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It seems the usual procedure is to sanitize cans and lids by immersing them in boiling water, to fill the cans, and then to cap them and boil for a few more minutes.

If I sanitize a can and then fill it with boiling jam, and cap it with a sanitized lid, then why bother with the extra boiling? It seems like a totally redundant step.

Conversely, if you are going to immerse the filled cans in boiling water to process them, then why bother pre-sanitizing them?

This makes no sense!

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5 Answers 5

These various boilings serve different purposes.

The jam mixture is boiled to reduce the liquid and bring the pectin to its gelling temperature.

The bottles and lids are boiled to sterilize them as you said.

The final water bath kills any bugs that were introduced while filling the jars. Additionally this boiling ensures a good seal on the bottles. In the time it takes to fill the bottles the jam will have cooled somewhat and you might not get a good seal.

Killing bugs with boiling is not an instantaneous process. It takes time at those high temperatures to kill a high percentage. If the bottles aren't pre-sterilized then you are putting yourself at a disadvantage as those bugs would be distributed through the hot, but no longer boiling, jam.

Of course, all of these boilings will do some sterilization and are somewhat redundant. It's all about reducing risk. You can bottle with clean but unsterilized bottles and if you work quickly you can skip the hot water bath. Doing so will greatly increase the chances that one or two bottles might not seal or that some bug might survive and spoil your stuff. Reliable sources indicate that if bottles are not presterilized that the bottles should be processed longer in the water bath.

Anecdotally speaking- I have in the past skipped the water bath when my jam was very hot and acidic. I would usually have one or two bottles out of 20 that wouldn't seal. I no longer skip the water bath and I almost never have any bottles that fail to seal.

I have never had jams go bad but this is more luck than proof.

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The jars that don't seal you use first! An opened jar of jam can easily last a year if you only use clean utensils to scoop the jam out –  TFD Jul 3 '12 at 10:02

My answer supplements Sobachatina's.

It's a matter of risk, and the issue is that what you're risking is a horrible death.

If you merely wash the cans, fill them with a hot mixture, and then put them in a hot water bath (or pressure canner), then you are probably killing 95% of the bacteria and fungi that you'd have killed if you also sterilized the cans. The problem becomes that if what you're missing is even a single botulism spore, then you can produce a can which, for days or weeks, looks OK, tastes OK, and will kill you.

So it's a matter of how much risk you're willing to tolerate. What you're canning also makes a significant difference; high-acid or high-salt foods (jam is generally high-acid) are significantly lower risk than, say, canned tomatoes.

If you are going to skip a step, sterilizing the cans is the step to skip, rather than the water bath. The reason is that the air in the can has bacteria and fungi in it, so you need to sterilize after filling the can (or jar).

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It isn't quite so scary with jam. A water bath is only used for high acid foods (pH<=4.5) in which botulism can't grow. The bath will not get hot enough to kill botulism spores. 212F vs ~250F. Your advice is absolutely true for low acid foods that are processed in a pressure canner. –  Sobachatina Jul 4 '12 at 12:18
    
Sure, the risk with jam is quite minor. However, the asker asked a question about canning in general and not just jam, and personally I never advise people that it's OK to raise the level of risk, considering the consequences. –  FuzzyChef Jul 7 '12 at 22:18
    
Canned tomatoes are high acid - they are the one "vegetable" you can preserve safely without either a pressure cooker or additional vinegar (e.g. a chutney) –  standgale Jul 11 '12 at 3:09
    
A question - what if you get a botulism spore in an opened jar of commercially produced jam (or any food that you then keep around opened for a long period of time) or after you open your homemade food - surely it would then breed in there just as well as if it had got in at preserving time? –  standgale Jul 11 '12 at 3:12
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@standgale- 1- the pH at which botulism cannot survive is 4.5 or lower. Tomatoes are listed at exactly 4.5. To compensate for variability among tomatoes, whole tomato recipes usually still call for a little acid just to be sure it is below 4.5. Concentrated tomatoes, such as sauce, is acidic enough. 2- Botulism cannot survive in the presence of oxygen. After opening a jar there is no risk of new growth- the concern is bacteria that grew and produced toxins while the jar was sealed. –  Sobachatina Aug 3 '12 at 15:06

With jam, I make my jam while sterilising the jars in the oven. Then I put the jam in the very hot jars and put the plastic cellophane-like jam covers on. The jam lasts for months, even years, even after opened, without going mouldy, plus no one has died yet. Sometimes I put the pop-down lids on like comes on jars when you buy them, or I use preserving lids if I've run out of everything else. Jam is high in sugar which is a preservative (I believe pectin is also, as well as being what sets it). Low-sugar jams last less time, and may even need to be refrigerated right from the start. Other types of perserves need other processes - low acid, low sugar foods need to be pressure cooked. Foods with either high acid or high sugar can be done in a water bath or in the oven.

So, to answer your question, I would say no, it isn't necessary for jam, as neither me nor my Mum nor anyone else I know has done it and we are all well and have made lots of jam!

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The dishwasher is also handy for sterilizing a large batch of jars, especially if it has a high-temperature mode. –  Thomas G. Mayfield Jul 6 '12 at 15:03

There is a canning method for jam which skips the second boiling. It's called the inversion method. Basically, you pour the hot jam mixture into your jars, add lids, then immediately invert the jars. The boiling-hot jam coats the headspace and inner surface of the lid, sterilizing them and the air bubble.

Edit: The inversion method is currently not recommended by the USDA (PDF).

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On the other hand, the writer of that page says that you must use pectin to make jelly, which is not true, and they say to press down on the centre of the lids to make them seal, whereas in fact you should NOT press them because when they pop down that's how you know that they sealed, and otherwise you can't be sure. So, I'm not sure I fully trust their methods. –  standgale Jul 11 '12 at 3:06

I've been using the inversion method for many years. But when giving them as gifts I tell them to use it right away, and any jars with a failed seal go in the garbage.

I make fabulous combinations of jams (peach - raspberry - habanero for example). I do boil & sterilize jars prior to filling as well as the lids. As I'm filling jars, if any seem suspicious it goes in the fridge and gets used first. I keep them in my pantry and check lids regularly, and throw away any that fail. I believe that we need to use our good judgment. Do research but don't be overly paranoid.

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I agree that strict canning procedures can seem overly paranoid. If you've got the experience and totally understand the risks, I'm sure that some small shortcuts can be fine. I assume that your gift-giving example applies to just canned jams? Combined with your experience, I see no problem there. The flip-side is someone like me, with very little canning experience. Since I do understand the risks thanks to research, I'll follow every little fussy step as if I'm dealing with plutonium. That's also "good judgement". –  Jolenealaska Aug 11 at 6:02
    
I've edited your answer to look at it from a different angle, and avoid encouraging anyone to do anything unsafe. Assuming you're right that failed seals are the only risk, the key here is that you have to be very careful and also accept that you may waste some jam. If readers aren't very aware of those things, they may do something unsafe. –  Jefromi Aug 11 at 20:41

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