For home canning it is necessary to thoroughly sterilize the containers. In the past, I have had to boil the jars in a large container. This is dangerous. If I were to moisten the jars and place them in the microwave, would there be enough heat to sterilize them? — CM
While you could sterilize jars in a microwave oven, doing so would be extremely dangerous. Your chances of successfully sterilizing the jars without blowing one of them up is very small. Here is an explanation.
When you place a canning jar in boiling water, what you are really doing is exposing that jar to a water bath at a temperature of 212° F (100° C). Boiling water self-regulates its temperature very accurately, making it a wonderful reference for cooking. Below water’s boiling temperature, water molecules evaporate relatively slowly from the surface of water so that when you add heat to the water, it tends to get hotter and hotter. But once the water begins to boil—meaning that evaporation begins to occur within the body of the water—water molecules evaporate so rapidly that when you add heat to the water, more of it converts into steam and its temperature doesn’t change much. When you boil canning jars for 5 minutes, you are simply making sure that the canning jars sit at about 212° F for about 5 minutes; long enough to kill bacteria in the jars. Since the boiling temperature of water diminishes at high altitudes and lower atmospheric pressures, you must wait longer for your jars to be adequately sterilized if you live in the mountains.
Microwave cooking wouldn’t heat the jars to any specific temperature. As you cooked the jars in a microwave oven, their contents would become hotter and hotter. Even if we ignore the fact that microwave cooking is uneven, so that the temperature inside each jar won’t be uniform, there will be nothing special about the temperature 212° F. If you cook the food long enough, its temperature will reach 212° F, but will then keep rising. As it does, the water vapor in the jars will become more and more dense and its pressure will rise higher and higher. If the canning jar had been properly capped, the metal lid ought to be loose enough to allow this steam to escape. However, the canning system wasn’t designed to handle large amounts of escaping steam and an over-tightened jar might not permit the steam to escape at all. With the steam trapped inside, the pressure inside the jar may become large enough to cause it to explode. Since too little time in the microwave oven will leave the jars unsterilized and too much time in the microwave oven may cause them to explode, I suggest sticking to the tried and true method of sterilizing your jars in boiling water.