How Long Does Home-canned Food Last?
Chances are, you’ve had a variety of advice from people regarding how long it’s okay to keep home-canned food on the shelf. There are some who recommend one year to the date that it was canned. On the other hand, there are some who may tell you that they just recently ate the last of something their grandmother canned 20 years ago. The truth is, the answer likely lies somewhere in between the two extremes.
If you were to talk to one of the experts – that is, a master food preserver or someone from the National Center for Home Food Preservation – they would say something like this:
“In order to ensure the highest quality of home canned food, properly stored home preserved foods are best consumed within a year of being canned.”
Some people take this statement to mean that they have exactly a year to consume everything they canned.
However, the truth is more nuanced. You’re going to get the best flavor/quality from a jar of home canned food within the first year, but there’s no “self-destruct” device inside your jars that will go off after day 365. Home-canned foods are still safe for consumption beyond that one-year mark.
While it’s true that home-canned foods are still safe after that one-year mark, you must be aware that the longer they are on the shelf, the more their quality will decline. Therefore, if you have a jar of jam that was made 2-3 years ago, it’s still perfectly fine to eat, but might not have as good of a flavor as it did when you first made them. However, chances are good that it’s going to be much better than anything you’d buy at your local grocery store.
Tips for Inspecting Canned Food
If you do have some much older highly acidic preserves that you want to eat, but are concerned about the safety, here’s what you can do: Take it off the shelf and examine it thoroughly. If you have a butter, jam, jelly, or other spread, check the color to see if it has changed radically.
Keep in mind that a slight discoloration is perfectly normal, but if the color has completely changed, be aware that it might not be very safe. On the other hand, if you have relishes, pickles, or whole-preserved fruit, examine the quality of the syrup/brine. If it’s muddy or opaque or the liquid level has significantly dropped, it’s probably not safe for consumption.
If you’ve thoroughly examined it and there are no significant changes in appearance, open the jar and inspect it. Check the surface to see if there is any mold/scum that has developed. If not, take a whiff and see if it smells boozy, funky, or dirty in any way. Of course, keep in mind that if you added alcohol as a preservative when you made it, this is not really going to be a very good indicator of spoilage.
Once you have gone through all of these steps and determined all is well, taste it. If your spread has darkened a bit on the surface, you can scrape away the top 1/2”. If it tastes good, then you can add it to your rotation of open jars. Then, follow these steps for each of the other older jars on your shelf.
In some cases, being stored for a long time will take away the flavor of a preserve, especially if it was sweetened slightly with a sugar substitute or honey. If it doesn’t have much flavor, you might not want to add it to your yogurt or spread on your toast, but you don’t have to toss it. You can still use it in braising liquids or quick breads.
Of course, regardless of how much your home canned food passes these checks, if you’re not comfortable with it, trust your gut. It’s better to toss something that makes you nervous than to consume it and end up getting sick. If you cringe when you reach for a jar, empty it and move on.
Finally, there are times when you may try a new recipe and decide that you don’t really care for it. If this is the case, you can pass those on to someone that will enjoy them or simply dump them out. There’s no reason to be tortured by something that you don’t enjoy.