Let your canned goods get old – and better

Canned food

A few months ago, we wrote a blog on how long food can last. In Don’t throw out that food  we noted that expiry dates don’t need to be religiously followed – rather it’s your nose that should be. Now one of the best known food scientists, Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking,  has weighed in on the subject. And he takes the argument one step further – that some food is actually improved by aging.

In his Slate article, Age Your Canned Goods, he writes that in many cases, he views “best-by dates as maybe-getting-interesting-by dates.” He explains in detail the history and process of canning, and especially notes that as a result of the intense heat canned goods undergo “the overall flavor is nothing like freshly cooked foods. Food technologists often refer to it as “retort off-flavor.” But it’s only off in comparison to the results of ordinary cooking. It’s really just another kind of cooked flavor, an extremely cooked flavor, and it can be very good. Canned tuna, sardines, chicken spread, and Spam all have their own appeal.”

He also points out that expiry dates only reflect a difference, not necessarily a dimunition, in taste, “Standard canned goods aren’t generally deemed age-worthy. Food technologists define shelf life not by how long it takes for food to become inedible, but how long it takes for a trained sensory panel to detect a ‘just noticeable difference’ between newly manufactured and stored cans. There’s no consideration of whether the difference might be pleasant in its own way or even an improvement – it’s a defect by definition.”

Being McGee, of course he also conducts a number of experiments, even going so far as braising cans. Enjoy the article and remember not to be a slave to expiry dates.

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