Since the beginning of time, people have needed to preserve food. The process could take considerable time and energy, but it was better than going hungry in the winter. Early methods of preservation included smoking, drying, fermenting, or cooling/freezing foods (given the right type of environment). Later, more methods were developed such as pickling in an acid (such as vinegar), curing with salts, and making jams or jellies with honey and sugar. None of these approaches were ideal and the search continued for better methods that were quicker, more reliable, and made the food easy to store and transport.
From our modern perspective we can also see that several of these approaches tend to be unhealthy. Either the process itself causes harm to the food (i.e. the smoking process generates carcinogens), or the process involves adding enormous amounts of unhealthy compounds, such as salt and sugar. Those interested in preserving food for health reasons will find many older methods wanting.
In the late 1700’s Napoleon Bonaparte catalyzed the search for a better method of food preservation. He believed that, “An army travels on its stomach,” and was looking for a better way to feed his armies. Accordingly, Napoleon offered a fortune to anyone who developed a method of preserving food on a large scale. Nicholas Appert claimed the prize years later in 1810, but it still took around 50 years before his method trickled down to the average family. This occurred soon after 1858, when John Mason invented the iconic, reusable “Mason Jar”.
Canning became extremely popular. It was a safe, effective, inexpensive, and relatively simple process. People were now able to use one method to preserve just about anything: fruits, vegetables, soups, sauces, and meats.
The canning process is quite simple. First, a tin can or glass jar is filled with food and liquid (usually water). After the container has been sealed, it is heated and often put under pressure. This process kills any microorganisms that could cause illness or spoil food. When the can or jar is removed from the water, the air inside compresses and seals the contents off from the outside world. The seal then protects the food from new microorganisms entering and from oxidization from the air. After this, the food can be conveniently stored and enjoyed at a later date.
Until the arrival of our modern grocery stores, canning remained common in nearly every household. It was a necessity and a way of life. Contrast this with today. Only a couple generations have passed and the art of food preservation has been lost to the vast majority of people. However, interest in food preservation has been growing over the past few years and canning, in particular, is seeing a resurgence of popularity. There are many reasons for this:
Save money – Hey, food can be expensive. Buying or picking foods in season and canning them for future use can save you some extra money. This is especially true when you consider the quality of the foods you are getting. You may be surprised how gourmet your home canned food can taste.
Preserve harvest – This is something gardeners will understand. You wait patiently for a few months until your garden to start producing, then you are suddenly swamped with far more produce than you are prepared to deal with. Sure, you can give some to family, friends, or neighbors, but you’ll still have more. Canning the extras is a sensible way to avoid waste and enjoy your produce year-round.
Prepare for bad economic times – Many people are worried about the times that we live in. If something happens to our economy or our ability to affordably purchase food, people want to be prepared. Learning to can is just one of the steps people tend to take—if you ask us, it is a lot more practical than a bomb shelter.
Eco friendly – Canning your own food is an excellent way to reduce your environmental impact. Especially if the food is home grown, you remove the countless miles food is shipped from the farm, to the factory, and then to the distributor and local store. You also reduce packaging waste because canning jars (except for the lids) are reusable and will last for years.
Sentimental connection/ gifts – Many people enjoy canning because it reminds them of a simpler time. Perhaps it was an activity that their mother or grandmother used to do. Additionally, canned foods make great gifts. The work and care that went into a homemade jam or homemade pickles is worth much more than the food itself.
Quality taste – It’s a fact, homemade food simply tastes better. You can’t beat a quality home-canned product made from fresh, locally grown ingredients. In the store, you could easily pay double for such a product. Even if your initial investment fails to save you money (due to buying jars, a canner, etc.), you’ll have a healthier, tastier product stocked in your pantry. Another benefit is that you’ll be able to tweak recipes to your exact tastes and even experiment with new flavor combinations.
Health – While canning is not the absolute healthiest method of food preservation (e.g. freezing preserves more nutrients), it does have many benefits. Because you canned it yourself, you will know exactly what you are eating. You can be assured that the food was fresh and high quality. You will also be enjoying food that is free from harmful additives and preservatives.
In future articles, we will learn more about canning and cover common questions and concerns. Topics will include: nutrition of canned goods, safety concerns, discussion of equipment needed, and a detailed explanation of both water bath and pressure canning.
Glatz, Julianne. “Canning Food, From Napoleon to Now.” Illinois Times, June 3, 2010. http://www.illinoistimes.com/Springfield/article-7361-canning-food-from-napoleon-to-now.html.  Ibid.