Food preserving includes a variety of methods of preparing and processing fresh produce to enable longer storage. You can make the most of your home grown abundance, or farmers market bargains! No more throwing out overgrown zucchini, or half ripe tomatoes… preserve them!

Bottled preserves are a great way to skip a few steps when making meals… a jar of sauce, relish or salsa is an instant marinade, sauce for a stir fry, or pizza sauce. That way you know what is in the meals you feed to your family, and you can also cater to dietary requirements, whilst retaining some convenience.

Fowlers Vacola preserving is a type of bottling. The Fowlers Vacola concept was originally developed in the UK by George Fowler, with his nephew, Joseph Fowler. Joseph moved to Australia, where he started making and selling Fowlers Vacola kits in 1915. Many years later, the equipment is still being made by the family owned company, in Melbourne. I started my preserving journey using a Fowlers Vacola Simple Natural Preserver unit, as it is a commonly used preserving method in Australia, with plenty of equipment and bottles/ lids available second hand.

I recommend you read more about food preserving methods, science and safety by reading the Dirt to Dinner Beginners Guide to Food Preserving + Storage.

What is Fowlers Vacola bottling?

Fowlers Vacola bottling is a ‘slow water bath’ method, where you fill clean Fowlers Vacola bottles with high acid contents (such as tomato sauce, pickled onions, apricot halves). The bottle has a rubber ring, a specific preserving lid, and a spring clip, which holds the lid in place during processing. The filled bottles with their lid and clips applied, are submerged under water in a Fowlers Vacola preserving unit. The Simple Natural Preserver unit is turned on and heated, for 60 minutes (70 minutes for no. 36 bottles).

The ‘high acid’ contents means an environment in which many microorganisms which spoil food or make it unsafe, are unable to survive. The temperature obtained (92’C) pasteurises and destroys any food spoiling enzymes, and food spoiling/ foodborne illness microbes which may be present. The processing also forces oxygen from the bottles, creating a vacuum (anaerobic) environment, which inhibits survival or growth. Then as the bottles cool after being removed from the water, a vacuum seal is created, which prevents recontamination and air entry.

High acid produce that can be bottled using a Fowlers Vacola method includes:
 
  • many fruits (to use in desserts, sauces and baking)
  • jams, conserves and fruit preserves
  • relish, chutneys
  • passata or whole tomatoes
  • pickled vegetables
Note: please remember that low acid produce can only be bottled if using a pressure canner, and even then, some items cannot be bottled safely using any method, such as pesto. Please find more information about pH and acidity in preserving here.
 
What are the benefits and challenges?

ADVANTAGES

  • It can be an affordable way to get started, as you can find Fowlers Vacola items second hand, or perhaps a relative has some hiding in their garage!
  • Australian made, family owned company
  • Easy to moderate difficulty level
  • Moderate prep, and process times of 60 to 70 minutes with minimum supervision required
  • No need for refrigeration or freezing to keep foods long term
  • A range of recipes available

DISADVANTAGES

  • Need space to store the equipment in between uses, and a dark, cool pantry or cupboard, with even temperature range, to store all your bottles of preserves
  • Takes time – prep of food and bottles, the processing time, cooling down, labelling and storing
  • Easy enough process to follow, but does take some time spent learning the essentials
  • Cost of equipment, especially if buying new equipment
  • Suitable for high acid foods only, using Fowlers Vacola recipes
  • Less research and testing information available compared to boiling water bath ‘canning’/ bottling 
What equipment do I need?

You will need:

  • Fowlers Vacola electric preserving unit (available as Simple Natural Preserver, or the Professional Stainless Steel Preserver)
  • Fowlers Vacola food preserving bottles, with matching size lids, rings and clips
  • jar lifter/ tongs (I highly recommend the Ball Secure Grip Jar Lifter tongs, found at Big W or online).
  • food funnels (plastic, metal, or collapsible, I use one like this)
  • bubble remover, or long skewer (bamboo is preferable over metal), or chopstick
  • timer, ruler, clean tea towels/ oven mitts (silicone), labels

It is recommended that you use new rubber rings for Fowlers Vacola bottles each time (bottles, lids and clips can be reused if they are in good condition). Reusing old rubber rings may mean you won’t achieve or maintain a seal.

Fowlers Vacola bottles come in various sizes, and then have accessories (lids, rubber rings and clips) that fit, matched by the diameter of the of the bottle mouth (i.e. size 3 is 3 inches diameter, size 4 if 4 inches diameter). For example:

  • Bottle No. 14 (350mls) requires Size 3 lids, rings and clips
  • Bottle No. 20 (600mls) requires Size 3 lids, rings and clips
  • Bottle No. 27 (850mls) requires Size 3 lids, rings and clips
  • Bottle No. 31 (1000mls) requires Size 4 lids, rings and clips
  • Bottle No. 36 (1200mls) requires Size 4 lids, rings and clips

Before buying Fowlers Vacola bottles second hand, it is a good idea to check the availability of accessories, especially the rubber rings (which are recommended as single use), in the size that matches the bottles.

You can find more information about Fowlers Vacola bottles/ bottles and accessory sizes here.

You can also buy Fowlers Vacola bottle openers, plastic Snap on lids for storing open bottles in the fridge, and some other specific Fowlers Vacola tools.

Although they are no longer available new, you can also buy second hand stove top Fowlers Vacola preserving units, and can search for instructions in the Secrets to Preserving manual, or contact the company.

Please ensure your equipment and bottles are in good condition before each preserving session. Look for chips or cracks in the bottles, especially around the rim and area where the rubber rings sit. Look for dints or damage to the lids.

How do we know they are safe to eat?

Visually check the bottle, it’s seal, and the contents before opening. If the lid has lifted or become unsealed, the contents should be disposed of carefully, and the bottle cleaned thoroughly. If there are obvious signs of food spoilage, the contents should be disposed of carefully, and the bottle cleaned thoroughly.

Signs of food spoilage include the presence of mould, or yeast growth, bubbling gases, cloudiness, leaking, fermentation, sliminess and bad smells, or there may be pressure build up under the lid, making it convex instead of concave.

Do not taste the preserves in an unsealed bottle, to see if they are OK. Some bacteria that cause foodborne illness may not have a smell or taste, or have any obvious signs! You may be unwittingly exposing yourself to unsafe food during your ‘taste test’, or worse, the lack of bad taste may wrongly reassure you, and you eat all the preserves and get sick. Bottles that have become unsealed during storage must be presumed unsafe.

Physically check if the lid does not lift off easily, and it requires pressure from a Fowlers Vacola opener to force it off, then the seal was maintained during storage. (Check there was no sticky residue holding the lid in place, from expanded contents leaking on to the rim).

There is a specific tool available to open Fowlers Vacola bottles. Place it under the edge of the lid, you can feel the rubber of the ring with the tip of the opener. Press the tip of the opener down whilst also lifting the handle up. This will prise the lid away from the rubber ring and the vacuum seal will release. You should be able to do this without dinting or damaging the lid, as it can be reused again.

 

Once open, check the contents again, for obvious signs of food spoilage which has affected the smell, colour or appearance. If this has occurred, dispose of the contents carefully, then fully clean the bottle.

A common home preserving concern is that people are not sure how to tell if there preserves are safe. I get it, it took me a while to build my confidence with food preserving. If you followed the processing steps correctly, used high acid ingredients (pH less than 4.6) and achieved and maintained a seal, your product can be considered safe to consume.

How do you store the bottled preserves? How long do they last?

Home bottled preserves keep indefinitely, however prolonged storage will have an effect on nutritional value“. (The Secrets of Preserving, p.13) Peak nutrition can be retained for up to 1 year.

To properly store your bottles so they last this long, remove clips, and check seal. Do not store your bottles with clips on. Label, date and store your bottles in a cool, dark, dry place with temperatures between 12 to 15° C (The Secrets of Preserving, p.13). Avoid cupboards next to ovens/ stovetops, dryers or other areas that may have fluctuating temperatures. We created a large preserves pantry in our ‘linen’ cupboard, by reducing the amount of unnecessary stuff in there, and moving blankets to cupboards in bedrooms. Other people with limited cupboard space may use plastic boxes with wheels that slide under beds.

Check out my free preserving labels to download and print.

If you have questions about preserving, join the Growing Home Community, a closed group hosted on Facebook, with people who have experience with preserving.


MORE BEGINNER’S GUIDES

GET YOUR FREE GUIDE TO GROW, RAISE, COOK + PRESERVE TODAY

Sign up to our email list to receive your FREE eGuide to help you start planning your vege gardens, chickens and more. Plus how to tackle those pesky challenges, like finding time, energy, money + support. You will also receive fortnightly emails with garden + kitchen advice to help you find yourself in the dirt!

Thank you for signing up! Don't forget to check your Inbox for your FREE GUIDE!

Oops, something went wrong. Please try again, or contact Bec.