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.
(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?
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.