What Happens if You Forget the Lemon Juice? In many canning recipes, it is required that you add an acidifying ingredient like bottled lemon juice, citric acid, or vinegar. What happens if you forget? This post will explain. Spoiler alert: it ain’t pretty.
Canning works and is an effective means of food preservation because of several elements. One element is the inside of the jar is sufficiently acid. That is to say, it is too acidic for spoilers (bugs that would make us sick and decay our food) to grow.
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The magic number on the acid scale that canners care about is 4.6. Any less acid, or higher a number, and the recipe is too alkaline, or not acid enough to be safely water bath or steam canned.
This is why green beans (an alkaline veggie) are preserved with acidic vinegar into the delicious Dilly Bean we all know and love today. Same with alkaline carrots- we make Carrot Pickles by acidifying them with vinegar.
You can print off the Acid & Canning Chart- for FREE- right here!
Because the vinegar in pickle recipes is so great in volume and makes the brine that the pickles are submerged in, it’s less likely that you’d forget that ingredient, but much more likely you might forget a little quarter cup of bottled lemon juice or the seemingly unnecessary teaspoon of citric acid.
At the end of last canning season, I made a batch of roasted pineapple salsa from a trusted source. Pineapple is somewhat acid but varies significantly from fruit to fruit, and the recipe called for onions (not acid), garlic (also not acid- those tasty alliums never are), cilantro, and other veggies that make it necessary to add bottled lemon juice.
I’ll note here the importance of using BOTTLED LEMON JUICE as opposed to a romantically squeezed fresh lemon. A lemon you squeeze might be 5% acid, and it might not. The trusted canning recipe you are using is calling for bottled lemon juice because it needs that acid to bring the overall acid level up (and acid number down) to a safe level so spoilers can’t survive in the canning jar.
Also note that plenty of trusted recipes call for fresh lemon juice. These recipes need the lemon juice for the flavor, not for the 5% acid.
Back to my roasted pineapple salsa. I made it, canned it, cleared my tiny countertops off and saw my new bottle of lemon juice sitting there, undisturbed. I hadn’t even opened it. I completely forgot all about the lemon juice, which was absolutely required for safe canning in this recipe.
The salsa that I had just prepared and canned was delicious and safe to eat if I put all the jars in the refrigerator (even though the lids all sealed) and ate it in about a week, just as I would any other leftovers. So, that’s what I did- we had tacos for 3 nights in a row and we ate most of it all up.
Except…I saved 2 jars, marked them well, and stuck them way up high on my pantry shelf, just for my Wildflower blog readers.
Fast forward 6 months, and I opened the jar. This is what happens when you forget the lemon juice.
Normal salsa (or any preserve, for that matter) retains much more color than that of this non-acidified salsa. It was indeed an ugly pale brown. All the ingredients were nearly the same color. The red bell peppers were still reddish…but everything else looked very unappetizing.
The spoilers had begun to act upon the food and started the decay process; the salsa was absolute mush. The peach, pineapple, and onion pieces were barely identifiable and were very easily smashed flat with very little pressure from a fork on a plate. True, canned salsa is always a little less crisp than fresh salsa, but this is completely different. This was nearly baby-food consistency with a little agitation.
It didn’t smell like poison, but it definitely didn’t smell good. The odor was musty, stale, and old smelling. It didn’t smell like something you’d want to pour on top of your chips. However, it is important to point out, that it did NOT stink to the High Heavens. You might accidentally dump some on your plate if you weren’t aware.
Because spoilers (germs that could make us sick, probably with diarrhea) are almost assuredly at work in this salsa, I took care to dispose of this salsa carefully. I threw the lid away, and I used bleach to clean the jar. The contents of the jar went into the garbage carefully- not where a kid or pet would accidentally have a snack. It is worth noting that while food poisoning is serious, it would likely not be lethal to anyone in my family as we have healthy immune systems. I don’t want anyone throwing up or having a tummy ache and God knows I have enough laundry already. If for some reason you uncover a jar of very old canned food (say, you’re cleaning out Grandma’s cellar) I’d dispose of the contents and clean the jars the same way.
I wrote this post to simply educate a curious reader – canner or not- what would happen if you were to forget the acidifying ingredient. I don’t advise doing this on purpose, and I hope to answer the question of what to do IF you do what I did: Eat it up, store in the fridge, and be more careful next time.
If you want to learn more, I have a FREE Canning Basics Course that I invite you to try- you’ll learn more about canning, how it works, and how it is most delicious salsa all year round 🙂 Sign up here!Enroll Now!