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Using Vintage Canning Recipes Safely

Using Vintage Canning Recipes -

Family History Through Food:

I have always loved shopping estate sales because it is a treasure hunt and you never know what you will find. But I also walk away from most of them feeling a little sad. Many times there are what I consider “family heirlooms” sitting forlornly in a pile with a $3 price tag attached.

Perhaps there are no heirs for these family treasures to be passed on to. Most times however, I think the surviving family members just don’t see the value in the pieces their relative held so dear.

I like to think that some of those treasures (such as family garden photos, hand written recipe books, or even a well worn china cup) will find new life in my home and will be valued again.

Recently, I discovered a stack of hand written canning recipes tucked inside a box I was purchasing at an estate sale. The family didn’t want them and said they were going to throw out the recipes with box.

I actually knew the woman who wrote these recipes. She had been a neighbor who kept mostly to herself.

But now, I feel as if I know her all over again because I see she had an affinity for tomato marmalade and canned pears.

Using Old Canning Recipes -

Safety of Old Recipes:

When I teach canning classes, I always warn students against making their grandmother’s canning recipes because the standards for safety have changed dramatically.

In some cases, what used to be common practices are now considered unsafe. So I always advise to have old family recipes checked by your county extension service and/or a Master Food Preserver for safety before attempting them.

Don’t throw those treasured recipes out. Just adjust them to modern practices.

Sometimes the fix is as simple as adjusting the acid or lengthening the processing time. With that quick fix, the recipe can live on. But it’s not wise to make a recipe without checking it out first.

Luckily, I went through the Master Preserver training and I know how to adjust recipes for safety. But if you have not been through training, what areas of the recipe should be checked?

Making Vintage Canning Recipes -

What The Experts Are Looking For:

So, let’s say you have a treasured family recipe and you take it to an expert for evaluation. What exactly are they looking for?

A canning expert will:

1) First look at the ingredients (not the technique called out in the recipe) to determine if this recipe is a low acid (and should be pressure canned) or high acid (and can be water bath canned).

2) Verify that the proper acidity is achieved for the canning process. (Does it have enough added vinegar or lemon juice, etc.)

3) Read through the overall technique and make sure that it follows current USDA guidelines for food safety (temperatures, canning methods, etc).

3) Verify that the processing time is long enough and/or at a high enough pressure based on today’s USDA standards.

4) Usually tell you how to fix the recipe or offer you other approved recipes to use instead if the family recipe is not recommended at all.

Tomato Marmalade:

One of the recipes in my estate sale stash was for Tomato Marmalade and only needed minor adjustments to be safe. It lists an interesting blend of tomatoes, sliced lemons and candied ginger. I plan on making it soon when my tomatoes ripen.

I feel that by making this recipe, I will also be celebrating the memory of a gardening neighbor who enjoyed homegrown tomatoes as much as I do. I’m sure she would have been happy to know that her recipe lives on.

Do you ever make family heirloom canning recipes??

Tell me in the comments below.


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About the Author:

Theresa Loe is the founder of Living Homegrown® and the Canning Academy® and is the Co-Executive Producer & Canning Expert on the national PBS gardening series, Growing A Greener World®. Theresa homesteads on just 1/10th of an acre in Los Angeles with her husband, two teenage boys and several disorderly but totally adorable chickens. Learn more about Living Homegrown here and about the Canning Academy here.


  • Terry says:

    I have been canning for several years now, and understand the importance of food safety. When I talk to others and the subject is canning, I am often horrified when they share a recipe with me. The worst case was someone who cans venison using the inverted-jar technique! Not even a water bath when pressure-cooking is really called for! Holy Crow! Of course, I diplomatically try and tell them that their methods need to be updated to be safe. Almost every person will say something to the effect of “But my mother/grandmother always did it that way”. Remind me not to eat at their house.
    I’m glad you are posting this very informative article.
    Happy Canning season!

    • theresa says:

      Thank you Terry for helping spread the word on canning safety too. That is just downright SCARY.

      I get the same response. The most common mistake I hear is from people who have water bath canned green beans (not pickled) and they always say, “But no one got sick, so it must be okay”. “No” I explain. “You were just lucky. My uncle smoked for 40 years and never got cancer, but that doesn’t mean we should all do it.”

      Now that canning is becoming popular again, botulism cases are on the rise. I’m sure that will continue. But it will help if we all continue to try to spread the word.

  • Geneva Bivens says:

    Thank you for sharing this information Theresa. Food safety is not something to be taken lightly. Botulism is a ‘silent killer”, the contamination cannot be seen, smelled or tasted when it is present in food.

    I grew up canning with my Mom, and a few of her close friends. They all used recipes from the Ball Blue Book. I have some very fond memories of canning season thanks to them.

    • theresa says:

      Thanks Geneva- I have lovely canning memories with my family as well. Don’t you just love memories that center around food? I do because every time I taste something like pomegranate jelly, it brings me back to a time when I was 10 years old helping cook it. 🙂

  • Lanie says:

    I was raised in a canning culture and completed the MasterFood Preserver coursework in 2009. Canning is a hobby for me and something I feel is akin to a stewardship which I have with my garden and orchard.
    I can an old family recipe for chili sauce which doesn’t use standard measurements or any processing time references. Knowing that tomatoes are much less acidic today than when my great aunt Cleo made this recipe, I choose to use litmas tape to check the ph and then use a pressure canner.
    Enjoyed your site

  • susan foster says:

    How do yo do the litmas test

    • theresa says:

      Hi Susan,

      You have to buy Litmas paper to test pH. It is how they test pool and fish tank water as well as food items. I don’t know of a source, but you should be able to google it. You can tell the pH of a liquid by the color the paper turns when dipped into the water.

  • Amanda Paa says:

    When I experiment with vintage canning recipes, I always going to the Ball Canning bible of recipes to adjust. It has always been helpful and given me the confidence to feel safe about reworking the recipe. There’s so much nostalgia in these vintage recipes that we definitely need to preserve them, no pun intended 🙂 Question, where did you take the canning certification? It is something that I would like to do.

    • theresa says:

      Hi Amanda,

      I went through training through the County Extension Office of Los Angeles. There are Master Food Preserver classes at extension offices all over the country. I will be offering an online canning course here soon, so if you sign up for my newsletter, you learn about it. 🙂

  • MELVA says:

    i made tomatoe jam, when i was about 16, we made spice tomato jam, giner or allspice and you got a recipes in the surejelly and when you brought canning jars you got the ball or kerr book free with it oh the good old days iam 67 now

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