I get emails with questions about canning mistakes from people quite often. And one day while answering emails, I noticed that I had received three emails that described almost the same exact problem: "I messed it up what do I do now??" . I decided to go ahead and just share those questions with you here, because it's a common thing that people ask!
What happens is that they have an issue with something that they've canned, and they notice that issue two or three days later. Or maybe they just notice it the next day, so they're wondering if they can go ahead and re-can their food, despite those mistakes.
Let me talk about another common mistake. This lady said that it had been five days since she water-bathed her green beans from the garden. They were still all sealed, but she did not know they needed to be pressure canned. She wondered if she could do it at this point.
No, unfortunately she couldn't.
Again, it's another case where the green beans have been in the jars for five days without being properly processed, so they’re probably spoiled. There's a possibility of botulism, because she used just a water bath. Green beans have to be canned in a pressure canner.
So the first person said that a week ago, she canned sauce using the correct procedure. However, she learned afterwards that it required bottled lemon juice, not the fresh-squeezed lemon juice she had used. (She also added onion, garlic, celery, basil, and carrots in quantities that were more than specified in that tested recipe.) In her e-mail, she wondered if she could go ahead and just use it anyway, or maybe put it in the freezer.
In a case like that, there were errors in her processing that were not going to work. So really, her food was not safe.
Now, at this point, it had been been a week since she did it, and I always hate to be the bearer of bad news. But I recommended that she toss the food. Throw it away. It's not worth the chance to risk making anybody sick!
Now, if she had caught the canning mistake within 24 hours, then she could've just gone ahead and taken the food and frozen it or put it in the refrigerator and use it up right away. She wouldn't have had to throw it away. But since it had been five days, I didn't recommend going back and doing that.
The only time that you can go ahead and reprocess your food if you've found a mistake that you've made is if you catch your mistake right away, within 24 hours. If you realize within that time that you're not sure if the jars are processed properly, you can go ahead and reprocess them.
I want to emphasize that. It has to be within 24 hours. After that, you need to throw your food away. It's just not safe.
If it's within 24 hours, go ahead and follow the same processing that you would have done if you were canning the fresh food. Whatever the regular canning directions are, you would follow that. Usually you're going to end up having to reheat your food too. To reprocess, you're going to empty all the jars, reheat the food, and then fill all the jars again, because it would be difficult to reheat the food just in the jars.
Some foods tolerate this reprocessing, but some don't. If you've made a mistake with green beans for example, and notice it right away you could reprocess them. However, your green beans are going to get pretty soft and mushy if you process them again. Quality-wise, they're not going to be very good.
Other foods will be similar, green beans or carrots or beets, fruit like apples or peaches. These are foods that just won’t hold up to that kind of cooking, I would suggest putting them in the freezer and preserving them that way.
There are other foods that are soft anyway, like applesauce. Applesauce handles reprocessing pretty well, because it's a soft food anyway. Apple butter, or other sweet spreads often will work with reprocessing.
For food that won’t hold up to more processing, you can go ahead and freeze that food. I don't like freezing in jars so I'd take the food out of the jar and put it in freezer bags, label and freeze. IF you want to leave it in the jars you'll need to empty some out of each jar. There needs to be room for swelling as the food freezes.
You can just put your food in the refrigerator for immediate use. It just depends on whether you've made a mistake with a whole batch of something or just a few jars. Ask yourself, “What am I going to do with seven jars of something?” But if it's just one or two jars that didn't seal, for example, put them in the fridge.
Long story short? When you make canning mistakes, look at the food and the end quality. And of course always, always look at the safety of whether it can be reprocessed or not. That's the most important thing.