Canning is the new, old-fashioned way home cooks are preserving their food
A century ago, most homes had a pantry or cellar lined with glass jars filled with preserved fruits and vegetables.
While it’s no longer a vital skill for most Americans, canning has gained popularity again. Experts say people with extra time and money are returning to the age-old tradition for enjoyment.
“It’s become more of an edutainment for many people,” said food historian Suzanne Corbett. “There’s so much fast food and pre-processed food that have kind of pushed that convenience factor to a situation where our cooking has become performance art in your home.”
A quick look shows the hashtag #canning has over 960 million views on TikTok and images of jars filled with colorful foods litter Instagram.
Like many cooking trends, canning saw a rise in popularity during the COVID pandemic.
In 2020, sales for pressure cookers commonly used in at-home canning spiked. Claire Schmidt, a folklorist from Missouri Valley College, recalls her family was looking for ways to stay connected and stay out of stores.
“A jar of peaches on the table meant I could put off going to the grocery store maybe another day,” she said.
But even after the lockdown ended and Americans returned to work, the practice continues to gain popularity.
Jenna Smith, a nutrition and wellness educator for the University of Illinois Extension, said she taught more food preservation classes in 2023 than ever before.
“The overall feel that we get from people in the community is that they want to be there, they want to learn … and they want to do things safely,” she said.
Smith said her students choose to take canning classes for many reasons. In an era of high food prices, some hope growing and preserving their own food will save money. Others want more control over the foods they eat — for better flavor and to avoid common preservatives.
Above all else, though, Smith said people choose to can because it brings them pride.
“Actually seeing, when you open up your cabinets, all these beautiful jars of preserved foods. That in itself, I think, is such a joy to many people,” she said.
An American history of canning
Canning as a hobby is relatively new, but the practice has been used in America for hundreds of years. Women, mostly, preserved surplus peas, peaches, corn and other acidic foods in glass jars throughout the years.
Then, in the early 20th Century, a new era of industrial canning began.
Industry leaders helped lobby for the Food and Drug Administration’s 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which ushered in new food regulations. Changing cultural values after the Great Depression and two world wars helped Americans prioritize convenience, and canned goods moved from home kitchens to grocery store shelves.
“The industrial can created this requirement that anyone who picked up a can off the shelf just believed and trusted what was inside,” said Anna Zeide, author of Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry.
During this time, Zeide said industry leaders worked diligently to build confidence in their products by marketing canned goods to housewives who had begun to prioritize convenience. By the 1960s, with the feminist movement in full swing, she said their strategy paid off.
“Now, instead of trusting their senses, consumers have to trust the brand, the label, the company that's feeding them,” she said.
Keeping the tradition safe
Smith said her students come to class with varying experience levels. Some may have learned the trade from a grandparent, and others are amateurs who learned about canning from videos they saw online.
Regardless of background, however, she emphasized the importance of canning correctly. Common mistakes such as trying an untested recipe, doubling the batch or forgetting to check pressure canner gauges all risk foodborne illnesses like botulism.
“I just cringe sometimes at some of the videos and things I see that are just not safe,” Smith said.
But though social media is a large source of misinformation, old recipes can be just as dangerous.
“We’ve gotten into this fast-paced life as Americans that we many times skip over things or don’t think it’s that important,” said University of Nebraska Extension educator Brenda Aufdenkamp. “[But] we’re not living in our grandparents’ or great grandparents’ world anymore.”
She said it is important for home-canners to check USDA and state university websites for modern instructions and tested recipes. Aufdenkamp herself often practices canning to answer questions for her students.
“In a lot of recipes, the taste is going to drive whether we did it correct or whether we didn’t. But in food preservation, you might not taste the problems,” she said.
Modernizing the industrial can
Some new canners have chosen to modernize the practice of canning by marrying old-school flavors and traditions with large-scale production.
Kansas City Canning Co. owner Tim Tuohy started his business after losing a teaching position in New York in 2009 during the recession. He said canning brought back childhood memories that were comforting in a difficult time.
“There's a connection to the past that people can actually identify with, because it has that nostalgia to it,” he said. “I think fondly about spending time in the garden with my dad and picking the tomatoes and spending time with Joan and Frank across the street.
In Tuohy’s warehouse, workers fill glass jars with fruit preserves, pickles and various vegetables, which he sells at farmers’ markets across the region.
Often others express interest and ask Tuohy for information about canning.
“When we're at a market or a pop up, we have people come up and ask where we're getting our glass from, because they're interested in buying large amounts of glass,” he said.
Lauren Hines-Acosta contributed to this story. It comes from Canned Peaches — a new podcast from NPR member station KBIA — in partnership with the Missouri Humanities and with support from the Missouri Humanities Trust Fund. This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest.