Harold McGee, on cans


Canned foods are a modern convenience that most of us use frequently. Whether it’s canned tuna, tomatoes, or beans, we find it handy to have the pantry stocked with staples. Although we sometimes also keep cans as emergency supplies, we tend to respect the “use by” dates on them. It stands to reason that the quality of canned foods will diminish over time so we should use them up well in advance of that date. Or should we?

Harold McGee, in an issue of Lucky Peach, takes on that conventional wisdom and introduces us to the fascinating world of “vintage” canned goods. After he learned about pricey Galician conservas (mussels in Galician sauce), he now thinks of those “best-by dates as maybe-getting-interesting-by dates.”

The history of canned goods dates back to the early 1800s, when French chef Nicolas Appert began preserving foods using heat and airtight containers. He inspired the term “appertization,” which describes the heat-processing of foods for preservation, the direct precursor to modern-day canned goods. Once food science caught up to Mr. Appert’s methods (microbes were unknown at the time), canning methods used high heat sterilization, above 250 degrees Fahrenheit at a sufficient time to kill all pathogens.

This high heat environment helps create the unique flavors of canned goods, which are quite different from their fresh counterparts. But different doesn’t have to mean inferior, says McGee. “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.”

You don’t have to wait for the canned goods to get old to enjoy the changes that come with aging, McGee explains. By increasing the temperature at which the food is stored you can accelerate the process, with the rate of chemical reactions almost doubling “with each 20-degree rise in temperature. Store foods at 40 degrees above normal-around 100 degrees-and you can get an idea of a year’s change in just three months.” Learn more about which canned foods benefit the most from aging.

Are you interested in trying any “vintage” canned goods?

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