Pantry Management: Get Yours in Shape for the Upcoming Season

March 31, 2017

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!

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15 thoughts on "Pantry Management: Get Yours in Shape for the Upcoming Season"

  • Ha! I feel on your wavelength! I just took honest snapshots of my kitchen and storage spaces to shock myself into doing something about organizing. Why am I saving that 4 oz of 2014 chutney? Aaah!!!

  • Must be the season. My basement is where I keep all of my canning supplies and every year it becomes an area of “Just put it in the basement…I’ll deal with it later when I have more time/energy/motivation.” Well, that time doesn’t come often enough. Last weekend though…. I bought two heavy duty utility shelves that I installed in the basement and now all my canning equipment–multiple pots, pressure canner, long handled spatulas, the apple peeler, funnels, quart jars, pint jars, half pint jars, lids and rings–oh, my goodness, the RINGS–are all nicely sorted, grouped and organized. This means when I send my son-in-law down in the basement to grab more half pint canning jars in the middle of making peach jam, he doesn’t have to climb over the plastic bin of Legos, or step around the box of off season clothes.

    Now, the trick becomes KEEPING it that way. Wish me luck.

    1. That sounds like quite an accomplishment! I dream of the day when I can have a great big basement or cellar in which to stash all my food projects.

    2. I did the same thing! It’s been a month or so since I organized things and I still sometimes into the garage just to look at it all neat and nice.

  • I’m glad I’m not the only one.
    I did manage to sort and clean my storage room in the basement last year, what a difference! But wow, did if find I had more inventory than I realized.
    Though I didn’t find any corroded vinegars (yikes!), I did find several jars of strawberry jam that I made from my strawberries right before I moved here; that was in 2005. They were an unappetizing color of brown, so to the compost heat they went.
    I also found a jar of tomatoes that had popped it seal–that sure smelled wonderful.

  • Congratulations on getting the job done.
    I store all my canned goods and empty jars in a damp and musty basement. I am a big fan of the plastic (because the cardboard boxes just rot away) mason jar storage cases. I think they are made by Ball and they are expensive but worth it for quarts and pints. I use plastic 2 gallon bins for my other half and quarter pint jars. Everything but the outside of the boxes stays clean. I used to not date my preserves until I cleaned out my mother’s basement when they moved after 55 years….Now I date everything.

  • Yesterday as I tended my garden seedlings I realized that I needed to organize the cabinet in the garage where I keep my jars and canning supplies for, hopefully, the harvest to come. It is also full of odds and ends jars that I use for freezing, storage, etc. In the process I was able to cull a half dozen large vases that took up tons of space and give to a friend who does floral arrangements. She was thrilled and I was happy for the extra space. Now I am ready for the garden to start producing! Earlier this month I’d gone through the pantry to see what was yet to be consumed. Still a few jalapenos from 2015 that are still okay and nothing that I had to relegate to ‘the compost.’ With just the two of us, I have finally learned not to overdo it with the canning and preserving. I do gift some, but have found out that not everyone is delighted with home canned things, so my gifting list is getting shorter. One thing that I am going to make a ton of this year though will be ‘Stone Fruit Mostarda’ from “Naturally Sweet Food in Jars.” Everyone loved that. I could sit down and eat a pint jar of it. I do envy those of you who have basements, as I am now living in the South, basements are a rare commodity. Thank you Alex for sharing your story with us.

    1. How great that you were able to find a home for unused vessels! The non-jar glassware I’ve collected (reusable milk bottles and swing tops, spice jars, beer growlers, etc) live on top of my fridge — another gross and dusty area that’s just waiting for a spring clean.

  • My empty canning jars are in a luggage carrier u dear out back porch. The canned goods are here and there. I really need to dump a lot of home canned items. It is aweful. My canners are in the attic. We have no basements in Texas

  • I have a pantry underneath my stairs where I store food, which is great but also has a hard to get to section in the back. I tend not to store food back there but things I don’t use too often like the dehydrator, and extra goods like aluminum foil, etc. I try to clean it out once a year. My boyfriend just helped me add a few shelves in there so I did a mini organizing session as I figure out how to best use the new shelves. I don’t can that much but have the same organizing issues in the freezer, keeping track of what’s there and what needs to be used up or tossed.

  • I try to have a running inventory of all the homemade pantry items listed out on the fridge, where we’ll see it when we’re actually thinking of what to make. We try to mark it as we actually use things, and then I try to go back and update it every couple of months. It’s not perfect due to user error/forgetfulness, but it’s the best system we have at the moment. I try to include all the homemade items in the pantry, the deep freeze, and whatever other stashes of canned goods I have (under that one corner of the dining table, behind the couch…).

    Which reminds me – I just made a ton of stuff for the FIJ Challenge this week. I need to update the whole darned thing again.

  • I’m in the middle of pre-Passover cleaning. One day’s project is to completely clear out the pantry, scrub down everything, and put back only what is kosher for Passover, which generally includes everything I’ve canned since I learned how to can specifically to make KLP food. As this is an annual ritual, I see and rotate everything once a year. I did the chest freezer a couple of days ago. Another day’s project is the kitchen fridge. It’s a lot of work, but at least I know that nothing’s over a year old.

  • I think I am getting ready for fresh fruits/vegetables and canning season. I picked up an additional tall narrow cabinet to store empty jars and I try to be diligent to keep the empties in one space. They are overflowing at this time of year. I have supplies stashed everywhere. Wouldn’t it be nice to have one room/ location to have everything? Last year I ran out of quart jars.