Home canned goods do not have a set expiry date, whatever you may hear. You’ll often hear “one year”, but according to the top researchers, that is a “best before” date, the same as you have for store canned goods.
- 1 How long can you store home canned goods?
- 2 What the National Center for Home Food Preservation says about the shelf-life of home canned goods
- 3 What Ball says about the shelf-life of home canned goods
- 4 Shelf-life in general
- 5 Opened goods
- 6 Good storage temperatures
- 7 How long can I keep home-canned salsa?
- 8 Exception – Lemon Curd has a shorter shelf life
- 9 Storage life of dehydrated foods
- 10 Further reading
How long can you store home canned goods?
We are advised to date home canned goods, and to regard one year from that as the “best before” date.
That is not intended as a date for safety purposes, but rather as an inventory management date to help ensure that your pantry stock remains high quality.
The long and short of it is, in theory the seal on your home canned goods should be good forever, and as long as your seal is good the contents are safe. Quality and nutritive value may start to deteriorate after about the one year mark on some items (later on others), so the experts say in general to try to use stuff up before a year, and anything that has just gone over the year mark, prioritize using them up. Don’t panic, don’t throw it out, it’s still good, just make sure it migrates to the front of the shelf to be used before new stuff — the same as any sensible person would do with packaged goods from a store.
What the National Center for Home Food Preservation says about the shelf-life of home canned goods
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.”  Andress, Elizabeth. “History, Science and Current Practice in Home Food Preservation.” Webinar. 27 February 2013. 1:15:45. Accessed January 2015.
Andress says further,
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.”  Ibid. At 1:26:50.
What Ball says about the shelf-life of home canned goods
Ball Canning’s rep Jessica Piper says,
That’s simply a USDA guideline and has been for a long time: the shelf life of your canned food is one year….. We always adhere to current USDA guidelines, and that is, once you preserve your food you have one year to eat that to get the best nutrient value out of that.”  Jessica Piper. Video: Canning Lids 101. 8:25. Accessed March 2015.
She explains again that the one year recommendation is not a new one and has been around forever; she too explains that it’s related to quality, not safety:
Now you may have food that’s many, many years old, still safely stored in your root cellar or pantry, and it’s still sealed, the food inside will still be safe as long as it has maintained that seal all that time, however, again, quality can start to diminish, colour can start to diminish, and the most important is the nutrient value….Some folks may think that this is a new recommendation, but you can go back to older Blue Books, you can look at our Complete Guide to Home Canning, there’s actually a page in there that states the same thing, that the shelf life is a year, but don’t — if you have anything older, it’s not unsafe, it’s definitely just a personal preference…”  Ibid. At 5:33.
Piper underlines that storage life has nothing to do with the metal mason jar lids:
Another misconception is that because we switched to a BPA free lid, that you only have a shelf life of one year when you process your food. This isn’t anything new, this has actually been a guideline for many, many years, decades actually, that when you preserve your food following a USDA tested recipe that the shelf life is one year for the best quality, flavour and most importantly nutrient value….. The lids themselves, the shelf-life for when to use them, that has nothing to do with the year’s shelf life of how long they’re good once you’ve actually preserved with them.”  Ibid. At 5:07 and 9:15.
On its web site, Ball has said that storage life can be longer under good conditions:
Storing home canned foods between 50°F and 70°F (10 to 21 C) is ideal and may help preserve the food for a longer period of time. Light hastens oxidation and destroys certain vitamins. Light will also cause certain foods to fade in color. To protect home canned foods from the deteriorating effects of light, store jars in a place that does not receive direct sunlight. It is best to keep home canned foods in a cool, dry, dark place.”  Ball. How Long does Canned Food Last. Accessed June 2016 at https://www.freshpreserving.com/tools/faqs/how-long-does-canned-food-last
Shelf-life in general
That one year after canning date is your “best before” date. It does not mean, and is not intended to mean, you should throw it out.
“[Best before] dates originated as an inventory management tool…. they are really all about the quality, freshness, taste, colour of the product.” [ Getty Stewart, Home Economist, Winnipeg. ] Abraham, Lois. Best-before dates guide food quality, not safety, experts say. Canadian Press. 14 March 2016.
Dr Keith Roach (of the Weill Cornell Medical College and the New York Presbyterian Hospital) says,
“The expiration date on a shelf-stable food like canned tomatoes refers to quality, not safety. In other words, although it is still safe to consume, it may not have the same quality after its expiration date.” Roach, Keith. Your Good Health: Drug not the cause of bone-marrow disorder. Victoria, BC: Times Colonialist. 19 February 2016.
Here below is a photo of some corn 18 months old, canned May 2015 and photographed Nov. 2016. It had been stored in a warm apartment cupboard. The seal’s integrity is intact. Notice that the corn above the water line has started to darken somewhat, while the corn below the water still looks perfect. The jar is still good; it can be tipped into a pot of soup where the unappealing darkening won’t be noticeable, or those few kernels at the top can be scooped away. But, these jars need to come to the front of the shelf, and be used!
Pickled cauliflower products that are starting to hit the 3 and 4 year mark, even when stored in a cool dark basement, will start to darken, and have the pong of old boiled cabbage when you open the jars.
Once you’ve opened a jar, of course, the rules change. Low-acid pressure canned foods — such as carrots or green beans — should have any leftovers stored in the fridge and used up in 2 to 3 days. High-acid foods such as pickles, relishes, chutneys, can be stored in the fridge for at least up to a year. Opened sugar-free jams and jellies made with a preservative-free pectin such as Pomona should be stored in the fridge and used up within 4 weeks, or they will go mouldy even in the fridge. Sugar-free jams and jellies made with pectins containing preservatives, such as Ball and Bernardin, will last longer: store in fridge and use up within about 3 months.
“Once a jar … is opened, the best-before date is irrelevant because its internal atmosphere has been disturbed. Food safety and longevity are then up to how the item is handled by the consumer.” Abraham, Lois. Best-before dates guide food quality, not safety, experts say. Canadian Press. 14 March 2016.
Good storage temperatures
The storage temperature will affect the shelf life of your canned goods.
The USDA Complete Guide says good storage temperatures will help you retain the quality:
“Storing jars at 50° to 70°F (10 to 20 C) enhances retention of quality.”  United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Complete guide to home canning. Agriculture information bulletin No. 539. 2015. Page 1-6.
Elizabeth Andress of the NCHFP says,
50 to 70 F (10 to 20 C) is ideal storage conditions, just note that the higher you get the more spoilage and deterioration of quality issues you might get.”  Andress, Elizabeth. “History, Science and Current Practice in Home Food Preservation.” Webinar. 27 February 2013. 1:15:30. Accessed January 2015.
She explains why:
Even a good pressure process for low acid foods will not completely inactivate every bacteria that might be in there; it is intended to inactivate anything that could hurt a person, but there are some very heat resistant spores of other bacteria that could spoil food quality but not make you sick that are going to survive and that is the reason we recommend that you store foods below 95 F (35 C.) Above that you might start to have some spoilage issues even though not food safety issues.”  Ibid. At 1:15:00.
[Dr Gerald] Kuhn, Andress’s predecessor in charge of the USDA Complete Guide, talks more about those spoilage bacteria:
Kuhn also had advice about storing canned foods. He said not to store them above 95 F (35 C) degrees. Some heat resistant bacterial spores that are present may germinate and spoil the food, although no toxin is produced.” Jenkins, Kathryn. New guidebook available this fall giving up-to-date home canning tips. Frederick, Maryland: The Frederick News-Post. 19 June 1986. Page F-1.
Keith Warriner, professor, Food Science Department, University of Guelph, says that “abusing” how you store a food product will impact the mileage you get in storage time:
“The best-before date is only a guide. If you’ve abused [the product], it’s going to spoil much quicker.” Abraham, Lois. Best-before dates guide food quality, not safety, experts say. Canadian Press. 14 March 2016.
How long can I keep home-canned salsa?
Angela Fraser of North Carolina State recommends a year, to a year and a half, for home canned salsa:
If canned and stored properly, its shelf life is about 12 to 18 months. Salsa older than this is safe to eat if the jar is in good condition and the seal is intact. Its quality, however, may be poor.”  Fraser, Angela. Celebrate with Safe Salsa. North Carolina State University Extension Server. PCSW-516. Page 2. Accessed March 2015 at https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/fcs/pdfs/FCS516WAccessibleApril09.pdf.
Exception – Lemon Curd has a shorter shelf life
An exception to the one year rule of thumb is the home canned Lemon (or Lime) Curd developed around 2005 by the National Center for Home Food Preservation. They say the best quality shelf life for it is only 3 to 4 months:
“For best quality, store in a cool, dark place, away from light. Use canned lemon curd within 3 -4 months. Browning and/or separation may occur with longer storage; discard any time these changes are observed.”  E. M. D’Sa, E. L. Andress, J. A. Harrison and M. A. Harrison. Thermal Process Development to Ensure the Safety of a Home-Canned Lemon Curd Product. Department of Foods & Nutrition Extension, (2) Department of Food Science & Technology, The University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602-4356. Paper 020D-06. Presented at the Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting, Orlando, FL, June 26, 2006. Accessed August 2016.
Storage life of dehydrated foods
Penn State Extension. Inventory and Discard Canned Goods. 17 May 2012.