IMG_6783

canning tuna at home


For most of my cooking life, canned tuna has been a very useful pantry item. Tonnato sauce with the first rose veal of the season. Salade nicoise for a ladies lunch. Or an incomparable tuna noodle casserole.

Back many decades ago, the summer between sophomore and junior year of college, I moved to the beach. I worked in the bars, both waitressing and bartending. It was a crazy time, hard work, long hours, multiple jobs, good money, and I was banking every cent for the next year in school.

My apartment was kind of scary, but the kitchen was functional. Even at 19, I knew that cooking for myself was cheaper than eating out. I existed on fresh salads, cheese and bread. I usually got fed at work – fried, bar food, for the most part. Staff dinners? I wish.

One of the four or five jobs I held down that summer was bartending at a small, private marina. The big fishing boats with a whole lot of fellows at sea with young girls and free flowing alcohol. I stayed on land, welcoming them back and raking in the tips.

One fine August day, one of these boats arrived with a 230# tuna, line caught.

Long before sushi was sold in grocery stores, I don’t think I ever imagined fresh tuna. It certainly wasn’t on menus at the time. My grandmother made tuna salad with celery and grated onion, Hellman’s mayonnaise. My other grandmother made tuna noodle casserole with cream cheese, like kugel. Tuna was not overfished, it was barely on the food-radar in 1977. Those were the days of baked potato skins, with everything. And Buffalo chicken wings.

Back then, the fisherman, a customer said, “Hey, you want some tuna?” And handed me a bag of 25 lbs. of red fleshed fish…I had never seen tuna in anything other than a can.

I sliced off a slab and grilled it. Revelation.

I continued to enjoy the tuna grilled, for a couple more days,  and then simmered it in a scented bouillion (peppercorns, bayleaf, lemon slices, parsley) until just done, and flaked it to make familiar tuna salad. I froze a good portion of that cooked fish, and ate it in a million incarnations for many weeks. I remember many tuna casseroles, because I was 19 and I was broke, and I could eat carbs and I lacked food experience and imagination. And free food was a good thing.

I fell in love with tuna that day.

How did we get to this place? Where there are barely enough tuna in the sea. They may disappear. I came face to face with this thought all day today.

I’d been thinking about a blog post on canning tuna. On the benefits, the techniques, the questions that might come up. I trust Vern at the Bethesda Central Farm Market, and when his sign said line caught tuna, I made a purchase, and planned a day of preserving and writing.

I looked at this beautiful fish flesh. How large the fish must have been. I remembered that day more than 35 years ago when fresh tuna was an exotic novelty.I remembered a trip to Italy and the first taste of Tonnato sauce that made me a convert to Italian style tuna, usually preserved in a jar in oil.

For years, I would splurge here and there on this wonderful fish, just as I would buy exceptional sardines, smoked oysters and anchovies. And then I read Well-Preserved (Eugenia Bone) and canned a few jars of tuna. So tender and moist, well and simply flavored. I have canned two or three pounds of tuna every year or two for years.

Yet, this year, today, I was haunted by the stories, the many many stories, about tuna’s precarious situation and the absolute unsustainability of fishing for tuna.

I’ve thought home canned tuna was solid gold in a jar. It’s expensive to produce, about $9./half pint (similar high quality products are $12-18. at gourmet grocers.) I adore it, but perhaps its time to use the experience to learn to preserve other fish like sardines and herring and salmon, and maybe bi-valves, like mussels or oysters (smoked) that are not endangered.

Today, if someone were to hand me 25 lbs. of tuna. I would first ask where and how it was caught. There is a scarcity, a serious sustainability issue, with tuna. I don’t eat much, and I am willing to pay premium prices for line caught fish. For sustainably fished tuna. And a fishmonger who knows the answer to the question – where is this from and how was it caught.

But it’s raising larger issues for me. These are probably the last jars of tuna.

How to Pressure Can Tuna
Inspired by Well-Preserved, informed by the Ball Blue Book of Canning and the NCHFP
Makes 7-8 half pint jars

3 lbs. fresh tuna
Kosher Salt
Olive oil, high quality with a clean, simple flavor

White vinegar (optional)

Get your pressure canner set up.

Warm the olive oil in a heavy pot. You just want to warm, not cook, it.

Cut the tuna into batons the height of your jars less one inch headspace, and into other chunks. Get the entire piece of tuna cut up and ready to go. Assume 1″ headspace.

Fit the batons into the jar, tucking pieces in to fill the jar snugly.

Add 1/2 tsp. salt to each jar.

Now, carefully add some oil to each jar. Run a jar bubbler (or plastic knife) around the inside of the jar. Let the oil fill all the nooks and crannies in the jars.

The warm oil will start to cook the tuna just a little. That’s okay. Add more oil until the jars are filled to the 1″ mark- watch your headspace. It’s really important these jars are not overfilled.

Clean the top of the jars with a towel moistened with white vinegar. This will cut any oil that might be lingering on the rim, and will ensure a good seal.

Pressure can at 11# of pressure for 100 minutes.

After processing, place jars in a dark closet for six months. Allow the fish to cure.

Canning Tuna at Home on Punk Domestics

46 thoughts on “canning tuna at home”

  1. Wow. This is lovely. I just kind of stopped ordering and buying tuna for all the reasons you write about, but I never gave it a proper farewell. It boggles the mind how such a familiar, everyday fish can be so on the brink.

  2. I eat tuna less than once a month these days. And probably shouldn’t eat it at all. So sad. I want to cry. Can’t wait to see what you do instead :)

  3. It’s so reassuring to read a post like this. I wish more people made conscious decisions when buying food. I used to eat a lot of tuna but I gradually added different fish onto the table including salmon, sardines and herring. With that said, I’d love to have herring that didn’t have corn syrup or sugar in it. I should research that and see if I can find a healthier option. This is my first time to your blog, I followed Hounds in the Kitchen’s link here.

  4. I loved the trip down memory lane:) We did not eat canned tuna when I was growing up in Serbia and only when I moved to the U.S. did it become a pantry staple.
    And for some time I enjoyed tuna steaks and sushi, and learned to appreciate the Italian style of canning. But these days I buy it very rarely because of overfishing, but I still keep on hoping its destiny is reversed.
    I would love to try canning tuna, as I already plan to can sardines (which I adore).
    Thanks for the post, Cathy!

  5. Thanks for this very thoughtful post. I’m not into canning (at least not right now), but am trying to be more conscious about what I cook and eat – in fact it’s my New Years resolution for 2012 http://motherwouldknow.com/journal/my-new-years-food-resolution.html . You’ve pointed out that sometimes we find out about issues with food that we would rather not know – but once known, the information can hardly be “unknown”. And what to do with that information? I hope you’ll write more about how you navigate your way through this dilemma – we all should.

  6. Oh Baby I have been dreaming all winter about this. I am looking for a good pressure cooker now and it looks like I need to spend 125.00 to get a big enough unit to do the job with less effort. I spend a few days a year out at sea hoping to bring in a Yellow Fin or Blue Fin tuna. Over the last 3 years I was fortunate to bring meat home. But one can only eat so much sushi with 10 friends. So the Capt. of the boat my friend Joe and I have been talking about putting up in jars a good portion this summer. So I hope to show you the Fruit de Mare this August.

    1. Be sure you buy a pressure CANNER, not cooker. Very different. My Amazon store has a link to my favorite pressure canner. I’ve had mine for more than ten years and it has never let me down.

  7. I really liked this post. Every year they fished, until they were too old to work the river, my Dad & Mom canned fish: salmon, oysters, bass, whatever they or their friends caught on their many trips. Beautiful pints & quarts filled with rosy colored fish. Lovely useful skill mostly lost in today’s convenient grocery store environment. I am happy to see it lives in you.

  8. Cathy: what a beautiful post. I feel your pain about eating fish; we’ve cut our consumption way down, but I still feel the responsibility to support our local fishermen. Enjoy every morself of this beautiful tuna!

  9. Yes, when I was young I thought tuna only came in a can. In fact, I thought all fish was rectangle in shape and contained in a box that read Mrs. Paul’s. During my early days in Manhattan I lived on (and loved) tuna casserole.

    You raise some interesting points about sustainability. I surely hope there is a solution as I so enjoy my tuna.

  10. Thanks for the inspiration. I recently met a local fisher at the farmers market who line catches tuna and I will buy some from him. The most amazing canned fish I ever had was home canned salmon. A friend had a stream on his property. In went the rod, out came the fish and into the canner. It was rich and absolutely delicious.

  11. Wait! You don’t have to give up tuna, either fresh or canned. Oregon albacore tuna is sustainably troll-caught and cans beautifully. Come visit in summer when you can buy it off the docks and can it in a rental house on the beach — that’s what many old-time Oregonians do. My post on canning is a helpful resource — just go to my blog and search under tuna.

    1. I am a fisheries scientist – I work with tuna fisheries in the Pacific. There are several different species of tuna, some are doing better than others. Troll or pole and line albacore is your best bet (both the US and Canada have good fisheries), with yellowfin also OK, at least for now. Stay away from bigeye and bluefin. Skipjack tuna populations (found canned) are doing great, but there are high bycatch issues with these fisheries. Do consider eating lower on the food chain – anchovies, mackerel, sardines, oysters, mussels, sardines etc. Happy eating!

      1. Thank you for sharing this info. I try to eat responsibly but it’s so hard to know what’s going on sometimes. It’s kind of depressing when you have to spend hours researching everything before you can go grocery shopping.

  12. I believe I have been the beneficiary of one of those ‘ladies who lunch’ lunches and have enjoyed your home-canned tuna. I will be sad to see it go, but you are right to be confronting these issues. Oh, and please let me know if/when you smoke and preserve oysters. I want to be there for that!

  13. I know exactly how you feel about the tuna. It’s one of my favorite foods but I feel GUILTY every time I buy it, which is very infrequently. My only consolation is that I’m sparing myself all the mercury as well.

    I would love to see more posts about canned fish, not only in order to learn different recipes for canning fish, but also to discover how people use it. Food52 recently ran a contest for canned fish, and although some of the recipes were very creative I found most of them used the obvious (sardines, tuna, oysters) and the recipes were somewhat predictable. Where I live (north Idaho), many people are able to procure fresh salmon in rather large quantities which they can. Historically, people here used to can ling cod. I’d like to read some of the recipes for how they used it. I guess I’d better get to work….

  14. @Linda and @Shonagh (from the self-proclaimed proselytizer of Oregon albacore tuna), if you buy Oregon albacore, you buy young fish that doesn’t have mercury deposits. It’s also sustainable. I don’t know how far out in to the rest of the country it’s sold in season, but if you see it, you won’t regret it.

    I also wrote a post on adapting tuna canning to salmon, if you have better access to wild salmon than to Oregon albacore. Advice and a link to the albacore tuna post is here: http://culinariaeugenius.wordpress.com/2011/04/30/salmon-canning-and-hazel-switches/ . Happy canning!

    1. Thanks for the tips, Eugenia. Occasionally I do make it to the Oregon coast. In what months is Tuna available? Usually I’m in Depoe Bay. Any fishmonger suggestions?

      I’d also love to see more ideas about how to use canned fish, aside from patties, salads, or tuna casserole.

      1. September is the best month. Get on line and find the site for Oregon tuna fisheries they have a list of guys who sell the tuna we do it all the time it is wonderful Albacore it is also canning ready they clean it wonderfully for about 3 bucks a fish can’t beat that.

        Good luck

  15. I’ve wanted to make this for years! And with my new pressure cooker, now I can. But I have the same reservations about tuna that you do. Might be time for me to make this with some line caught wild, sustainable, oily fish from elsewhere in the world. Any good suggestions on what kind would work? I know salmon, sardines and herring, but any other ideas would be much appreciated. Yum.

  16. It may not work for more serious foodies, but I’ve substituted home-canned chicken for tuna. My pastured chickens were involved in a terrible slaughter by foxes last year, just a week or two before I had planned to process them. I decided to can the undamaged breasts and legs. The white meat acts like very mild canned albacore in recipes.

    I agree completely about the problem of over fishing. In addition, climate change and energy resources being squandered on eating out of season, out of region, and ‘out-of scale’ (e.g. industrial agriculture) have changed the way we eat – but for the better most of the time.

  17. Thank you all for your supportive and thoughtful comments. Eugenia, LOVE your posts on both tuna and salmon, and will be looking your way as I start to figure out salmon and, yes, Domenica, SMOKED OYSTERS. Really, can you imagine anything more fabulous? This fall, I’m going to start the experiments.
    Thank you all for reading and being here!
    xoxoxCathy

  18. I’m generally a water bath canner, so I’d never even considered canning my own tuna. A very interesting plan! I think Eugenia’s Oregon beach rental and canning spree sounds like a great sustainable way to go. And I know my fishing relatives in Michigan will be happy to hear about the possibility of canned salmon!

  19. Last summer a friend who takes a trip out to the west coast of Vancouver island brought us back a ‘swack’ of salmon. we froze some, we smoked a lot and then we canned some fresh and canned some smoked. the whole experience gave me a renewed respect for late nights. And a relax inside about the fish jars downstairs. I would recommend learning how to smoke fish, we should have smoked colder but Mr. P. was not aware of my plans to can. even so it smells and tastes wonderful.
    this summer we are members of a CSF = community supported fishery. we will get salmon, prawns and (!!) octopus!. Guess I get to learn more about local!

  20. What a great story, Cathy, and one with a moral! I love fresh tuna and rarely eat it any other way. When we do buy canned tuna for sandwiches and salads, we spend more for better quality and get what we pay for. In Italy we bought the really good stuff in jars, again, more costly, but so delicious and it actually gets eaten! Your post is more than useful and your method could be used to preserve so many types of fish. Great post!

  21. Wonderful post!
    Delightful to read and heartwarming to see the caring showed in here for this amazing fish, indeed on the brink of extinction due to over-fishing.

    Very moving.

  22. Every other year I can enough tuna to last us for 2 years. We love it and eat it regularly. We buy it from the fishermen off the Oregon coast and it is wonderful Albacore tuna nothing quite like it. I do not add olive oil to mine the fish has enough oil itself. Just a little salt.

  23. Lovely post, Cathy. I’ve been canning tuna for years, and have found there are some great variations. 1) a little salt, leave out the olive oil 2) leave out the salt, use lemon infused olive oil (Great in salads) 3) salt & diced jalapeño, 4) tamari 5) Cajun spice mix these are all good & I am sure the possibilities are endless.

  24. Hello Cathy,
    this is my first time here via Facebook on Food in Jars, I think. Here in Eastern Canada we are well aware of the results of over fishing. I grew up on mackerel as it was sold from trucks on the street. As much as I like tuna, I will now choose more wisely and make suitable substitutions.

    Thank you so much for the information.

  25. Hi Cathy – lovely post and message but oh how I would love to try that tuna. We were in Hawaii last week and what a revelation it was to eat tuna there – even cooked. We never order it cooked here – always seems dry but when it’s fresh caught, it’s just sublime. I did not realize how bad the situation was with tuna. So frustrating – we are trying to eat more fish but with one kid allergic to salmon and all the complicated labeling of what’s ok and what’s not and the cost of so much of it, to be honest, we don’t eat it very often. I’ll look forward to see what you’re up to next!

  26. I think a huge issue with choosing tuna is that the same type can be deemed either “Avoid” or “Best Choice” depending on where it comes from and how it was fished (as evidenced when I looked up Bonito’s sustainability as Spanish tuna is my favorite kind to indulge in), so I can completely understand wanting to avoid tuna as a whole. It’s frustrating because so many of those fine fish you mentioned as better alternatives–namely sardines and anchovies–are so difficult to find fresh even in this day and age. Blerg.

    Thank you for sharing your story, in any case. It was a lovely read and I’m sure the last of your canned tuna will be absolutely delicious.

  27. I stopped eating tuna for the most part several years ago, never in a can and only occasionally in sushi. I’m so glad to see you bring up the issue, one that so many popular food blogs ignore in their rush to showcase the newest salmon or tuna recipe. (Salmon isn’t doing that well either, with the exception of a few sustainably fished areas and farmed is an atrocity, both for eco and health reasons.)

    We all have to make some tough choices, or there won’t be a choice to make in a not too distant future. Bravo, and bring on the sardines!

    1. I can Oregon albacore tuna every summer. I’ve never added oil or any liquids. It is exquisite, not to mention extremely convenient. As mentioned above, it is line-caught, sustainable, and has undetectable amounts of mercury. Thanks for posting!

  28. I am 64 yrs and a 3rd generation Commercial Fisherman, and have watched my mother when I was a kid and helped her while an adult can lot of Tuna for our family. My Mom’s canning procedure was similar to yours. One thing is to make sure when you buy Tuna, make sure it have been “bled” on the boat right after being caught. This helps get most of the blood out of the meat. Also, my Mom used to soak her tune over night in a salt brine. Rinsing thoroughly in the morning. This will draw any more blood that is left in the meat out. Blood gives Tuna the “fishy” flavor that most folks do not like. Hope this helps. Enjoy

    1. John,
      Thanks for the info. I was fishing out of Charleston OR this summer and lucky to get line caught tuna, that is fun! I hope to can some soon, I hadn’t seen info about brining so will follow your advice. Any advice about smoking?

  29. I pressure cook my raw tuna first, then pack in jars and pressurize the jars in pressure canner again. Any thoughts on this process as opposed to fresh packing? I have gotten excellent results this way.

  30. Great article but very limited info on the status of tuna. There are several species of tuna and many healthy stocks. To give the impression that “tuna” as a group are all on the brink in entirely misleading. Some facts or links to current info would show that Eastern pacific Yellowfin Tuna and albacore stocks are stable and well managed. And right now the California Pacific Sardine is in serious decline.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Couldn't connect to server: php_network_getaddresses: getaddrinfo failed: Name or service not known (0)