There is a mysterious beige thing in my kitchen..

...and it lives on my kitchen bench. It is filled with water. It takes up valuable bench space. I have had it for nearly a year, an unpassable bargain on ebay. The thing is, I was baffled as to how to use it properly. Yup, you guessed right, the mysterious beige thing is a Fowlers Vacola: food preserver, steriliser, bottling outfit... whatever you want to call it. Right. So mystery solved, eh?

Nope. Wrong. I confess, I used it as I wished, what, without it having it come with any instructions or booklet of any type. You would think preserving food would be a pretty straight-forward subject, but it seemed the more I read, the more contradictions I came across. Every site, every book and every person had a different opinion on how bottling (or canning for those in the States), should be done. It was enough to give me a dull thud in the back of my brain.

I have been following the information on the USDA website, which is REALLY informative if you ever decide to take a look. There are a whole heap of detailed instructions for every type of preserve you could imagine. I got excited when I found such a plentiful supply, I printed off 80% of the texts and use them everytime I want to preserve something.

So, back to the Fowlers thingy. Basically, you plug it in, and it heats up. That's it. What's so confusing? Well, to start with, seeing as I was following the USDA directions, which says to process high acid fruit and pickles in a boiling water bath canner, that's what I did. Using my pre-loved biege thing. Yes, you plug it in, it heats up, and then starts to boil - madly! Unstoppably, well until you unplug it of course. So, that's how I've been using my ebay bargain, and of course, it was quite frightening when the thing actually did start doing it's steriod like boil. Steam would escape everywhere, the unit would rattle and shake, the bottles clanking inside and condensation would gather on the inside of the lid, and due to the wacky design, would end up trickling down the outside of the unit, dangerously close to the power outlet. I resorted to draping the huge vessel in tea towels. Many tea towels. The whole thing made me uncomfortable.

And then, what's this? I was in the hardware shop earlier this week and came across this little publication. An actual instruction book for said unit. At last, questions were to be answered. You would think so, wouldn't you?

But in fact, no, just more questions. The instructions say to pack raw fruit into jars, cover with liquid of choice, place in preserver, fill with cold water and turn it on. Leave for an hour and turn off. If it boils before the hour is up, turn it off - don't let it boil for more than 5 minutes. Leave the jars in there for the remainder of the hour and then remove.

But....but, what is this?? No boiling water? No hot packing into hot jars and into hot water? No timing from when water starts to boil?


The other thing.

All that boiling under my mysterious beige thing's belt. Oh well. It still seems to work ok.
So, now I'm intrigued. Preserving food by just heating up to temp (92c) and holding for the rest of the hour? Well, who knew. I guess that would be fine for fruit, when everything is room temp and heating up together, but what about chutneys and hot sauces? And another thing, how do they know my funky, retro ancient unit is efficient enough to heat up to temp within that hour? (especially after all of my USDA induced boiling sessions).

The book had an information number to ring, so that I did. I got a girl who told me that to bottle the chutney, first I had to cool it completely in the pan, pack it into cold jars, then into the unit with cold water to let everything heat up together. What?? That just makes me feel weird - cooling a recipe to only heat it back up again in the bottle. Why not pack it all in hot and then bung it into a hot water bath? Because the unit will boil like it's on steroids and needs to be turned off after 5 minutes. Oh. Right.

I have to give it a go, just to see how the silly thing is meant to work. As it was designed to. If I fail to post for a while, you'll know I got food poisoning from my un-boiled, gently heated bottled fruit, because I was so vigilant in following my newly found directions.


  1. hi, i have a few things to say about your bench warmer. i've done a lot of canning, and a lot of research about it.
    first off, don't worry about killing anybody, so long as you stick to fruits. the only thing that kills people from home canned stuff is botulism, which doesn't grow in high acid foods like fruit. that's why you need a pressure canner for vegies, like beans, carrots, etc and meat. but if you're just canning fruit, no worries. the worst that can happen is to lose a bunch of your hard won labor to mold, or fermentation. both of which you'd notice right off the bat when you open the jar.
    second, there's no magic about 212 degrees (farenheit) except that it is a visual signal of temperature achieved. that is the reason it has become the standard. most beasties are killed at, if i remember right 190 degrees (again, farenheight). and high acid (ie: fruit) spoilers are killed if the food is held at 190 for some perido of time, like, 10 minutes or something.
    that's all a bit to complicated for the home cook. that's why the boiling thing. if it boils (so long as you're at sea level...) it's good, no math, no science, easy.
    but your special cooker. i've never seen or heard of this in the US. i suspect it's functioning on the "said temperature for said length of time" principle. they did the science for you, and built a machine to make it happen. cool.
    as you said, what about machine failure over time..? well, if it says 'an hour, or turn off if it starts to boil,' that implies it takes a bit over an hour to boil, so you could test it and see if that's still true.
    but here's what i think. that whole big specialty bench hogging thingy, just to shave a few degrees off your canning, and save a little fuel? i mean, i guess it is probably preserving a bit more of the fruit's vitamins, etc, but.... you can do almost the same thing in a big stock pot, with the "open water bath" you referred to. it's easy, no special equipment except a big enough pot.
    also, though it's not usda endorsed anymore (used to be, but i think they've dumbed everything down now for people who can't follow directions) you can bring your fruit stuff to a hard boil, pour it into hot sterilized jars, cap and invert for five minutes. how easy is that? i posted about this on my old blog here:
    wow, is that more info than you needed or what?

  2. Hey! It's good to have your point of view. I'm all for more information, so thanks for your really informative (fantastic) blog link :-).

    I do have to say though, that when making jam I usually add the sugar after the fruit had stewed all of it's juices out after about 10 mins, and then slowly heat the sugar and fruit together to a rolling boil. Anyhow, getting sidetracked..back to the vessel.
    About that bench hogging device, I hear you! It's a pain to have out, but I've used it a couple of times now, and it is really convenient to can with. I can go and do other things while the jars are in there simmering away. A big pot would be great, and I did actually investigate buying one about a year ago, but couldn't find any here that were tall enough, how ridiculous is that! All the big stock pots I have at home are too short and I would've had to go to frustrating lengths to order a water bath pot online, which I think was imported from the States anyway. Hence the spontaneous purchase of bench hogging vessel. I'm sure a big pot is out there in my future, and at the moment my others are fine for small jars, it's just those nasty big jars that cause me my problems. I'll pack the thing away once my preserving bug flies to the wind.

    About the (open kettle?) way of bottling fruit without a waterbath, I didn't know fruit could be done that way, always thought it had to be boiled in the bottle. I certainly make jam that way, and don't bother with the water bath, shmwater bath.


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Hi there, so nice of you to stop by! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I love hearing what you are up to. Christine x

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