Putting the ‘can’ in ‘cantankerous’

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It’s time to have a frank discussion about canning.

As all of us north of the equator are feeling fall’s first vibes, visions of beautiful rows of preserved garden bounty are preoccupying anyone with a tomato plant and a mason jar. Who doesn’t love the idea of a pantry full of jams and jellies, pickles and preserves?

It’s prudent, it’s thrifty, and it’s just so damn photogenic. But I’m not convinced.

Today's failure

(In the interest of full disclosure, I will preface this rant with the admission that I just made a failed batch of crabapple jelly. I’m going to tell you about that in the next post, after I get this off my chest.)

When Nicholas Appert first successfully canned food in the early 1800s, it was a great leap forward in food preservation. Before that, salting, drying, and smoking were pretty much the only ways to keep food edible past its natural life. That lack of options cramped the style of Napoleon Bonaparte, who had an army to feed and offered a 12,000-franc reward for a cost-effective way to preserve food. Appert won it in 1810.

For some 130 years or so, canning was the best way to store food, but then came the miracle of the home freezer. I’m going to go way out on a limb here and contend that, for all but a few applications, freezing is better than canning. If you’re making fruit preserves (jams, jellies, whole fruits), relishes (including chutneys), or pickles, canning is the way to go. For everything else, it’s a waste of time and, sometimes, energy.

I’ll go one step farther and point out that those foods for which canning is better aren’t dietary staples. They’re dainties – condiments and special-occasion foods. We like to think of canning as putting food down to get us through the winter, but brandied apricots and pickled green beans aren’t going to get the job done.

The foods that do get the job done – vegetables, meats, and fish; sauces, soups, and stews – should go straight in the freezer. No fuss, no muss, no water bath.  If you’re making one of those three exceptions – preserves, relishes, pickles – canning is an integral part of the process. For everything else, let’s look at the pros and cons.

For canning, on the plus side, we have virtually infinite shelf-life (if it’s done right, which is a big if). We have beautiful presentation. We have giftability (a non-trivial advantage, in my book). And, let’s see, did I mention virtually infinite shelf life? I did? Hmmm … I think that’s about it.

Now let’s look on the minus side. For starters, there is the potential to kill your entire family and circle of friends with botulism. Okay, that would be highly unusual. There are only 30-40 cases in the US each year, and only about 10% of cases actually die. But still.

Beyond that, there are two major disadvantages: food quality, and effort required. I don’t think I’ll get much disagreement on effort; it’s clearly more difficult and time-consuming to can than to freeze. So let’s move on to food quality.

To can meat, fish, or vegetables safely, you have to cook them in a pressure canner for a very long time. Can green beans which have already been boiled for five minutes really survive another 25 minutes in a pressure canner with anything like their flavor and texture intact? I haven’t eaten more than a few samples of home-canned green beans but, in my limited experience, the answer is no.

For those dishes that can withstand prolonged heat – composed dishes like soups, stews, and sauces, primarily – what’s the point? Those same dishes freeze beautifully.

And tomatoes! That’s the one I really don’t understand. If you want to preserve tomatoes as they are, blanch them, peel them, chop them, and put them in Ziploc bags. If you want to make sauce and preserve that, see above. What’s the point?

Frozen, vacuum-sealed smoked bluefish filets

Now let’s look at freezing. The key advantage is ease. You can put just about anything in a bag or jar and pop it in the freezer, and you usually don’t have to do much to it first. If it’s a vegetable, you probably parboil it and chop it up, but if it’s meat or fruit or a dish you’ve already cooked, you don’t have to do anything at all.

And here we come to an important advantage to freezing over canning when it comes to fruit. Almost all canning applications involve the addition of sugar. Sometimes, vast quantities of it. Not only does that mean that your fruits are no longer appropriate for savory (in a salad) or low-sugar (in a smoothie) applications, it means that they are now very high in calories. Empty calories.

Freezing certainly has its disadvantages. Freezer burn is a problem, although it can be minimized with a vacuum sealer (I just got one). Freezing also changes the texture of food, as cell walls break down when the water in the food expands. If you have a flash freezer, this doesn’t happen to you, but ordinary home freezers don’t freeze food quickly enough to prevent the problem.

The quality of frozen food also degrades over time, and reasonable shelf life is usually given as six months to a year. And then, of course, you have to keep frozen food in the freezer. If you have an extended power failure, or your five-year-old leaves the door open when he gets himself a popsicle, you lose everything.

The issue of energy use is hard to gauge. It takes energy to run a freezer, but it also takes energy to keep enough water boiling for a long enough time to sterilize jars and process the finished product. If you’ve got an inefficient freezer that’s half-empty, and you can in large batches, canning may use less energy. If you’ve got a new freezer and you keep it full, canning may often use more.

None of which means I’m anti-canning. I’m all for those dainties in jars. Homemade marmalade! Apricot preserves! Brandied mincemeat! And pickles are some of my favorite things on the planet. But for the food that’s going to make up a meal, that’s going to feed us over the winter, I’ll be looking in the freezer.

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Comments

  1. I tam otally pro-freezing. Particularly with modern freezing equipment and knowledge. I wouldn’t be so happy if I thought I really did have to blanch and peel and slice tomaotes prior to freezing. Straight into a freezer bag and frozen into little red billiard balls. Easiest thing on the planet.

  2. I’d say my summer plan has been a healthy split between the two. I’ve a zillion pickles and you could pickle almost anything, I just wonder…. who is eating all these freaking pickles?

  3. Great riff! Unlike your no shells in chowder rant, I’m in total agreement with this one!

  4. As someone who hasn’t really enjoyed canning that much for fear of killing anyone with botulism, freezing has been my go-to option for fruits, soups, sauces and meats. I totally agree with you on the sugar. I can only take so much!

  5. I’ve been splitting it up for whatever makes sense, plus, I’m quickly running out of room in the freezer.

    However, I will say that I’ve been given a jar or two of canned tuna that my sister-in-law cans with a buddy of hers. They live on the coast and go hit the docks for a whole tuna which they cut up and process together, and then split. Susan doesn’t do anything but throw the raw tuna in the jar, seal it up, and pressure can it- no water or oil or anything- and it winds up kind of baked in the jar, for lack of a better description. It’s delicious- way better than commercial canned tuna, and makes great tuna salad.

  6. Stephanie says:

    The crabapple jelly may be a failure, but it certainly LOOKS pretty. Looking forward to the tale!

    Alas, not doing any canning this year, even though I enjoy looking at all those lovely jars. Just no time! It’s all going in the deep-freeze.

  7. I agree with you about the freezing vs pickling/jamming debate – but worry when the wind gets up. Our electricity supply isn’t that stable and just to think about how much would go to waste if we were out for 24hrs is downright painful. Occasionally I price out a little generator …..

  8. KB — I peel the tomatoes so they can go straight into sauce. I’m about the least fastidious cook I know, but I don’t like those little curls of tomato skin on my pasta. But if you don’t care about that, there’s certainly no need to peel.

    Amanda — Anyone who’s got a pickle surfeit can solve that problem very easily by giving me a call …

    John — It’s no fun to agree! We need to have that shells-in-food debate. UNLESS YOU’RE TOO BUSY BEING THE NEXT FOOD NETWORK SUPERSTAR! (This, dear readers, is John of http://www.foodwishes.com, an excellent video recipe blog. He just won the Food Network YouTube next big star contest!)

    Joy — Glad to know I’m in good company!

    Paula — Since you’re splitting things up, perhaps you could do a taste test for us? You know how I feel about taste tests. As for the tuna, I’m just jealous that your sister-in-law can go to the docks and pick up a whole tuna!

    Stephanie — Don’t talk to me about the crabapple jelly. It’s a sore subject.

    Madcat — We’ve also looked at generators, but haven’t pulled the trigger. Because we happen to live on a state road, our electricity seems to be restored pretty quickly whenever we lose power (it’s only happened once or twice). If you don’t open the freezer after the power goes out, and it’s pretty full, you have quite some time. Maybe even enough time to run out and buy a generator.

  9. martha in mobile says:

    My DH has a county agent-type job and sometimes come home with 40# or more of rapidly fading fruit or veg. I can so that I am not inclined to kill him on these occasions.

  10. Bummer about the crabapple jelly. Hopefully you like flavored yogurt?

    I’ve had the same train of thought about canning vs. freezing. I worry about losing power and losing all that frozen food. And then on the other hand I worry about the nutritional value of food that’s been boiled in sugar and/or vinegar for 45 minutes. A couple of years back, I got a vintage sentiment going and canned and canned and made pickles

    and beets and jam and a million things. And then the next summer, discovered the unused food. All that effort turned out to be just a hobby, not a food preservation tactic. I think it’s going around, actually, canning as a trend.

    Anyway, there are two things I still can: meat, and peaches. Because frozen peaches are the yuck when they thaw and get all squishy, whereas canned peaches are like a breath of summer in the grey grim winter. I make jam too, but freezer jam, for flavoring yogurt.

    (If I could find my mother’s recipe for 70s-style anitipasto, I’d be canning that too, man that stuff was awesome.)

  11. I both can and freeze. After getting somewhat serious about it this year I’m pretty committed to canning tomato sauce, meat stock, jams and beets. The drawback to freezing, as I see it, is really twofold. I only have so much freezer space, even with a chest freezer. And it’s taken up with some “high ticket” items like purchased meat, the cider we press from our own apples, and butter – none of which I would dream of canning. On the other hand, we have a lot more room to stash canning jars than we do freezer space. Secondly, while I can see the argument for saving energy and effort by freezing tomato sauce or stock, or even jams, I like being able to simply pop open a lid and pour. Thawing my ingredients before it’s time to make dinner requires forethought, and there’s only so much of that to go around these days. Besides, the chest freezer is out in the (detached) garage, while the canned goodies are down in the basement. There’s little doubt which is more appealing on a dark winter evening.

  12. M in M — Ambivalent though I am about canning, I’m in favor of anything that preserves marital harmony. Can away!

    Liz — Your mother canned antipasto? That’s hard-core! I’d love to taste it. How does canned meat come out? Is it more versatile, or tasty, than frozen? My one experience with raw-pack pork was rather unfortunate. It was dry and nasty.

    As for the peaches, I think you may be right. Once I freeze fruit, I never expect it to be used whole. It goes in a fruit sauce or a compote or a smoothie. The flavor survives beautifully, but the texture, as you point out, is the yuck.

    Kate — After I posted the rant, it did occur to me that being able to open a jar without thawing was a real advantage — I’m with you on the forethought front.

    As for freezer space, I’m going to fess up that we just bought a second extra freezer. We have a normal-size refrigerator with a normal-size freezer in the kitchen, and a 13-cubic foot upright freezer in the basement. It was getting very full with nasty things like fish frames we use for lobster bait, and one day we just bit the bullet and went out to buy a small chest freezer. We figured we’d need it anyway if even one of us got a deer this fall.

    If you’re putting down enough stuff, a second freezer may be a cost-effective purchase. You only have to run it when your other freezer overfloweth, and the new ones are very efficient.

    It’s easy to rant about canning, but I when I read about a gardener who’s a serious canner, and picture all those lovely jars, I still have pantry envy.

  13. I must relay that this entire post has only made me more pro canning, as i immediatley thought… “peaches!!! i didn’t even think about canning peaches!” and promptly ran off to ring brothers, who’ve had the most amazing georgia peaches on sale for weeks. Canned in some white grape juice, they are currently steaming up the house as I process them.

  14. Tamar – I have been giving the canning vs freezing question lots of thought since you posed it recently, especially any major benefits of canning over freezing. I couldn’t think of a particular one. Then you come along with the dainties and delcacies argument.

    I like the “division of resources” argument: main staples and bulk in the freezer, special treats (anything requiring brandy, fancy preserves or funny words like “quince”) into jars. The canning process is a ritual, and to make treats which could also be given as gifts seems apropos to the canning process. The jar of preserves holds not only the treat, but the idea that you thought enough of someone to spend time in the kitchen preparing them. But for day to day stuff, put me down as “Team Freezer”.

  15. We are off the grid, and our solar panels don’t provide enough energy for freezing (or refrigeration). So we can surplus foods and give away the rest. I do wish we could freeze – it is much easier. The energy differences are interesting. I’d love to see a well done study weighing energy, human-time and work expenditure, and materials differences in canning, freezing, and other preservation methods. There are many anti-canners out there, and I do admit they generally have a point. Broken jars, safety, and time expended are all factors to be considered, not to mention diminished nutrition and taste by cooking the crap out of stuff.

    We’re working on a root cellar to store food for longer, as well as a solar dryer so we can make dried tomatoes rather than canning them all.

    (But, as you mentioned, even when we have other methods of preservation I’ll still be canning our peaches and making marmalades because it just looks so pretty on my shelves!)

  16. Amanda — I think I’ve found the perfect approach to canning. Don’t bother doing it yourself, just cultivate friends who do it.

    Jen — You’re right about the spirit of canning being appropriate to the gift-giving of dainties. Whenever I’m lucky enough to be on the receiving end of somebody else’s canning efforts, I feel very fortunate. I hadn’t thought about the freezing/canning divide as clearly as you did; I think you put your finger on it.

    I’d also like to see a study of energy expenditure for freezing vs. canning.

    Marie — I’m always a little cowed by any commenter who can begin, “We are off the grid.” And then you go on to tell me you don’t even have refrigeration! Here I am, dabbling in my little food-procurement projects, while you’re in it for real. You clearly have the moral high ground, and are entitled to can any damn thing you please.

    I would also like to see a study of energy expenditure in canning vs. freezing. You hear that, all you energy professionals out there?