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Ball Freshtech Automatic Home Canning System review: Food preservation gets a much-needed makeover

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Home canning has been around for a long time. And while there's nothing necessarily wrong with grandma's approach, traditional water-bath canning is a fairly arduous process. From preheating the jars to removing the preserved food from the boiling water, you have to actively monitor, well, everything. If you don't, your food runs a greater risk of carrying harmful bacteria.

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Ball Freshtech Automatic Home Canning System

The Good

The <b>Ball Freshtech Automatic Home Canning System</b> speeds up the food preservation process. It also employs safety technology that protects against unsavory bacterial contamination.

The Bad

The $299.99 price is pretty steep, especially compared with traditional "techless" water-bath canning techniques. For safety reasons, you can't use your own recipes or alter the ones Ball provides.

The Bottom Line

For many, I think the convenience of the Ball Freshtech Automatic Home Canning System will be worth the price. It's a fantastic starter kit and a great option for experienced canners who want to complete a batch in less time.

Enter Jarden Home Brands' $299.99 Ball Freshtech Automatic Home Canning System. Yes, you still have to prepare the recipe for canning and clean the jars, lids, and bands beforehand, but this appliance will preheat your jars and preserve your food for you. Not only will that save you time, it also removes some of the responsibility, thanks to an array of sensors. That means you won't have to stare at water boiling for a prolonged period of time and you won't need to worry about things like altitude, or the time and temperature required to safely preserve your favorite foods.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

As someone completely new to canning, that was a big relief. And I think a lot of other beginners would agree -- with the opportunity for human error minimized, getting started is much less intimidating. Sound good so far?

Not too fast; this appliance does have a couple of limitations. Even though there's no stovetop boiling required, this appliance is not a pressure canner. It works with water-bath canning recipes only. The water-bath approach is only safe with acidic foods like jams and jellies, fruits, tomatoes, salsas, pickles, and sauces. Low-acid foods like meat and vegetables have to be preserved in a pressure canner to rule out potential botulism contamination.

Also, you are not supposed to deviate in any way from the recipes provided by Ball for this appliance. Page 17 of the included recipe book states: "Each recipe provided has been tested specifically for this appliance to ensure the highest quality and safest product. It is important to only use the recipes provided with this appliance. Use of other recipes not tested for this appliance can result in seal failure, food spoilage and potential health risks. We do not recommend altering these home canning recipes. They must be used as stated to ensure the proper acidity for the canning process." Bummer.

Inside the Ball Freshtech Automatic Home Canning System (pictures)

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If you are interested in canning but don't know how to get started, the Ball Freshtech Automatic Home Canning System is a great option. Or, if you are a confident home canner who wouldn't mind saving some time making classic recipes like strawberry jam, applesauce, or salsa, this is also a good choice. But, if you want to make a lot of low-acid foods, or expect to experiment with your own recipes, this isn't for you. And at $299, the price is pretty high, but I still think it's a fantastic time- and stress-saving device and a great holiday gift idea for the aspiring home canner in your life.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Design
Since there aren't any other auto-canners out there, I don't have much in the way of design comparison, but I like the way this one looks. It's decked out in a stainless steel and matte black finish. The display isn't exactly modern, but it doesn't bother me, either. The buttons are large and intuitive and there are two different types of handles for easy lifting.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

It's a good size, too. It won't overwhelm your entire countertop, but it's large enough to hold 6 half-pints, 4 pints, or 3 quart-size jars per batch. That strikes a good balance, I think.

The kit includes the appliance base, the inner pot, and the jar rack. All together, the base, inner pot, and rack weigh just over 15 pounds. It also comes with a power adapter, a jar lifter, two small vent cleaners, and a book with recipes modified to work specifically with this product.

Usability
Using the traditional water-bath method, you have to keep your eye on the stovetop a lot, simultaneously tracking the temperature and the time. You also have to factor the altitude into the mix. And if it isn't done just right, you increase the chances of improper lid sealing or worse, a nasty botulism contamination. That's less than ideal.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

And it's enough to scare away a lot of would-be canners. But the Ball Freshtech Automatic Home Canning System takes on those challenges for you. That makes this auto-canner much easier to use than more classic methods.

Canning is still a pretty time intensive activity, though. Fortunately, the included recipe book acts as a step-by-step guide, addressing any questions you might have about the process. It even includes information on what to do after the processing phase to ensure your food is properly sealed for long-term storage.

I only had one real usability issue with this canner and it relates to the jar rack. When I put the maximum 6 half-pint or 4 pint jars on the rack, they often tipped over and I had to reposition them. An annoyance, but not a deal breaker. Also, it would be nice if Ball included a collapsible funnel with this purchase. It only cost $5 at a local grocery store and it made it much easier to get the food into the jars.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Features
This appliance comes with SmartPreserve technology. That's what takes care of the preserving process for you so you can go do other things. It's a built-in sensor that tracks temperature, altitude, and time to deliver your canned food safely. This is the feature that makes this appliance special.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

In addition to SmartPreserve, there's also a preheat feature. With more traditional methods you have to clean the jars and keep them in simmering water until you're ready to fill the jars. With the preheat feature, you simply fill warm tap water to the water line, put in the jar rack, close and lock the top, press preheat and then press start. Then the system starts a 12-minute preheating cycle. Once the 12 minutes has elapsed, you can leave the jars inside with the lid locked until you're ready to fill them.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Performance
To test the canner, I made strawberry jam, applesauce, and salsa. Since Ball modified canning recipes to work with this appliance, you have to follow one of the 26 recipes given in the booklet or one of the 71 recipes provided on the Ball site (some of the online recipes are in the recipe book, too). That may be a limitation, but it also makes the whole process easier. I didn't have to figure out how to adapt anything myself. And there really is a pretty good selection from basics like applesauce to more adventurous options like piña colada jam.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

I prepared the food, preheated the jars, filled the jars with the food, placed them in the appliance, locked it, and selected the category and number noted in the recipe book. Then I pressed start. The three recipe times varied. 6 half pints of strawberry jam took 28 minutes and 4 pints of applesauce and salsa took 40 minutes each.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Once the canner finished, I grabbed the jar lifter and remove the jars. At this point, you will have to wait for 12 to 24 hours to allow the jars to cool and the lids to seal properly. After at least 12 hours, tap the lid -- if it makes that classic opened jar popping sound it was not sealed correctly. If you act fast, you can reprocess the jar and save the food or just refrigerate it and eat it right away. Only one of my jars didn't seal properly, and, as a first-time canner, I was thrilled with that result.

To further test the recipes themselves, I obviously had to taste-test the food. The strawberry jam, applesauce, and salsa were fine. In fact, I ate the jam with breakfast this morning.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Conclusion
If you want to be actively involved in every detail of the canning process from factoring in the altitude to hovering over the stovetop à la Alton Brown, this appliance is not for you. And if you expect to make things that aren't listed in the provided recipe book or on the Ball site you should not get this auto-canner, either. It also won't make sense if you want to preserve a bunch of low-acid foods like meat and vegetables -- for that, you need a pressure canner.

So, there are at least a few situations where the Ball Freshtech Automatic Home Canning System just isn't worth your $300. But, if you are really curious about canning and want a nice, comfortable way to ease in, this is an excellent choice. And if you aren't new to canning but want to speed up the process and relinquish some control, this is a solution for you, too.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

This appliance makes home canning approachable for a modern, tech-savvy cook. And while the $299.99 price is steep, it will be worth it for someone who may like the idea of home canning, but is a little worried about successfully duplicating old-school practices. You preheat your jars, prep the food, add the food to the jars, pop the jars into the auto-canner, and that's pretty much it.

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Ball Freshtech Automatic Home Canning System

Score Breakdown

Performance 8Features 8Design 8Usability 9