), low acid foods like vegetables and meat/fish/poultry, I will only use a pressure canner. In the years I’ve been canning I have had good luck, few or no failed seals, and never got sick or found a bad jar on my storage shelves.

  40. 40
    Lynette says:

    I have always used a steam canner for fruit and tomatoes. Never had a problem–the tomatoes are acidic enough on their own and I’ve never used lemon juice. I would not use a steam canner for veggies like beans, beets, corn, etc. For that I would stick with a pressure canner or hot water bath.

    • 40.1
      Marisa says:

      Lynette, I won’t argue on the steam canner point, but you really should be acidifying your tomatoes.

  41. 41
    Kathi says:

    Well, I am so glad I stumbled upon this thread tonight. Thank you for all the helpful comments. I used a boiling water bath years ago, but hadn’t canned in almost 20 years. Last year I wanted to get back to it and when I saw the steam canners I jumped at the chance to try one as I have a very bad back and health problems.
    I only made strawberry jam last year & had no problems- all sealed ebautifully and the jam was fine.
    But I did get a little panicky when I started to read on several sites about steam canning not being safe. Then I read a detailed study- I think from Iowa University where they insisted the steam canning was safe and produced the same internal temperatures.

    Getting ready to make blueberry jam & once again I searched because I got that worry about using the steamer, but I feel better after reading all the comments from experienced steam canners here. I do make sure that steam is really rolling and I let it go a good 5- 10 min longer than suggested for boiling.
    so thnak you- I can make my blueberry jam now without so much anxiety.
    I am very careful about the jars & utensils being sterilized and the jam being boiled & piping hot.
    I am in fact going to try sterilizing my jars in the oven- it makes sense that it should work ok, otherwise we would all be getting pretty sick from cooking our meat in the oven.
    Thanks again & happy jamming ; )

  42. 42
    Molita says:

    I use a steam canner and this will be our third year using it. We do pickles, jams and jellies, applesauce and peaches. I haven’t had any problems with it not sealing anything and I always add extra time to my processing. Last night was my first time making pasta sauce from Mrs.Wages mix. I added some citric acid as an extra boost and added peace of mind. I would love to have a pressure canner so I could do low-acid foods.

  43. 43
    nancy says:

    I have used my steam canner for 2 years, with only high acid foods, and they came out great! Good seal, and I can do it outside on my camping propane stove. I have a glass tooped range so it’s the only option for now. Just becuase the USDA hasn’t researched it doesn’t mean it’s not safe. The USAD used to say supplements weren’t safe 20 years ago πŸ™‚ Just use common sense and do a lot of research before you can. My jars are BOILING when they come out (I do only hot pack) and that’s hot enough for me. Read the directions for canning times that comes with the steam canner. Everyone I know who uses one loves them! And they’re still healthy and happy.

  44. 44
    Karen says:

    I have used a steam canner for years. It is convenient and efficient. I always get a good seal. I can peaches, salsa, tomatoes, stewed tomatoes every year and have never had any problems with taste, color, or spoilage. And we haven’t died yet. I feel confident they are a safe method of canning and will continue to can using this method.

  45. 45
    Kat Miner says:

    I have used a steam canner for 20 years and have never had a problem. Steam canners get extremely hot and can break bottles if you don’t watch your temperture, I have done it, so I would say that they get hot enough and do the job. The extension service has not done enough research, an therefore puts them at risk for a lawsuit if they indorse them. It is to bad they don’t do more research because the steam canner is a great time saving tool. I agree with the one comment that they get used instead of a pressure cooker for veges etc. Steam Canner is replacement for Water Bath only.

  46. 46
    ada says:

    So glad to find this thread. I’ve been using my sister’s hand me down steam canner for almost 20 years, believing it was a sub for water bath canning. I only recently read that it isn’t recommended. It is so simple to use and really does reduce the heat factor on hot summer days canning. I have used it for jams, fruits, pickles and tomatoes with never a problem. I just started acidifying my tomatoes this year with powdered citric acid. These posts have reassured me to continue without fear. Thanks.

  47. 47
    Lee says:

    I have done steam canning for about 15 years now. I only use it for grape and blackberry jam. I have never had any problems and highly recommend it. I can get the boiling jam into the jars and sealed to begin the steaming in less than one minute once it is ready. Try to get that speed with your water bath canner. You do not have to remove the jars from the canner when filling. Leave them there and pour the jam straight into the jars. Clean the top of the jars if needed and add the caps and rings.

  48. 48
    Elizabeth Andress says:

    I work at the University of Georgia and the National Center for Home Food Preservation. The following statement you have posted is not a correct representation of our position: “Currently, steam canners are not recommended for home use by either the USDA or the National Center for Home Food Preservation. Their reasoning is that steam isn’t as effective at transmitting heat through to the center of the jars as boiling water is.”

    Pure steam (without oxygen mixed in it) is at least as effective at transferring heat as boiling water. That is why people use them with success for canning many acid foods. The reason we cannot endorse the use of USDA canning processes that were developed for boiling water being used in a steam canner is that, to date, the research has not been done which shows what the venting of a steam canner should be (to insure that the process is done in pure steam and not a mixture of steam and air) nor to show just what the process times in this apparatus should be. We do not have process times to offer people in the steam canner. The USDA position, from the Complete Guide to Home Canning, is simply: “because processing times for use with current models have not been adequately researched.” The statement goes on to add: “Because steam canners do not heat foods in the same manner as boiling-water canners, their use with boiling-water process times may result in spoilage.” This latter statement is related to not knowing what the processing temperature is because of venting issues, not that steam is a less efficient heat transfer mechanism than boiling water.

    Thank you.

  49. 49
    Seamus says:

    After reading all the pro-steam canners vs water bathers, I am sold on the energy efficient method. Can anyone recommend a good steam canner? Victorio perhaps with the temperature gauge?
    Is a temperature gauge necessary?

  50. 50
    Mike says:

    We have been using a steam canner exclusively for almost 20 years. Easily 100 jars a year. Everything from tomato sauce, salsa, chutneys, pickles, peaches, sauerkraut, jams and jellies. Pints, quarts, pint and a half and 4 and 8 ounce jelly jars. The time and water savings are well worth the purchase.

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