Regular Food in Jars contributor Alex Jones is here today to share her tale of a much-needed pantry clean-out. If you need inspiration to do the same, read on!
While I don’t get around to doing it nearly often enough, I’m a big proponent of spending a weekend afternoon (or a whole day if you’ve got the time and the patience) to deep cleaning and organizing in your living space.
It could be your bedroom, the fridge, your kitchen cabinets, or whatever dusty, jumbled, or otherwise messy space slowly scrapes away at your soul every time you walk by it without a plan to put things in order.
As I’ve mentioned before, it’s easy for me to make and ignore messes until I just can’t any more and they’re driving me crazy.
My canning pantry is a hall closet just outside the large front room that serves as the kitchen, dining room, living room, and occasional laundry room of my small two-bedroom apartment. (It’s also nearly impossible to photograph because of the layout, so you’ll be spared “before” and “after” photos.) In addition to a plastic utility shelving unit packed with full and empty jars, it has to be home to extra folding chairs, a giant roll of kraft paper, our bulk stashes of toilet paper and paper towels, my boyfriend’s ancient projector screen, our cooler, and our vacuum.
Lately it has also been home to a substantial Red Bull mini-fridge that I got from a friend, intending to make cheese in it. (Suffice it to say that it’s done nothing but sit there since it was given to me nearly a few years ago.) The space was getting so packed that empty jars were falling off of surfaces and it was impossible to find important ingredients I’d put up like cans of tomato puree.
I also hadn’t done a serious purge of items I’d canned in years — jars of failed experiments or so-so recipes from 2013 kept popping up and getting shoved to the back of the shelf again while I looked for the last jar of tomatillo sauce or an empty eight-ounce jar for a recipe.
And, since I share my home with furry friends and the closet was too crowded to even sweep without pulling everything out of it, the closet was collecting serious tumbleweeds of cat hair. I couldn’t take it any more.
As gross as I let things get, the good news is that it only took me about two hours — between finishing an article on deadline and heading off to work an evening event — for me to do a pretty thorough job on the canning closet. I pulled everything out, organized it, decided what to keep and what to toss, swept and dusted and wiped, and put things back neatly.
I also found some forgotten, er, treats hidden back there. For the first time, I found a jar whose lid had corroded — a half-gallon jar full of clementine vinegar from months ago had eaten away at the lid from the inside. The peels and vinegar turned totally brown, and the lid crumbled away when I touched it.
I didn’t wipe down or wash every dusty jar of preserves I planned to keep, nor the empty ones (I always wash before I can). And I haven’t yet reckoned with the case worth of four-year-old pickles, jams, and chutneys I culled from the stash, which will need to be opened, dumped into the compost, and washed.
But I feel better already, and not just because I found a precious cache of vodka infused with blueberries and sour cherries that I had forgotten even existed. I feel like I made progress and I can start getting excited for the upcoming season’s preserving projects instead of mildly dreading it because I’m unprepared.
These are my tips for organizing your stash of canned goods and preserving supplies, whether it’s a shelf, a cupboard, a cellar, or a closet. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did it.
Clear a space before you clear a space. I shoved our dining table and chairs out of the way so I’d have a big, open space on the kitchen floor to put all the stuff I’d be pulling out of the closet while cleaning was in progress. This gave me the room I needed to plonk down on the floor and go through everything during the sorting phase.
Really clean. Once everything’s out of your space, wipe down surfaces with a damp sponge or cloth. Sweep floors (including behind and under movable shelving). If you’re like me, you won’t bother doing this kind of project again for at least a year, so make this one count.
…and organize. The easiest part of this whole process for me is hunkering down to go through everything, putting like with like and sorting out what didn’t belong any more. Organize empty jars by size in their cases, if you have them, and keep like sizes together so that they’re stackable, even surfaces. Put misfit jars or extras that won’t fit in a whole case together
Save the cases your jars come in (including dividers). This gets tough if you don’t have a ton of space, but it makes things a lot easier when you’re sorting or transporting a large quantity of jars, empty or filled. You can keep full and empty jars in your cases to improve their stackability, too.
Be ruthless. Don’t get sentimental when culling vessels you’ll never use and preserves you’ll never eat. Don’t put back things you don’t really want back in with the preserves you love and will use. If you’re planning to gift them, pull them out and spruce them up, then hurry up and find some lucky recipients. If they’re destined for the compost, so be it — it’ll help you make better recipe choices (or use things you can within a year, or be more creative with your mistakes) next time.
Start using the preserves you want to keep right away. Don’t let yourself forget about the preserved treasure you’ve been hoarding for a reason: you put time and/or money into it, and it’s delicious. Come up with a recipe in which to enjoy those Sweet Cherries in Wine to celebrate your new lifestyle (I’m thinking reduced down as a sauce for pork).
How often do you deep clean your pantry storage? Do you have any neglected preserve horror stories to share? Tell us in the comments!