There are roughly three schools of thought about taking a tested, approved home canning recipe, and tweaking it.
- The first is taking a ruler and cracking it across people’s knuckles if they even dare think about it;
- The second is in reaction to the first — if you’re going to be that way, then I won’t even bother consulting safe recipes in the first place;
- The third is more of a harm-reduction approach: it’s going to happen, so at least give people some guidelines.
- 1 1. Don’t even think about it
- 2 2. Since your only answer is so rigid, I’ll go elsewhere for information
- 3 3. Give people some guidelines
- 4 The list of things that can be safely tweaked in a canning recipe
- 5 Tweaks you must never do
- 6 Summary
- 7 Further reading
1. Don’t even think about it
This is the approach which some feel the USDA takes, though truth to tell, it’s more the interpretation of some extension agents.
There are two aspects to it:
- Do as you are told and don’t question;
- No distinctions made between recommendations that are for safety versus quality.
The main concern of the USDA, as well as that of its child agency, the National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP), remains to ensure absolute, 190% safety. While Dr Elizabeth Andress, head of the National Center for Home Food Preservation, says that though people want some creative diversity in their food, safety must come first:
Many of today’s home canners are interested in being creative and view home canning as an art as much as a science. Though diverse recipes provide variety to people, the maintenance of safe practices in canning cannot be over-emphasized.” 1
Note, however, they are not saying they are against safe, informed, knowledgeable “tweaking” : just that following safe practices must take priority over everything else.
The difficulty, however, is they just can’t be certain that any tweaking will be done in a “safe, informed, knowledgeable” manner, especially when it’s done by people who don’t know what they don’t know. Here’s what Penn State Extension says therefore about some red wine vinegar in home-canned meat broth:
A client called and wanted to know if he could can meat with a more tender result by adding some red wine vinegar in place of all water for the liquid. Can it be used? Would the meat texture break down and become too mushy? — Adding vinegar might make the meat more tender although the extremely long heating times should make a tender product. Although adding vinegar will not make this product become unsafe, we do not recommend that consumers modify the recipes in the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning. Some other modification that a consumer might make could cause the product to become unsafe to eat.”2
And ordinary, lower-level Extension Agents — and often Master Food Preservers — just are not authorized to publicly endorse any changes to published home canning recipes, even if they wanted to, and even if they do themselves at home. To do so would get them in trouble, and it’s just not worth the grief or their jobs.
There’s a historical reason for the lack of slack allowed. In the first few decades of the 1900s, the USDA took a “try this, try that, some homemakers say they do this…” approach in their home canning publications. As people dropped like flies from eating the products, they tightened up their advice approach severely and it became “The safe way to can is to get a reliable canning guide from your State College or from the Bureau of Home Economics at Washington, D. C. and follow that as though it were the laws of the Medes and Persians.” 3
That being said, the “ask no questions, just do it” approach of yesteryear is starting to change a bit now. The National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) is starting to lower the curtain and unveil the reasoning behind certain things with their Preserving Food at Home blog; and they will answer questions sent into them giving you loads of background information. They are extremely limited though by capacity, because they are drastically underfunded. If you’d like them to have more capacity to help people and provide more detailed information, give your elected representatives a shout and let them know — they are never going to not spend your money, so might as well spend a teeny bit of it on something useful.
2. Since your only answer is so rigid, I’ll go elsewhere for information
Some people, in reaction to what they have felt were rigid and uncompromising answers received from reputable sources about a minor tweaking question such as a bay leaf in a jar of turnip, go off to the Internet instead looking for answers, and often end up part of a community of “cowboy canners” who have them doing unsafe techniques such as oven canning before you can say “Jack Robinson.”
3. Give people some guidelines
This school of thought feels that in order to avoid driving people into the camp of cowboy canners, that it’s better to educate them — and reduce if not eliminate the harm that people might put themselves in the way of. And, besides, they feel, there’s nothing wrong with being honest and giving people the list of things they can tweak safely.
This school of thought feels that it’s actually best when recipes do tell you what you can tweak — what is taste and quality as opposed to safety. They feel that today’s generation of cooks is going to tweak so it’s best to inform them how to do so safely. People are cooking because they want to, rather than have to: that means they are curious cooks.
It turns out, that reputable sources such as the USDA, the National Center, Cooperative Extension Services and Ball and Bernardin are actually more flexible about tweaking than people have given them credit for, and actually have said what tweaks they can endorse.
For instance, as of 2014, in its 37th Blue Book edition (released spring 2015), Ball looks like it is finally providing optional tips and tweaks people can do to safely add variety to a recipe.
Ball’s “All New” book, released June 2016, goes even further, directing people how to add soy sauce, curry powder, and balsamic syrup to the standard recipes for pressure-canned meats and veg.
Brian Nummer, Food Safety Specialist at Utah State University, handled a Q&A as follows:
Q: Which form of herbs or spices (fresh, dried leaves, ground, etc.) is preferred for use in home canned foods?
A: Basically adding small amounts 1-2 tsp/jar of dry ground spice will not affect the research tested parameters of a canning recipe. Nearly all recipes were originally tested with or without small amounts of salt. Therefore, small amounts of other dry spices should not affect the established safety factors provided they do not alter the “thickness” of the food. We do not recommend fresh spices since the amount of fresh leaves or spices can be quite large.”4
Even the smallest tweak in taste can bring new interest to an old, tested recipe, and many canners just want some trusted, safe guidance in this direction.
After all, even best-practice canners, who adhere religiously to the latest modern safety guidelines, all tweak recipes using the list of things that even the experts admit can be safely tweaked.
The problem is that this information is scattered randomly all over the place on the Internet, so we have compiled it for you. It’s not a long list, but it is useful to know.
The list of things that can be safely tweaked in a canning recipe
Note: this list is NOT intended to encourage tweaking — rather, just to be intellectually honest and survey the safe ways in which it could be done.
These are some things that can be tweaked within certain parameters with no impact on safety; taste of course may change.
- Type of equivalent strength acid;
- Salt and sugar ;
- Type of fresh peppers;
- Size of jar and mouth width of jar.
1. Type of acid
First, for background knowledge, here’s a comparison in descending order of the pH of a few typical canning acids. The lower the pH number, the higher the acidity, and, note that the pH scale is like the Richter scale, small number changes are ‘earth-shaking’.5
From strong to strongest:
- Apple cider vinegar: 3.10
- White distilled vinegar: 2.40 – 3.40
- Lime Juice: 2.00 – 2.80
- Lemon Juice: 2.00 – 2.6
So, safety-wise it’s okay to use lemon lemon juice instead of apple cider vinegar, because you’re actually increasing the acidity and thus increasing the safety. It’s NOT okay to do the reverse — use apple cider vinegar instead of lemon juice, because then you are lowering the acidity and potentially making the recipe unsafe. (To be clear, we are talking safety-wise here, not taste-wise — we are not saying such a drastic swap would be desirable taste-wise.)
Note that most home canning recipes call for bottled lemon or lime juice because it has a reliable acidity. (Only use fresh if a canning recipe specifies fresh; otherwise presume bottled. When we refer to lemon juice here, we are referring to bottled.)
In recipes that call for the standard distilled white 5% vinegar as the acid, you may:
- substitute some or all of it with bottled lemon juice or bottled lime juice (but what a taste change!);
- substitute some or all of it with another vinegar that is also at least 5% or higher acid.
In recipes that call for 5% apple cider vinegar, 5% wine vinegar, etc, you can substitute regular 5% white vinegar (or bottled lemon or lime juice).
If recipes call for bottled lemon juice or bottled lime juice, don’t swap in 5% white vinegar instead. It’s not equivalent, because the acidity of lemon and lime juice is higher, so the plain white vinegar would actually be downgrading the acidity and therefore the safety of the recipe. Here, for instance, is advice on the USDA salsa recipes:
Hillers and Dougherty note the only safe changes a home food preserver can make to their listed [USDA salsa] recipes is to substitute bottled lemon or lime juice for vinegar or to change the amount of spices and herbs.” 6
An equal amount of bottled lemon juice may be substituted for vinegar in recipes, but do not substitute vinegar for lemon juice. This substitution will result in a less acid and potentially unsafe canned salsa.” 7
White wine vinegar of 5% acidity or higher can be swapped for white vinegar to provide a milder taste (red could too, though the colour change may be unacceptable.) Rice vinegar can provide a milder taste, too: but make sure that it’s 5% or higher (it’s often bottled to 4% or less), and, you want unseasoned, not the seasoned which has salt and sugar added to it.
You can always safely add more of an acid called for (vinegar, lemon juice, lime juice) to a recipe. For instance, when you are canning pickles and run short of brine. Heat the extra vinegar first to boiling in a pot, or in a microwave before using it to top up jars as needed (be mindful of “surge” when removing it from microwave.) Do NOT top up with pure water.
When a canning recipe calls for bottled lemon or lime juice, or just lemon or lime juice, use bottled, don’t substitute fresh.
If a recipe calls for fresh lemon or lime juice, but you only have bottled you may use bottled.
(Yes, there are other highly acidic items technically available in home food preservation such as tamarind but few people aside from canning experts properly understand its acidity. For a recipe that uses tamarind as the “acid”, see Tamarind Chutney on page 82 of the Bernardin Guide 2014, or page 251 of the 2015 Ball / Bernardin Complete Guide or page 152 of the Ball “All New” Book 2016. And yes, it would be nice if they started drawing on these alternative acids for more variety.)
Stick to the same volume amounts
To be clear, if you decide to swap out 1 cup (8 oz / 250 ml) of apple cider vinegar, and swap in instead 1 cup (8 oz / 250 ml) of bottled lemon juice, do not go trying to do fancy math such as “well the bottled lemon juice is far more acidic so I could probably less use of it…..”
- You’d need to be a trained chemist to get the amount correct in a way that also accounts for everything else interacting in the recipe;
- Chances are very close to 100% that that volume of liquid is needed anyway for the recipe density / volume!
In the sample swap above, given that 1 cup of lemon juice would be pretty powerful tasting, you might want to stick with 3/4 cup of the cider vinegar and add to it 1/4 cup of lemon juice, to make up the full cup of liquid. You’ve added some lemony notes, without overwhelming the taste.
2. Salt and sugar
You can cut back the salt and sugar in most home canning recipes or eliminate it. (Note: for salt, exceptions are things such as fermented recipes such as fermented pickles and sauerkraut, which absolutely require salt for safety, as well as for classic items such as Mid Eastern preserved lemons. See The Role of Salt in Home Canning. For sugar, an exception is for the small handful of recipes that depend on sugar for water activity control. Another exception is standard pectin powder, which absolutely requires sugar to work. See Sugar’s Role in Home Canning.)
Karen Blakeslee, Food Scientist and Kansas State Extension Agent, says “You can typically change spicing…. ” 8
Play with seasonings as long as you are using dried herbs and spices. We’re advised not to use fresh herbs in preserves and condiments unless a tested recipe calls for it, as the water in the fresh herbs could affect the pH by diluting the acidity, presumably. Note that using ground spices instead of, say, whole spices in a spice bag, may make a jar cloudy. The first time you can something with a dried herb, use it sparingly to see how the more concentrated flavour after canning appeals to you: increase as desired after that in subsequent rounds of canning that product. Many people may never want more than 1/2 teaspoon of any one dried herb per half-litre (US pint) jar, but that’s just a rough taste guideline — we saw Brian Nummer above okaying 1 to 2 teaspoons per jar, though he didn’t say which size of jar he was discussing.
4. Type of fresh peppers
“Canned chiles may be used in place of fresh. Use only high quality peppers. Do not increase the total amount of peppers in any recipe. However, you may substitute one type of pepper for another.” 9
You can swap fresh sweet peppers (such as bell peppers) for fresh hot peppers interchangeably in recipes, but keep the quantities (per weight or per prepared cup) the same. As peppers are a low-acid vegetable, it’s always safe to lower the quantity of peppers — just never raise it. It’s always safe to add a small quantity of dried chile flake for heat — that falls under the category of “Seasonings” above.
5. Type of Onions
The USDA Guide says, “Red, yellow or white onions may be substituted for each other.” 10 The guide makes no mention of green onions, spring onions, shallots or leeks, so it’s probably best to stick to the “globe onion” types they mention. All onions are low-acid so do not increase the quantity. It’s always safe to lower the quantity.
5. Size of jar
You can decrease the size of the jar you are canning in, but you must still use the processing time given for the next size up. You can’t guess at processing times; they often aren’t exponential and don’t always increase or decrease logically. Note that in very small jars such as the 125 ml (4 oz) size, the contents may overheat and surge up over the rim, preventing a seal, so you can try increasing the headspace by 1/2 cm (1/4 inch.)
You can only increase the size of jar if there is a tested processing time and method given for it. Sometimes, you will find that one Ball or Bernardin book (such as the Blue Book or Bernardin Guide) gives only options for a smaller size jar, whereas the exact same recipe in another Ball or Bernardin book (for instance, the Complete) will give times for a larger size as well. In any event, no tested recipe will ever increase the size of jar past 1 litre (1 US quart), because that is the largest size tested for these days. The exception is for apple or grape juice, which have USDA tested times for 2 litre (1/2 US gallon) sizes, and tomatoes in 1.5 litre jars (1 1/2 quarts), which the Ball / Bernardin Complete book specially carries for large farming communities such as the Amish and Hutterites.
The choice of jar mouth size, regular or wide, is always up to you.
Tweaks you must never do
- Don’t shorten processing time;
- Don’t use a processing method other than that which has been recommended (don’t water bath when the directions call for a pressure canner);
- Don’t use a pressure cooker (electronic or otherwise) instead of a proper pressure canner (don’t do it even if the manufacturer says it is okay);
- Don’t add food items that alter a recipe in ways other than seasoning;
- Don’t add thickener when a recipe does not call for it;
- Don’t use fresh herbs when the recipe specifies dried unless the recipe says you may;
- Don’t can food items for which there are no modern tested recommendations.
The purpose of this page is not to encourage tweaking.
It’s to show the various schools of thought on the topic, and to sum up the known safe ways acknowledged by reputable sources that you could tweak, should you be in the middle of a big canning season and find yourself for practical reasons needing to make a substitution (e.g. running out of apple cider vinegar, running out of the size of jar the recipe calls for, etc.)
And just because you can, doesn’t mean you’re gonna to want to. While lab-wise it would be safe to use pure bottled lemon juice in place of vinegar in your dill pickles, they would probably be so sour that people would have to go in for face surgery. It would also cloud your brine. And using jalapeno peppers instead of sweet green bell peppers in your Dixie Relish would get things at your next community picnic hopping, that’s for sure.
So above all, you have to use common sense, and the first rule of that is: don’t consider any tweaking not on the list above — last updated summer 2018.
Ingham, Barbara. Home Canning: Can I Make Substitutions Safely? University of Wisconsin Extension. 23 June 2015. (Link valid as of June 2016)
Andress, Elizabeth. Current Home Canning Practices in the U.S. National Center for Home Food Preservation. Paper 46B-3. Presented at the Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting Anaheim, CA, June 17, 2002. Accessed March 2015. ↩
USDA Radio Service. Housekeepers’ Chat. Thursday, 14 September 1933. ↩
Source: FDA. Approximate pH of Foods and Food Products. April 2007. Accessed March 2015 at http://foodscience.caes.uga.edu/extension/documents/FDAapproximatepHoffoodslacf-phs.pdf. ↩
Studies on safe acidification of salsa for home boiling water canning B. A. Nummer, M. Thacker, E. M. D’Sa, and E. L. Andress. Studies on safe acidification of salsa for home boiling water canning. Paper 33C-9. Presented at the Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting, Las Vegas, NV, July 14, 2004. Accessed June 2015 at ↩
Hillers, Val and Richard Dougherty. Salsa Recipes for Canning. Washington State University Cooperative Extension. Page 1. Accessed January 2015. ↩
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Complete guide to home canning. Agriculture information bulletin No. 539. 2015. Page 3-20. ↩