What's Good About Canned Food?

A smart cook keeps canned foods on hand and knows how to use them

By Selma Roth


With all we hear these days about buying locally and seasonally, an everyday shopper might think canned foods are going the way of the land-line telephone. Not so!

Canned foods are alive and well on the supermarket shelf and most of us have a number of them stashed away in our kitchen cupboards. Some we might reach for regularly; others are perhaps long past their usefulness but still hanging on in some dark corner.

Why Bother with Canned Food?

The question really should be why not bother with canned food? It is incredibly shelf stable and retains its nutritional value. Most fruits and vegetables are fat-free and not packed with preservatives. These same fruits and veggies usually are good sources of vitamins A and C.

Canned foods enjoyed a heyday in the first half of the 20th Century when home cooks came to count on their convenience. When you consider a time when kitchens had unreliable refrigeration and no freezers, when a supply of “put ups” required the homemaker to spend hours peeling, cutting, and seasoning foods to be put in jars and then process in steamy water baths or pressure cookers, who can blame them? How liberating it must have been to stock up on cans of tomatoes, peaches, corn, peas, beans, potatoes, and pears, to name a few.

These days, home cooks barely think about canned foods. We either load them in our shopping carts as part of our routine (and let’s face it, just about everyone relies on canned soups and canned tuna, if nothing else), or bypass them in the supermarket aisles in favor of fresh produce.

Yet stocking up on those foods you are likely to use only makes sense.Sure, you might prefer to soak your own legumes for chili or black bean soup, but when life gets hectic and time is a premium, canned beans work their magic. Canned tomatoes, canned artichoke hearts, canned peas, canned chilies, canned peaches and more all have a place in most home cooks’ kitchens.

How to Buy and Store Canned Foods

When you buy cans of food, especially if they are on sale, examine them carefully for dents, bulges and leaks. These are rare today since food companies use advanced technology to insure that their product reaches the stores unscathed, but nonetheless, if you are not sure about a can, don’t buy it. (Instead, turn it into the store manager or another employee.)

As with any packaged food, check the expiration date on the can. If you don’t plan to use it right away, write the date of purchase and expiration on the can with a permanent marker as a reminder of when to use it. Rotate your canned foods so that you use the oldest before the newest.

Low-acidic foods such as potatoes, carrots, and beans keep for about two years; meat and fish for about one year; and those higher in acid content, such as tomatoes and pineapple, most fruit, for about eight months. These are conservative estimates; some foods will keep longer.

Store canned foods in cool, dry places that generally get hotter than 75˚F. Avoid cabinets near the stove or dishwasher or under the sink where they could be affected by heat or moisture. Cans of food don’t do too well in damp basements or garages, and should never be placed directly on concrete, which tends to absorb moisture and is sensitive to temperature changes. Don't allow the cans to freeze or to get so wet that they are in danger of rusting.

It’s a good idea to rinse the top of the can to rid if of dust and any bacteria that might be lurking. If the food inside bubbles and foams when you open it, or liquid spurts out when the can’s lid is lifted off (and we don’t mean a little of the packing juice sloshing over the edge) or if there is a discernible and questionable odor, discard the food. Don't taste it first.

When you cook canned food, its nutritional value will be higher if you use the liquid in the can, too. Of course, depending on the recipe, you may not want to do this.

Some people wonder if it’s okay to refrigerate leftover food in the can. The United States Department of Agriculture says it’s safe, but the food will taste and look better if it’s put into a glass or plastic container.


Selma Roth is a freelance writer based in Oregon.