Canning 101 – Label Your Jars Promptly

unlabeled jars

For weeks now, I’ve been playing with an idea for this site. A series of posts, gathered under the header “Canning 101” that could become a resource for those who are new to canning and serve as good reminders for people who have been doing it for years. I’ve been keeping a running list in a little red notebook, jotting down topics as they occurred to me. Though the idea queue has been growing, I’ve been hesitant to start. I felt like I had to find the absolute right topic with which to begin, and my search for perfection has left me a bit paralyzed.

Then, this last Sunday morning, I found myself frustratedly rooting through the boxes of filled and processed jars that have taken up residence on my dining room table. I was looking for a half pint of Strawberry Rhubarb Butter. Unfortunately, as you can tell from the picture up above, my jams were criminally unlabeled, so finding that particular jar was a irritating treasure hunt. In order to find the right preserve, I had to hold each jar up to the light, tilt it and search out the signs of strawberry seeds (I still managed to bring the wrong jar with me to brunch that morning).

As I was going through the jars, trying to discern strawberries from cherries, I thought to myself, “I really need to write a post, emphasizing the importance of labeling processed jars promptly.” And so, in that moment, I knew where to start this series.

Labeling is a simple endeavor. When I’m doing it just for my own benefit, all I do is take a blue or black Sharpie to the lid and scrawl the name of the product and the date it was produced. When I want to be a little be fancier, I use a self-inking stamp I bought that leaves an impression on a sticker with room for the name and date. If I want something truly elegant, I get in touch with my friend Lelo and order some of her customizable labels.

However you do it, make sure to label the jars clearly and always date them (so you know just how old that applesauce that you’re about to eat actually is). Even if you’re certain that you’ll always be able to tell your blackberry jam from your blueberry butter, I promise you that you will eventually be proven wrong and you’ll find yourself wishing you had quickly labeled those jars.

Tune in next Tuesday for another installment of Canning 101.

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56 responses to “Canning 101 – Label Your Jars Promptly”

  1. I use Avery 5294 labels. They are 2 1/2 inches round. I run them through my printer and they fit wonderfully on regular lids and wide mouth. I jazz them up with Avery Design Pro which is a free download from Avery.com.

  2. Indeed. I’ve just left town for a week’s vacation and left several jars of plum sauce, plum jam, sour cherry preserves, and cherry raspberry jam on the counter. What are the chances I’ll get this right upon my return??

  3. I once impulse bought a pack of 40 some off ultra fine point Sharpies. And now I get to spend a few moments pondering just which color really suits the character of the fruit I canned. 🙂

    Plus I found that if I did not write ont he lids, I was just way too tempted to keep reusing them – la la la.

    Looking forward to reading more tips. I think Canning 101 posts are a great idea.

  4. So far I only have two kinds of cucumber pickles on the dining room table, but I am taking your advice and taking a sharpie with me when I walk back down the stairs!

  5. Sometimes I use a Sharpie, but when I’m feeling extra fancy, I use some cute Martha Stewart labels from Michaels. (If I’m making a large batch of something and want mass labels, I’ll print some on address labels.)

    There is nothing worse than being unable to identify canned goods. 😉

  6. Last year I found some great 2″ round labels at onlinelabels.com that fit perfectly on jar lids. They have a label design program that’s lots of fun too.

    There are a few jars of something or other in my pantry that I can’t identify; I’ve learned my lesson about labeling right away.

  7. I use the sharpie. I got several of the warehouse store this winter, just for this task. Hate it when I couldn’t find a sharpie that worked. I got some jars with labels this past Christmas as a gift. I had a hard time getting them off the jars. Label on the lids is a great idea if I ever get fancy. Canning 101 is awesome idea. Planning on canning pickles and green beans next week. Keep cool out there in Philli!
    Off topic- Last post my husband is almost the same as yours. He is encouraging me right now to start sewing. This is the girl who can’t draw a straight line. That is why I love to can. Don’t have to be that exact in length and width! 🙂

  8. Thanks for the reminder. I haven’t done any canning yet this year, but I plan to. In the past I have sometimes made more of something than I can use or give away promptly. I would love to hear more from you about shelf life — why it is important to use things in a certain amount of time and even if this is important. Thanks for all the information!

  9. Even if I’m planning to put fancy labels on the lid, I always label right away with a sharpie. I’ve found that, no matter how sure I am that I’ll be able to tell the jars apart when I finally have printed out new labels, that’s often not true. And the label covers up my sharpie scrawl, so no one ever has to see it 😉

  10. Great series, thanks, and good points everyone! I do the sharpie thing right away too, and cover if I want it pretty later.

    One thing I also try to do is make batch notes. Things like how many jars the recipe made, notes on the ingredients (did I use all jalapenos for that batch of salsa?, was I a little short on cilantro?) That way in theory if a jar is particularly good or bad tasting, or say, super spicy! I have a record. Its most helpful for products I do multiple batches of, such as tomatoes and salsa, which may use slightly different varieties of peppers or tomatoes.

  11. I always write what I’ve canned and the year on a sticky label, but as someone else noted, it’s usually difficult to get the labels off the jars later. Don’t know why I haven’t just been labeling the lids instead ;o. I agree with S, making notes about how many batches of something I’ve made, how many pounds of berries I’ve picked, etc. helps a lot as I try to plan for the upcoming year. Canning 101: great idea.

  12. I go for sharpie first, when I remember–and I totally will for everything this year–but when I’m going to give something away I’m all about the custom-designed labels. The only problem there is, I’ve had folks not realize that I was giving them a home-made gift. Oh well.

  13. This is SO true. My father, a physician, is often given MANY jars throughout the year by the lovely old ladies in his practice. He and my mother simply cannot eat the stuff as quickly as he gets it, and I have been present for more than one cupboard clean-out where someone holds up a jar and asks, “What is this?” Sometimes the jars are labeled with the contents, but not the date. And they are NEVER label with the name of the cook. So I would add that to the labelling requirement: put your name on it! Perhaps that would help with your problem, Danny!

    S: I hadn’t thought to make notes, but that’s a great idea! By the time the year rolls around I have often forgotten the tweaks I made to a recipe the year before. What a wonderful excuse to buy a new notebook… 🙂

  14. My brother label maker is great for this, but I also made some “nice” labels for giving away. The nice labels are a two inch circle template from the avery website. I wrote “From the Dipuma Kitchen – 2010” twice around the label to make a circle and use a sharpie to write what the item is. I printed on sticker paper and use a 2 inch circle punch to cut them out. It’s also how I know which ones are my “give away” jars so I don’t accidentally give away one of my older jars.

  15. I am really HAPPY about this as I am new to canning and need and welcome all the tips I can get! Just wish I lived closer so I could come to your workshops

  16. Great series! I am a semi-experienced canner but always need reminders and tips (like this one–I just ordered those beautiful labels!). I’m having some less-experienced friends visiting this weekend for a canning party. I’ll direct them here for follow-up instruction and tips.

  17. In the group which simply write on the lid as soon as it is cool enough to do so. Then I cannot mistake what is in the jar.

    For gifting, I usually put something pretty over the lid, with a hang tag or something to ID what is in the jar. Kinda cutesy, but no issues with removing a label later. I just can see no reason to add something which will later be a problem to remove!

    The other reason for doing this has already been mentioned – it is clear which is a used lid and which is not! There are plenty of uses for a used lid, so I save most of them, but don’t want them mixed with the new ones.

  18. FYI you can remove Sharpie from glass with a little rubbing alcohol. So if you want to keep your lids clean, just write on the sides of the jar!

  19. I set up a wide and small mouth lid template on Adobe Illustrator in the colors and fonts that I use for my B&B marketing materials. I add the name and date of my product, print out on regular paper, cut out the circles and screw them on under the bands after the jars have cooled. The same thing could be done in MS Word if a person doesn’t have a graphics program. I also print out on bumpersticker paper if I want a stick on label.

  20. I use Print Artist, the business card template. Now, my version is quite elderly, 4.0, but, is still works. : ] My labels are made from plain paper, I cut them using the registry marks the program makes for the ‘business cards’ and you can also re-size them to fit a particular batch of jars–bigger for quarts & pints, smaller for 1/2 pints. The reason I use paper is because I use a glue stick to put them on the jars and the label comes off easily when the time comes, when the jar is empty. I’ve never had one come off before it’s time. And yes, I could never, ever remember what is in what jar without a label. Oh and I put a ‘use by’ date on each label–one year from date of production–and a list of ingredients along with the title of the product itself. Good idea to put a name on the label too–might get more jars back??? Yes, I do keep a journal of what I’ve made. (Batch notes) I’d be lost without those notes.

  21. you are so very very right! I don’t always use up one canning season’s goods before another are on the shelves, so I want to make sure I use the old jar first.

  22. Like others have posted, I start with the sharpie, an extra fine one if I can find one in the pen pile. That is all I need to identify, but the jars destined to be gifts get a fancier label such as the ones Cara mentioned, from onlinelabels.com. I have a program which will let me add images and text, or sometimes I leave the text area blank for quickly adding a special label to anything from jars of mustard to boxes of fudge.

  23. Love the canning 101 idea! I’ll second (third?) S’s comment about notes. I keep a canning log in a spreadsheet with the source of the recipe used, how much it made, any modifications to the recipe, where I sourced the ingredients, etc. Then I go back and leave my tasting notes after eating them. It prevents me from making a recipe again if I didn’t like it and has helped me narrow down my very favorite pickle recipe! Then at the end of the year I use it to see how much is leftover and set goals for how much I should make next year. Like I need WAY more salsa.

  24. Canning 101 – awesome! Some of the simplest questions throw me… like creative ways to store all those jars… can they be stored in the garage (not temp regulated)… how do you maintain the ring monster that grows throughout the winter… for fancy computer-printed labels, any suggestions to keep them from running… are there canning methods that don’t take over your entire kitchen for hours, and leave you scraping tomato seeds off the floor for days??
    So many questions – I’m glad I found you. 🙂

  25. I just completed my first canning project last week (olallieberry jam!) and am really looking forward to this series of posts. The links on your Resources page were already superhelpful to me in my maiden effort. Yay, Marisa!

  26. I label my lids with sharpies too…..I label storage stuff on the jar itself (flour vs powdered sugar)- I don’t write on the plastic lids because they don’t clean up so well. I just made guardiara and jotted special requests on the lids too—Hal got extra jalepenos, mother got mostly cauliflour, etc- makes it easy on me when I grab a jar as I walk out the door!

  27. I always put the year on the label/lid as well. That way you don’t end up in your pantry staring at jars trying to figure out which jar of jam was the one left from last year that you need to finish up and which ones are the ones you did this year that you want to save.

  28. Oh, I put the exp. date on it, so I don’t have to think about when it goes bad. Makes for rotating stock much easier.

  29. what a great idea! (i see i’m not the only one who thinks so.) i teach canning for the university of maine cooperative extension, and there are so many little things to mention to people! like, oh and don’t store your canned goods with the rings on, oh and add some processing time for higher elevation, oh and… oh and!! 🙂 so thanks for thinking of some tips for me.

  30. im the worst i must admit! infact i have a batch of pepper jelly sitting beside me that needs labels. Guilty as charged!! i do always try and put the canning date on what i do make so that i know when it was made. we really like using our cricut to make tags and use rubber cement so they aren’t so hard to get off when i’m ready to reuse the jars. they also make nice tags for when i take my jellies to the fair and craft/food shows.

  31. I too write on the lids. I keep a dedicated sharpie with my canning things. It only gets used for labeling food containers.

    @momchelle – please tell us what guardiara is. Google is not helpful!

  32. A trick I learned by accident–I was out of sticky labels, so I just printed some on plain paper and glued them on with the only glue I had, which happened to be washable school glue. Well, it worked great– the labels stayed on just fine, and when it came time to wash the jars, the labels just slipped right off. No more soaking jars and struggling with sticky labels that don’t want to give up their hold on my jars.

  33. I’m so excited to comment! I tried canning for the VERY FIRST TIME last night. I made 6 pints of pickled veggies, and 4 pints of rhubarb blueberry sauce. ALL POPPED! One thing my mom taught me to do, (I’m not sure if anyone else mentioned this already) is to label jars, with the total amount of jars from that batch, for example, “7/25/10 – Everything but the Kitchen Sink Pickles – 1 of 6” then, THEORETICALLY, if you use them or give them away in order starting with 1 of 6, you should have SOME idea of how many you have left, eliminating the need to dig through jars thinking I made a triple batch of something when really there were only 3 pints worth.

    THANK YOU SO MUCH for this blog!

  34. Hi! I am brand new at canning, and just spent approximately 500 hours pouring over your wonderful blog. I’m ready to go out and buy the ingredients for my very first canning project, but I have a question–why is it that you can’t reuse the lids? Is it unsanitary? Where are you able to buy lids separately from jars?
    I hope it’s OK that I’m asking a lid question on this post, but Livia’s comment reminded me that I’d seen a few mentions of reusing jars but not lids and had no idea why!
    Thanks in advance!

    • Nikki, you can’t reuse the lids because of the sealing compound. Once it is vigorously boiled and cooled, it looses its resilience and so can’t deliver a good, tight seal a second time around. You put the quality of your seal, and thus the safety of your product at risk when you reuse a lid.

  35. […] Why You Should Label Your Jars Promptly – I ran into this issue just this weekend, after making a bunch of apricot and peach products. I piled the jars on the dining room table as they were done and cooled and then realized that the peach sriracha sauce looked an awful lot like the straight apricot jam. Label as soon as the jars are cool! […]

  36. For my own use, I use the sharpie-on-lid method, and include ingredients that aren’t obvious but will make a difference in how I use a product (salt and specific herbs are the most common ingredients I list). I also include the day of the month each batch was processed, in addition to the month and year. This way, if there is a problem with a batch, such as an off flavor or (heaven forbid) evidence or possibility of spoilage, I can easily pull all the jars from that batch. I’ve only needed to do that once, but it made things easier, and I was able to be confident I got all the jars in question.

  37. Three questions:

    1. Is it ok to use rusty rings, and if not, why not?
    2. When heating up the lids/rings for canning, can you reuse any lids that you did not need, but did heat up?
    3. I purchased tattler reusable lids for the first time this winter and would like any advice/tips/thoughts on the use of these lids before I actually try them out.

    Thanks so much for your input!

      • Is there a way to label jars before canning (or, pressure-canning, specifically)? I have multiple jars of different broths that I want to pressure-can at the same time, but I’m afraid I won’t remember which is which when they come out. On the other hand I don’t want to waste time with a less-than-full canner as I’ll need to do a marathon session as it is. Any ideas?

        • Try labeling the lids with black sharpie. It will fade during the canning process, but you should be able to still see it when the jars come out of the canner. You could also use regular mouth jars for one kind of broth and wide mouth for the other.

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