I have been successfully canning jams without the water bath method. Here’s my process, my background, and some science behind it.
Yes, you read that right! In over 30 years, I have never water bath canned my jams – and I probably never will.
I understand that that statement could make some of you very uncomfortable. You might be thinking, but what about botulism?
In this article, I will share with you my process, my background, some science, and some resources. Then you can educate yourself and decide what you are most comfortable with.
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So why can without water bath?
That is a very good question!
First of all, it’s just a habit. I had been watching both my grandmother and my mom making jams. They used the no water bath can method all along. So in a way that is what I have witnessed and what I grew up with.
Then, canning without the water bath method saves time. You see, often I make a few jars of jam in between some other activities.
And lastly, I am certain that you will lose vitamins when you’re adding another 10-15 minutes of high-heat water processing.
My jam canning process
This is the method that I always use:
- Sterilize the jars
- Clean, select, boil the fruit with sugar and lemon juice or citric acid
- Fill the hot jam into the hot jars
- Put the lid and the band on tight
- Put the jars on their head for about 5 minutes
- After 5 minutes put the jars upright again
First, I sterilize the mason jars in either a pot of boiling water for 10-15 minutes or do that in an oven set to 200˚-250˚ F for about the same time.
In the meantime, I boil my cleaned, picked, and potentially cut fruit for 3-5 minutes with the appropriate amount of sugar and some lemon juice or citric acid. Depending on the time I have and the fruit I am using, I might add some pectin.
Then, I fill the hot jam into the hot jars, leaving about ¼ inch of space at the top of the jar. I tightly put on the lids and the bands.
Next, I put the jars on their head for 5 minutes. After that time, I set them upright again and let them cool down. Before I store them, I make sure all of the jars have good seals. Often, I can hear when that happens. But also, when you press on the lid with your finger, there should not be any give.
If you’ve been following me, you might know that I grew up in Germany. Everybody cans their jams this way there and I haven’t seen anyone use the water bath method.
For example, I have a friend who likes to buy just a couple of pounds of fruit at the farmer’s market when it’s in season and on sale. While making dinner, she might make the jam, and fill a few jars at a time. She does that several times a season rather than embarking on longer canning sessions.
When I came to the US, I soon realized that everyone was water bath canning their jams, just like the USDA and FDA recommend. But I also thought that this method was somewhat particular to this country. I think most European countries and New Zealand for example use the no water bath canning method.
On a recent trip to Germany, I wanted to find out more. So I went to a local farmer’s market and talked with a commercial jam seller. I asked him if he hot water processes his jams. He looked at me somewhat incredulously, only to tell me that he had never done that in all the decades he had been making jam.
In my research, I went to the website of a popular German baking product website that also has a lot of canning recipes. None of the recipes that I saw included a recommendation for hot water processing. They have an English website but that does not have any canning recipes.
Furthermore, I checked my antique cookbooks, both American and German. While that may not necessarily be authoritative, I thought it might give me some clues. None of them seemed to be particularly concerned with food safety, making me believe that botulism is in fact pretty rare.
What is the concern with jams and the no water bath canning method?
The main concern when you use the no water bath canning method is botulism. Under certain circumstances, it can grown in your jams and preserves. When it does, it can cause severe illness and potentially death.
However, in my research for this topic, I learned that in 2017 for example, the CDC only reported 182 cases of botulism. This is a stark contrast to the 1.35 million yearly cases of salmonella. So botulism is a pretty rare occurrence and disease.
Science behind canning jams and preserves
So what I am doing in order to prevent the growth of any bacteria, mold, or botulism while I am using the no water bath canning method?
Well, as I mentioned above, I sterilize my jars in either hot water or my oven.
I also like to add quite a bit of sugar as that acts as a preservative. With the addition of lemon juice or sugar, I am lowering the pH of the jam, especially in low-acid fruits such as blueberries.
I fill the jars almost to the top and make sure to create a good seal. This is something I check when opening a jar (if the lid comes off too easily, it wasn’t properly sealed).
Lastly, I understand science in that protein needs to be available for botulism to grow. Fruits don’t typically contain any protein at all. Therefore, I would not use the no water bath canning method for canning meat or beans or foods with protein in it.
Now, if in doubt you could check the pH of your jam with either pH strips or a pH meter. Simply put some of the jam in question on a spoon or in a small bowl and test it there according to the directions.
So, I am thinking that the hot water processing recommendation is just another safety measure to basically rule out any chance of botulism.
Below, I am linking several resources that I find interesting. Again, I encourage you to research and educate yourself and use your best judgement.
A Washington Post article on this topic: https://www.washingtonpost.com/food/2021/08/26/jam-canning-safety-water-bath/
How Sugar preserves: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-do-salt-and-sugar-pre/
Study on low pH to prevent botulism: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/39257/
German strawberry recipe: https://www.oetker.de/rezepte/r/erdbeer-konfituere
German video on jam making: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y01ysaT7Yjo
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