October 26, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Mady Besch

Preserving homegrown produce is a favorite pastime for Midwestern gardeners. 

In late summer and fall, mountains of cucumbers turn into pickles and baskets of tomatoes become salsa and spaghetti sauce with the help of canners on stovetops. 

A bountiful harvest then fills the pantry in the form of canned jars. Health-conscious consumers get to know what goes into their processed foods while enjoying the harvest throughout the calendar year.

But beware the curse of plenty, as overabundant jars can accumulate into perpetuity. The question then becomes, “At what point should homemade cans be discarded?”

Foods canned at home are safe to eat for several years—says Nancy Urbanec, a nutrition and health expert with the Nebraska Extension in Douglas and Sarpy counties—so long as the food was properly canned in the appropriate type of jars (glass mason jars and metal bands can be reused) with new lids (fresh seals), and stored in a cool, dry location.

“I’m not going to advocate for eating something five to seven years old,” she says. “Food safety-wise, it’s perfectly safe. Food quality-wise, it will change.” Peculiarities in foods stored in cans for many years may include lack of texture, cloudiness, and sometimes disintegration. 

Urbanec advises using canned foods within a year of processing, while the quality is best. She plans her garden with the intention of producing enough canned goods to last until the next year’s harvest. 

She also advises discarding canned items with rusted or bulged lids. Unsealed jars of canned food in the pantry should be discarded to avoid risk of botulism. 

Urbanec suggests removing the metal rings from the lids of cans that have been opened to make it easier to identify unsealed jars. Sticky exteriors of jars may also be a clue that they are not properly sealed. Jars containing fizz or odd bubbles may be suspect, too.

Unfortunately, botulin bacteria cannot be detected easily. But Urbanec says water-bath canning with adequate acidity or proper pressure canning will keep foods safe to eat. 

The methods of water-bath and pressure canning are slightly different in process but identical in result—they kill any possible botulin bacteria.  Both methods produce safely preserved food. 

What about when the prime year has slipped past already? Urbanec recommends not keeping canned items past one year. But when it happens—and it will happen, especially for folks new to growing and pickling cucumbers—Urbanec suggests using surplus pickles mixed with mayonnaise as a sandwich spread. Pickles can also be mixed with sour cream as a condiment for pita and lamb. Pickle brine with oil makes a delightful salad dressing, and deep-fried pickle spears will disappear off any serving tray. 

Urbanec enjoys sharing her canned produce with friends and family. Before offering them as gifts, however, she always checks to ensure that her lids are safely sealed. So if you have more cans of tomatoes and cucumbers this year than you know what to do with, tie a pretty bow around those mason jars and give them away as gifts. 

If you still have cans of pickles remaining after trying Urbanec’s suggestions—or maybe you just don’t want to share—know that it’s perfectly safe to consume them past one year.


Visit extension.unl.edu for more information about the Nebraska Extension in Douglas and Sarpy counties. 

This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.