Can't find lids and jars to preserve your homemade sauces and jams? You're not alone

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
A pot of tomatoes, cooked down, blended, and then canned, brings some summer-y flavor to the dead of winter.

Canners across the country are experiencing a shortage in canning lids and jars used to preserve jams, sauces and salsas made from homegrown fruits and veggies. Wisconsin is no different.

Deb Hacker, a Mukwonago woman who's been canning since 1978, said this is the first time she's ever experienced a shortage like this. She said she is constantly on the lookout for canning lids whenever she goes shopping and has resorted to buying them from hardware stores because grocery and outdoor stores are completely sold out.

"Any time I'm out and about, I go to grocery stores, hardware stores, wherever I am. I have other people looking for me," Hacker said. "One day I got a little greedy – I found them at Pick 'n Save and I got six (packages) of them and left one on the shelf."

Lids, or "flats," are the most in-demand canning product right now because they can't be reused in proper food safety practices, whereas jars and rings can. The US Department of Agriculture recommends only buying as many lids as you'll use in one year – canners should not use lids older than a year, and the lids should also not be damaged in any way. That can affect the sealing technology, which keeps bacteria and mold at bay.

Hacker said her husband bought her reusable canning lids made by Tattler, who says they can be used in high pressure canning and hot water baths. A notice from Iowa State University said the Tattler lids are not yet recommended by the USDA because a safety study has been ongoing since 2013. Instead, the notice recommended freezing over using the lids.

The Syracuse Post-Standard reported that the supplies shortage comes after many Americans took up gardening as many stayed home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, looking for ways to bide time while getting sunshine and fresh air.

Hacker is not new to gardening, but this is a new problem for her, having to figure out what exactly to do with an abundance of fresh food that will go bad if not properly preserved. Hacker said she is resorting to freezing everything in the hopes that she will be able to find lids closer to winter, when the garden harvesting and canning period is over. 

Hacker said she's also resorted to dehydrating her produce, especially herbs and peppers, as another method of preservation without needing cans. She also gives away her extra produce to her elderly neighbors and two grown children. Hacker usually makes preserved goods as gifts around the holidays, but she's giving away even more this year because she just can't preserve it all.

"It's just kind of a weird product not to have on the shelf. I'm sorry I didn't stockpile it from last year now," Hacker said. "A lot of people just missed the boat, and maybe I did too, because I didn't buy them soon enough."

Simple canning lids have become elusive for many home canners due to an uptick in food preservation thanks to the pandemic.

Carrie Storley of the Milwaukee area is also not new to gardening – she's grown tomatoes and green beans, among lots of other plants, for 15 years. But this was the first year she tried canning, and it's been difficult for her to get into the hobby because of the shortage. She said she's been lucky to get by with the scarcity of lids because Menard's lets shoppers keep track of their inventory, so she knew when they got a shipment in.

A friend also lent her canning equipment, which was also hard to find at a reasonable price, Storley said. Although prices haven't changed very much in brick-and-mortar stores, she said prices have skyrocketed online for all things canning.

However, she said she couldn't find pickling salt (or canned salt, a type of salt that is purely granulated to avoid clouding) or citric acid, which is used to preserve the flavor of things like tomatoes. Lemon juice can be used in place of citric acid.

"Getting away from Amazon was the first thing I had to learn to do," Storley said. "The stuff I was finding online, if they had it, it was obscenely overpriced. It was crazy. It was lucky I could call a friend."

While Storley said she doesn't like to dehydrate her produce because it's time-consuming, she said she's been vacuum-sealing and freezing green beans for later use. She's also been making a lot of zucchini bread for her family and neighbors. Despite the pandemic and supplies shortage, there's still a silver lining to the situation, Storley said.

"My neighbors have never eaten so well," Storley said with a laugh. "It's kind of a silver lining to the pandemic. Working from home, I got to spend a lot more time with my garden and try a lot of different things. Canning was one of them."

Christina Ward, a food preservation expert and author, said canners should look beyond the usual grocery and hardware stores and pay a visit to Wisconsin's Amish stores, which typically have canning supplies.

"Folks should look at their farm supply stores, and also if they have an Amish Mennonite store in their area," Ward said. "A lot of them still do have supplies, like lids, bands and jars."

Ward also said dehydration and freezing, like Hacker and Storley have done, are the best alternative methods to canning if you want to stow away homemade goods so they can last longer. Pickling vegetables is also a good idea, Ward said.

Opening a can of home-made tomato soup is like a taste of summer when there is snow on the ground and the temperature crowds toward zero.

Ward added that some of the most creative things you can do with preserving home goods is dehydrating tomatoes, grinding them into a powder and using it for soup recipes. You can also puree apples and dry the puree into fruit leather.

"You can control the amount of sugar in it and make that a really healthy snack," Ward said.

Homemade spice blends with dried sage, oregano and other common garden herbs are an option, too. For advanced canners, Ward suggested making herb jams. Some flavorful combinations include strawberry-basil, blueberry-lavender and lemon-sage jams.