Bottling basics

Article by: Nadia Hassani  |  Picture by: Nadia Hassani
Bottling basics
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Bottling is a wonderful way of preserving the flavour of fresh fruit, whether you are bottling fruits from the market or from your own garden. Home bottling is fun, rewarding and economical. Read about the basics of boiling water bottling, and improve the quality of your bottled goods with our valuable bottling tips.

Produce suitable for bottling
There are two basic bottling methods. In boiling water bath bottling, the jars are submerged in boiling water using a bottling pot, or a large standard pot. Pressure cooker bottling requires a pressure cooker and is not covered in this article.

Not all fruits and vegetables are suitable for boiling water bath bottling. The natural acidity of the produce determines whether it can be safely bottled in a boiling water bath. Acidity is crucial in bottled foods because it prevents the growth of the bacteria Clostridium botulinium that cause the potentially fatal food poisoning called Botulism. Heating foods with a sufficient acidity level also destroys the Botulism bacteria.

With the exception of figs, most fruits have sufficient natural acidity for safe boiling water bottling as whole fruit, or as jam, jelly, preserves, compote, etc. You can raise the acidity level by adding lemon juice, citric acid or vinegar. For pickles, chutneys and sauerkraut, vinegar is added for acidity so they can safely be processed by boiling water bath bottling.

All fresh vegetables except for most varieties of tomatoes are low-acid foods and are not suitable for boiling water bath bottling. They must be processed in a pressure cooker.

Start with good, fresh quality
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Select fresh, firm fruit for bottling. Discard diseased and mouldy fruit. Small diseased lesions or spots may be trimmed.

The best time for bottling is when the produce is at a peak of its ripeness. If you cannot process the produce within a few hours, store it in a cool place. Unless apricots, nectarines, peaches, pears and plums are already very ripe, the best time for bottling them is 1 day or more after harvest, when they had the chance to sweeten some more.
Preventing discolouration
Apples, pears, apricots, nectarines, and peaches brown quickly after peeling and cutting. You can prevent this by immediately immersing the fruit in a solution of 4 litres cold water with 1 teaspoon ascorbic or citric acid until you are ready to process.
Hot packing vs. raw packing
In hot packing, the fruit is brought to the boil together with juice, syrup, or water depending on the recipe, and simmered for 2 to 5 minutes. It is then filled into the jars. In raw packing, the jars are tightly packed with fresh unheated fruit over which the boiling liquid is poured.

Hot packing is the preferred method, as it has several advantages over raw packing. Fresh fruit contains up to 30 percent air. By briefly boiling the fruit in liquid, air is removed from the fruit tissue so it won’t float in the jars later. Less air in the fruit also means increased vacuum in the sealed jars and thus a longer shelf life. Another effect of entrapped air in the canned fruit is discolouration over time. Also, if the fruit is preshrunk by hot packing, more will fit into the jar.

Proper headspace
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Regardless of the bottling method, it is essential not to fill the jars to the top so the food can expand in the boiling water bath and the vacuum can properly build in the cooled jar. That so-called headspace is 5mm for jams and preserves, and 1.25cm for fruits in liquid.

Preserving pan alternative
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You do not need a special preserving pan for bottling. A large stockpot is just as suitable, as long as it is tall enough to fit your tallest bottling jars plus 3 to 5cm space above the lids.

Place one or two folded kitchen towels into the pot, fill the pot with water and bring it to the boil. The towels will prevent the jars from hitting the bottom of the pot and cracking when boiling water moves them around. Once the water is boiling, lower the filled jars into the pot. The weight of the jars will keep the towel on the bottom in place.

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As an additional precaution you may place one or more kitchen towels between the individual jars to prevent them from touching each other.

Sterilising and inspecting jars
Always sterilise all jars and lids used for bottling beforehand. The easiest way to sterilise glass containers is by placing them in the bottling pot with the water that will later be used for processing. Boil the jars in water for 10 minutes (if you live in high altitude, add 1 minute for each 300m above sea level, see tip) which will kill all bacteria.

Always sterilise your jars in boiling water. Washing jars by hand or in the dishwasher does not get rid of lingering mould and fungus spores in the jars if you are reusing them. Also, sterilising the jars is a good opportunity to carefully check the jars and lids for chips, nicks and other defects. All damaged jars need to be discarded.

Processing times and syrup types
Depending on the fruit, the processing time in boiling water bath varies. Also, different types of syrups are used depending on the fruit: light/thin, medium, and heavy. For all three syrup types, slowly bring the ingredients to the boil and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Use the information listed in the table below as a guideline, or follow the recipe.

Light/thin syrup: 200g sugar + 500ml water
Medium syrup: 300g sugar + 500ml water
Heavy syrup: 200g sugar + 250ml water

Fruit Syrup type Processing time
Apples Thin or medium 20 min
Apricots Medium 25 min
Berries and currants Medium 15 min
Bottling in high altitude
In high altitude, water boils at lower temperatures, with the result that bacteria are not killed as effectively as at higher temperatures. Therefore if you live more than 300 metres above sea level, you need to adjust the boiling time to compensate for lower boiling temperatures. As a rule of thumb, for every 300 metres above sea level, increase the boiling time by 1 minute if the total boiling time is less than 20 minutes, and increase it by 2 minutes for every 300 metres above sea level if the total boiling time is more than 20 minutes.

Jars cracked?
When a jar cracks as you lower it into the boiling water bath, this can have two reasons: the jar was previously cracked (carefully inspect all jars beforehand), or the temperature of the food in the jars was considerably lower than the water temperature.

If the content of the jars has already cooled down because you did not place the jars into the boiling water batch right away, empty the content of the jars back into the pot in which you cooked it, re-sterilise and refill the jars etc. This will prevent jars from cracking. A cracked jar in a bottling pot is a dangerous mess that you want to avoid by any means.

Invest in proper bottling tools
Bottling is a hot affair. To prevent injury from hot food, water or steam, the added convenience and safety of special bottling tools such as a wide-mouth jam funnel and a jar lifter is worth even if you can only a few times over the summer.

Storage after bottling
After the jars have completely cooled, label and date them. Store your preserves at room temperature in a dark, dry place, never near hot pipes, the oven, a furnace, in a non-insulated attic, or in direct sunlight, otherwise the quality will deteriorate quickly and considerably. In a damp environment, metal lids can corrode and contaminate the content of the jars.

Generally, it is best not to bottle more food than you will use within a year. If you have made too much, always remember that homemade jams and preserves make great gifts!

More resources
Check out our entire collection of Bottling and preserving tips for instructions on specific bottling methods.

Also check out our recipes for Jam and Chutney, all from home cooks like you!
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