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Safely Canning Food at Home

Posted in Our Blog on May 3, 2024

As I sit today and listen to the sound of jars sealing and the heavenly *pop* that signifies the official sealing I am led to believe that people are heading towards canning more foods at home and that leads me to wonder if people are safely canning food at home or not. Are they doing the research or just winging it? Following random websites or actually doing the homework? My personal canning adventure started when I first met my husband, and we didn’t have a lot of money but loved to eat fresh foods. Like most people I started with jams and jelly which seem to be the gateway canning into other things like pickles. I now feel confident that I can process and can about anything I need but that only came from years of research and finding out there are definitely right and wrong ways to go about this adventure.

Home canning can be extremely dangerous and can lead to botulism which no one wants.

What the USDA Says

The USDA has been a go to resource for canning needs for many years. I use their website when I have questions because it is not only comprehensive but also easy to navigate. Here are some of my favorite tips:


Before every use, wash empty jars in hot water with detergent and rinse well by hand, or wash in a dishwasher. Unrinsed detergents may cause unnatural flavors and colors. These washing methods do not sterilize jars. Scale or hard-water films on jars are easily removed by soaking jars several hours in a solution containing 1 cup of vinegar (5 percent acidity) per gallon of water.


All jams, jellies, and pickled products processed less than 10 minutes should be filled into sterile empty jars. To sterilize empty jars, put them right side up on the rack in a boiling-water canner. Fill the canner and jars with hot (not boiling) water to 1 inch above the tops of the jars. Boil 10 minutes at elevations of less than 1,000 ft. At higher elevations, boil 1 additional minute for each additional 1,000 ft elevation. Remove and drain hot sterilized jars one at a time. Save the hot water for processing filled jars. Fill jars with food, add lids, and tighten screw bands.

Empty jars used for vegetables, meats, and fruits to be processed in a pressure canner need not be presterilized. It is also unnecessary to pre-sterilize jars for fruits, tomatoes, and pickled or fermented foods that will be processed 10 minutes or longer in a boiling-water canner.

It is also important to know that you should only buy the amount of lids you will use in a year because they often lose the ability to seal properly. I keep mine in air tight containers because I have heard the horror stories that mice and other rodents are drawn to the sticky edges for some reason and no one wants to use a lid that has had mice on it as we know how disgusting they can be. We also are no longer using zinc lids or the lids that have rubber liners.

To Water Bath or Pressure Can; That is the Question

Martha Stewart explains this best in terms that are easy to understand

When deciding between the different types of canning methods, the best one will depend on the specific food you’re preserving. The reason? Different foods have different levels of acidity, which determines their risk of becoming contaminated with C. botulinum. This type of bacterium is resistant to heat, but it can be destroyed by acid.

Process Low-Acid Foods in a Pressure Canner

As Brigman explains, low-acid foods (those that have a pH higher than 4.6) should be processed in a pressure canner. Due to their low acidity, these foods have a higher risk of C. botulinum growth—so they’ll need to be processed at the higher temperatures achieved in pressure canning.

According to the USDA, examples of low-acid foods include red meats, seafood, poultry, and all fresh vegetables (except for most tomatoes). These foods can also be made more acidic with the addition of lemon juice, citric acid, or vinegar.

Process High-Acid Foods in a Water Bath Canner

High acid foods (that have a pH of 4.6 or lower) are a different story. The acidity of these foods can block or kill C. botulinum, so they don’t need to rely on heat to get the job done. In turn, they’re more appropriate for water bath canning—which, again, involves lower temperatures than pressure canning.

Examples of acidic foods include fruits, pickles, jams, and jellies. Tomatoes and figs are also acidic and fall into this category, but some have a pH above 4.6 (so they’re less acidic). In this case, they’ll need to be acidified with lemon juice or citric acid before being processed in a water bath canner, per the USDA.

What is the Shelf Life?

I am often asked how long I keep my home canning. The answer is truly it doesn’t stay here long enough for me to know the true shelf life. We preserve usually enough to get us from year to year. I also give away a lot as gifts to family and friends who don’t have time to can and like a good homemade treat.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) both say to try to use up your home canned goods within a year of making them. The reason is not so much for food safety, but rather for optimum food quality.

Elizabeth Andress of the NCHFP elaborates:

“We do say we recommend using within a year for best quality; that also is not intended to indicate you should throw anything out that is over a year old. It says, use within a year for best quality. Beyond that, just like with commercially canned foods, you might start to see some quality deterioration.”

“We cannot give you an exact date for expiration. Theoretically, if the food was processed safely, for example for canning, and stored properly and shows no sign of spoilage, until that vacuum seal is broken, there should be no way that it becomes further contaminated or becomes unsafe. The one issue with keeping foods too long is you will get quality deterioration, you can get real darkening of colours of many foods, you might get some cloudiness that occurs as starches settle out of the foods, all these extended quality changes over time can start to interfere with our ability to detect spoilage even though it may not be actual spoilage, it may just be deterioration of the food quality, so it’s not a good idea to me to try use things really old or try to look at 25 year old food and assume that it’s safe…We just don’t have absolute expiration dates to give people and neither does the commercial industry, quite frankly. But if it was safe at the time it was originally canned, until that seal is broken there should be nothing else happening to make it unsafe.”

Knowledge is power when safely canning food at home. Keep an eye here at MakeFoodSafe for more canning and homesteading information.