If you’re familiar with canning, you probably already know that water bath canning low-acid foods that are meant to be pressure canned is a major no-no. However, what about the other way around? You might be wondering if you can pressure can everything instead of just water bath canning it.
The quick answer is that yes, you can pressure can everything instead of water bath canning it, but you shouldn’t. There are some trade-offs here, and it might not be in your best interest to do it.
Read on to find out what they are.
I get where you are coming from, though.There comes a time in every homesteader’s life where we begin to feel exhausted by the lack of hours in the day. If you’ve been homesteading for a while, you likely feel this sentiment every day. If you’re new to homesteading…well, let’s just say the feeling is coming.
Nowhere is this truer than with canning. Canning is a great way to preserve enough food to last your family an entire year, but it can be downright demoralizing in that it takes so much time and effort to do.
So let’s get right to it. If you’re sick of maintaining two separate canning units and want to save time and money by pressure canning everything instead, here’s what you need to know.
Table of Contents
The Basics of Canning
Water bath canning was a popular method of canning long before pressure canning. Used to preserve high-acid foods, like fruits and jams, it is not as effective for foods with low acid (which is basically everything else, like vegetables and meat).
When a food is low in acid, this means that botulism spores can grow – and this can make you really sick if you don’t can your food properly. In acidic foods, botulism cannot develop because the acidity neutralizes the germs.
Low acid foods such as veggies don’t have the acidity to eliminate those spores, so you need to use extremely high heat (obtained only through a pressurized unit) to kill the bad stuff.
According to the Penn State Extension, “The most important choice for a safe product is to choose the processing method that will destroy all harmful bacteria and prevent their growth during storage.”
In other words, if a recipe calls for pressure canning, don’t water bath it. It can kill you!
Now, what about the other way around?
Can You Pressure Can Foods You Would Normally Water Bath?
We know that water bath canning low acid foods is not safe. But to save time, energy, or money, you might want to switch to an all pressure-canned system.
According to the USDA’s Guide to Safe Canning, “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.”
In other words, you can pressure can foods you would normally water bath – pressure canning is safe for all foods because it will raise them to high enough temperatures to block bacteria. It just is not safe the other way around.
For various reasons, though, pressure canning might not be the best option. Although it’s safe, it can diminish the quality of your products.
Here are some of the other things to consider – many of which can be considered major roadblocks, while others are just minor considerations to make.
Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Do It
You’d Have to Guesstimate the Times
It’s really only safe to use established, tested, and reliable recipes when it comes to pressure canning and water bathing. Many foods designed to be canned in water bath canners, like pickles and jams, don’t have official pressure canning guidelines with recommended times.
As a result, you’ll have no idea how much time you need to can these foods. You should never estimate or “guess”-timate how much time you need to process canned goods – even if you think you’re overestimating and playing it safe.
This becomes more of a taste and texture problem than a safety issue, but it’s still something to keep in mind.
It Is NOT Faster
Sadly, pressure canning is not any faster than water bath canning. It might seem like it’s quicker because the food generally has to be in the canner for a shorter amount of time, but this is an illusion – because you aren’t factoring in the time that it takes to get the pressure canner up to pressure.
Plus, you will have to wait for the unit to lose pressure in order for you to remove your lid.
Here’s an example. You can easily can cherries in both a pressure canner and a water bath canner. According to the USDA Complete 2015 Guide, the times are as follows:
- Pressure canner 5 lbs: 10 minutes for quarts
- Water bath canner: 20 minutes for quarts
Yes, the processing time is shorter with a pressure canner -but it’s going to take at least 10 minutes (likely a lot longer) for the unit to get up to pressure and then depressurize. Is it worth it?
So even if the canning recipes look shorter, remember that you probably aren’t going to save any time with the pressure canner.
You’ll Still Have to Make Adjustments
If you’re canning at altitude, don’t let this play any role in your decision to water bath versus pressure can. You’ll have to make adjustments either way – it’s just a matter of what you have to adjust.
When you pressure can, you will need to change the pressure required but not the time needed. When you water bath can, you change the time.
You don’t really win either way.
You Might Experience Diminished Flavor
Diminished texture and flavor are the two biggest reasons to avoid canning in a pressure canner versus a water bath canner when safe. Pressure canning will absolutely destroy delicate foods like relishes, jams, chutneys, and pickles.
I attempted to process pickles in a pressure canner once – they came out too soft and squishy and had very little flavor. You could mash them up in your mouth without chewing!
Yes, It’s Safe, but So Is Water Bath
Technically, all foods that can be canned in your water bath canner can also be canned in a pressure canner – so if you’re reading this in a panic that you canned tomatoes in the pressure canner instead of the water bath, don’t stress. You aren’t going to die.
You Won’t End Up Cheaper
Both water bath canners and pressure canners can be expensive to purchase. A good pressure canner, in most cases, will cost you double the amount of a water bath canner.
However, all other equipment needed is the same – meaning your costs won’t increase or decrease if you use a pressure canner instead of a water bath.
Something to keep in mind is that you can easily use a pressure canner as a water bath without actually pressure canning your food. In other words, a pressure canner can be converted into a water bath canner – which we’ll talk more about later.
All in all, you’ll save money buying a water bath canner instead of a pressure canner – but not vice versa. And since you can’t use a water bath canner instead of a pressure canner, price is not really a factor when you are making this decision.
Why You Might Want to Pressure Can Instead of Water Bath
Here are some of the most common reasons why people feel inclined to use a pressure canner for their water bath-safe goods.
Added Safety – A Misconception
More time, more pressure, more safety – right? Wrong.
A lot of people think that it’s best to play it safe by pressure canning foods that can be safely water bath canned. But rest assured- you aren’t going to be reducing your likelihood of foodborne illness anymore by adding the extra heat of a pressure canner.
If you’re using a canning recipe that is designated as official and safe for your water bath canner, you don’t need the extra bit of safety margin. Look for tested recipes and don’t try to modify them – this is true for canning across the board, but especially when low-acid foods are involved.
Added Efficiency – Nope.
Yes, a pressure canner uses less water – but the savings are marginal. The only major benefit of using a pressure canner versus a water bath is if you have a unit that allows for double-stacking.
In this, you can can twice the number of pint jars as normal. However, the quality of the resulting canned goods will likely not be worth the time and space savings down the road.
There are some foods, like tomatoes and other fruits, that can be canned in a pressure canner without really compromising flavor or texture. You can easily pressure can high-acid fruits, like berries or tomatoes – they will have a softer texture, making them usable for sauces, but will have roughly the same flavor.
Actually, pressure canning fruits does present some advantages. You’ll use less water than if you used a water bath canner, as well as less fuel. Often, you can sue a recipe with a shorter processing time and even process more jars at once.
Sheer Excitement! LOL
If you just bought a pressure canner, we feel you – those things can be expensive! It’s understandable that you want to try it out and use it as often as possible.
However, it’s probably not going to be worth it in the long run. Try to rein in some of that excitement, and save the pressure canning for the foods that actually need it.
Using Your Pressure Canner In Place of a Boiling Water Canner
If you want to save money on equipment, there’s a trade-off here. You can use your pressure canner as a boiling water bath canner instead! Here’s how to do it.
When you’re ready to can, fill your pressure canner to two inches over the tops of your jars (just like you would with a water bath canner). Instead of putting the pressure canner lid on, however, fix a regular canning lid on top of the unit.
It should fit somewhat snugly – if you don’t have a lid that works, check out garage sales for orphaned lids.
Then, your canning process will work exactly the same. You can follow the regular water bath canning recipe. The main thing to pay attention to is that you need to make sure your canner is NOT airtight – this will create a pressurized environment.
Which Foods You Can Water Bath, Pressure Can, Or Both
Here’s a quick guide to the foods that you can process in a canner – and an idea of which types are best.
What Should Be Water Bath Canned?
- Pickled vegetables (beets, onions, etc)
What Should Be Pressure Canned?
- Meat (such as beef)
- Green beans
- Sweet potatoes or yams
What Can Be Pressure Canned or Water Bath Canned?
- Pie filling
- Apple butter
- Tomato sauce
- Cranberry sauce
- BBQ sauce
What Foods Should NOT Be Canned at All?
- Dairy products
- Pickled eggs
- Foods with cornstarch or flour
- Refried beans
So… Can I Do It?
If you really want to use your pressure canner instead of your water bath, sure – go ahead. But it’s not recommended.
Again, canning in a pressure canner instead of a water bath won’t make your foods unsafe to eat, but according to the University of Minnesota, it will leave them with a quality that is “not acceptable.”
A better alternative? Use a pressure cooker to precooked food that you will need for pickled recipes – such as pickled beets. Or you can use your pressure cooker with a separate lid to turn it into a water bath unit.
This way, you can have your cake and eat it, too.
Rebekah is a part-time homesteader. On her 22 acres, she raises chickens and bees, not to mention she grows a wide variety of veggies.