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Fermenting vs. Canning

By Kim Robson:

The art of food preservation has been practiced for thousands of years. Our ancestors figured out how to preserve meat and fish with drying and salting, and how to preserve fresh vegetables with canning and fermenting. Before the advent of canned goods and, later, refrigeration, in-home canning in glass jars and fermenting in crocks was the only way to keep fresh food from spoiling.

A History of Canning

During the first years of the Napoleonic Wars, the French government offered 12,000 francs in prize money to anyone who could invent a cheap and effective way to preserve large amounts of food. Napoleon himself famously noted, “An army marches on its stomach.” Military campaigns of the day were limited to the summer and autumn months due to food availability.

Then Nicolas Appert, a French confectioner and brewer, discovered that food cooked inside a jar didn’t spoil unless the seal was broken, and developed a method of sealing food in glass jars. Glass jars, however, were difficult to transport due to breakage.

Commercial canneries opened for business, and glass jars were gradually replaced with metal canisters (“cans” for short). Cans were cheaper and much more durable than glass jars. Interestingly, can openers didn’t appear until thirty years later. Until then, soldiers had to slice open cans with bayonets or smash them open with rocks.

The main force driving the market for preserved food was wartime and exploration. In 1824, Sir William Edward Parry took canned beef and pea soup with him on his voyage to search for a northwestern passage to India. In 1829, Admiral Sir James Ross took canned food to the Arctic, as did Sir John Franklin in 1845 when navigating and charting the Northwest Passage. Early canning methods used lead solder to seal the cans, which may have poisoned the 1845 Franklin expedition.

Because the process of canning was initially slow and labor-intensive (each can was handmade, and the contents took up to six hours to cook), canned food was too expensive for ordinary people. In fact, during the mid 19th century, canned food — seen as a frivolous novelty — was a status symbol for European middle class households. Urban Victorians demanded inexpensive varieties of quality food that could be kept at home, thus eliminating the need to go shopping daily.

The Industrial Revolution led to better mechanization of the canning process, plus a spike in urban populations across Europe resulted in higher demand for canned food. Inventions and improvements followed, leading to smaller machine-made steel cans, and cooking times reduced from six hours to around thirty minutes.

Home Canning in Glass Mason Jars

Home canning involves sterilizing food in glass mason jars. The filled jars are fitted with a two-piece sealable lid, placed in a pot of simmering water, and boiled for about fifteen minutes. Low-acid foods such as vegetables, meats or seafood must be processed in a pressure cooker, according to the USDA and CDC. The heat kills any harmful bacteria in the food and creates a vacuum seal on the lid, making it shelf-stable for storage at room temperature for up to a year or more. Unfortunately, the heat also kills any of the good bacteria that are so beneficial to digestion.


Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and pickled veggies are among the best ways to ingest natural probiotics. Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria, such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, that live safely in the digestive tract. Probiotics are vital for proper absorption and digestion of food, and for actively synthesizing nutrients such as vitamin K, pantothenic acid, folic acid, thiamine (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin B3), pyridoxine (vitamin B6), cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12), and various amino acids and proteins. When tested, people with gut dysbiosis always seem to have deficiencies of these nutrients.

85% of the body’s immune system is found in the digestive tract. An average adult carries 2 kg of bacteria in the gut. Believe it or not, there are more microbial cells in your digestive tract than there are cells in your entire body. It is a highly organized micro-world, where certain species of bacteria need to predominate in order to keep us physically and mentally healthy.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School have found evidence of a relationship between “good” bacteria and a healthy immune system. Certain gut bacteria influence aspects of the immune system, correcting deficiencies and increasing T-cells.

When we think of pickling veggies, it’s usually produce like cabbage, cucumbers, green beans, peppers and tomatoes. But you might be surprised to find that all sorts of fruits and veggies can be pickled – including ones you might have never thought of pickling before.

Fermentation requires very little effort on your part. Just chop up some veggies, add salt and/or spices, place in a jar or fermentation crock, cover, and wait for the microbes to magically do their work. You may need to shake the jar or “burp” it once in a while. For kombucha, brew some tea, sweeten it, add some SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) and wait. Apple cider vinegar? More or less the same procedure, only with apple peels.

Fermented foods have a shorter shelf life than canned foods, and refrigeration will slow down the fermentation but won’t stop it entirely. Eventually it just goes bad or gets too “funky.”

Both canning and fermentation have their plusses and minuses, but with a combination of the two, your home kitchen pantry can be stocked with your garden’s or market’s bounty all year round.

About Kim Robson

Kim Robson lives and works with her husband in the Cuyamaca Mountains an hour east of San Diego. She enjoys reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and animals. She has written a blog since 2006 at kimkiminy.wordpress.com. Her interests include the environment, dark skies, astronomy and physics, geology and rock collecting, living simply and cleanly, wilderness and wildlife conservation, and eating locally.

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