A Better Boiling-Water Canner?

tamale steamer cum canner
An aluminum tamale steamer serves as a rust-free, extra-tall canner.

I’ve always hated my graniteware canner. You know what I mean—one of those big, lightweight, speckled black pots with the cheap chromed rack inside. My rack rusted out in the first year of use. After I replaced it I noticed the pot itself was rusting, too, as the thin enamel coating flaked off the steel in spots. My jars always came of the pot covered with metallic scum. I couldn’t use the pot for sterilizing empty jars, or the scum would end up all over the interior of the jars. Worst of all, the canner wasn’t quite tall enough for quart jars. I couldn’t cover them with even a half-inch of water (the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends submerging jars by 1 to 2 inches) without the water boiling over and putting out the stove flame.

My graniteware canner is old, I admit—about thirty years old, I’d guess. But canners of this type haven’t improved. The 21- to 21.5-quart models—intended to hold seven quart jars—are still only 9.75 to 10 inches tall. If the specs give a greater height, the manufacturer is probably measuring from the base of the pot to the top of the lid handle.

Although I haven’t thrown out my rusty old canner, it has sat undisturbed in the garage for many years. For boiling-water canning I mostly use my two stainless-steel stockpots, along with the stainless-steel racks that I bought to fit each of them. This setup works perfectly for processing pint and half-pint jars.

But even the taller stockpot is too short for quart jars. So for canning tomatoes, fruits, and juices I’ve substituted my old pressure canner, with the lid left loose. This isn’t the best solution, though, because the thick aluminum wall of the pot takes a long time to transfer heat.

That’s why I started looking longingly at the tamale steamers in the grocery store. These aluminum pots are heavy enough to be sturdy, but light enough to heat up quickly. They come in various sizes: 12, 20, 32, and 50 quarts. Each pot has an indentation around the side, two inches or so from the base, to support a perforated rack. I figured that one of the bigger pots ought to make a good canner.

And so I bought the second-largest size, 32 quarts, and tried it out with quart jars of quince juice. The interior diameter of this pot measures only 14.5 inches, compared to the 15.75-inch width of my graniteware canner, yet seven quart jars fit roomily in the tamale steamer. I could even fit in an eighth jar while retaining at least a quarter-inch of space between the jars.

Even with its raised rack, the tamale steamer is plenty tall—13.5 inches. I can cover my quart jars with 2 inches of water and not worry at all about a boilover. With this pot, I can properly submerge even 1-liter Weck juice bottles.

One problem with the steamer is that it’s made for steaming, not boiling. The rack rests so high that you need about 6.5 quarts of water just to reach its level. All of that water takes a long time to heat. This might not be a concern when you are canning all day long, but heating so much water for a single batch seems wasteful

The solution is easy, though: Next time I process quart jars I’ll take out the raised rack and set a smaller one, probably borrowed from my pressure canner, in the bottom of the tamale steamer. With such an adjustment, the 13-inch-tall 20-quart steamer would be adequate for processing quart jars. In fact, the 20-quart steamer might even be tall enough for quart jars even with the raised rack in place.

Aluminum tamale steamers aren’t expensive. I paid $25 for the 32-quart pot. In comparison, graniteware canners range in price from about $20 to about $40.

So, consider treating yourself soon to a superior boiling-water canner—and treating your friends and family to a big Christmas tamale party.

13 thoughts on “A Better Boiling-Water Canner?”

  1. Thanks for your ideas. I had already switched to stock pots which work well for me. In addition I use a cake cooling rack (round) that is 12 inches in diameter and has four little feet. It sits about 1/2 inch off the bottom. It is very stable and heavy duty in construction. Most shops that carry baking supplies have them available. Kathi

    1. Thanks, Kathi. Wire canning racks–even the better, stainless steel, ones–are often made with too much space between the wires. This tends to make jars topple. Cake racks can be a good substitute.

  2. Can I suggest that you try the Ausltralian Fowlers Vacola Stainless Steel Preserving Set? It has a heating element and thermostat – just set it and walk away! Brilliant!

    1. Thanks, Jeanette. The Fowlers electric canner looks a lot like the Weck one, from Europe. These seem like really nice machines, but I don’t expect many Americans to splurge on them anytime soon. If we could just move beyond graniteware I would be happy.

  3. I’m in Australia and home canning is not huge. However I can everyday. I use a 20L tall stainless steel stock pot. I cut down 2 x silicon place mats one I put in the bottom and the second I use to double up on small jars for boiling water baths. Works fine, gives a slip free base to the jars, doesn’t rust and is totally safe. 😀

  4. I’ve had trouble finding a tall 11″ or less diameter stock pot for years. I want a nice SS one for soups but if it could double for small canning jobs that’d be awesome too.

  5. A few years ago I took a measuring tape into a kitchen store and found a SS pot that was tall enough, and I have an assortment of smaller pots I use for jams/jellies. Almost the only time I get the big pot out is if I need to pressure can. My husband got a HUGE tamale pot for beer brewing–if you’re familiar with that hobby the specialty pans are super expensive and this works great for a fraction of the cost. I suppose I could borrow it for canning if I ever wanted to do a gigantic batch, ha!

  6. I only can in pints–jam, fruit and tomatoes – so I would like something smaller than my huge granite-ware pot. But most small canners are not tall enough to cover pints, when standing on some kind of rack, with 1 inch of water and some boiling room.

  7. I have a tamale steamer I use for canning. One problem, we have VERY hard water and for some reason the hard water seems to react with the metal. I get a lot of foam in the water and residue on the jars. Using white vinegar in the water helps, but the jars still have more residue than I get with stainless. Still the pot is a workhorse, and relatively inexpensive.

  8. My Dad didn’t like my new stainless steel pot for canning, said takes to long for the water to boil, says the old blue speckled pot takes ALOT less time.( using pots for hit water baths ). Is this really true ?? I got the new stainless steel pot from Ball.

    1. Diana, your dad is right. Sharon Wiest, the chef at the Culinary Center in Lincoln City (Oregon), prefers the old-fashioned blue speckled pots for the same reason: They heat up fast. But your stainless-steel canner won’t rust, and it comes with a heavy glass lid that will hold more steam in and that you can see through. Your pot is also tall enough, I hope, that you can cover quart jars with at least an inch of water. And you can use your canner for cooking stock, pasta, etc., as well as for canning.

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