On a perfectly snowy day, I once took a hike out to the gorgeous Snow Lake in Washington state. I carried a can of hearty soup in my backpack and heated it up with a jet boil when I got to the lake.
It was the perfect way to warm myself up and eat something healthy and delicious in the middle of a hike. But was it actually safe to do so?
A tin can is safe to use as a cooking utensil as long as there’s no plastic or BPA lining. However, it’s crucial to puncture holes in the lid or fully remove it to prevent pressure from building up and causing the can to explode. It is even possible to use tin cans on open flames and as makeshift ovens for baking.
The history of the tin can explain why cooking with them may not have always been so safe and why now, there are still some precautions to keep in mind. Keep reading to find out more about exactly how safe it is, precautions to be aware of, and some tasty recipes to try.
Is Cooking In a Tin Can Safe?
During the early 1800s, Napoleon Bonapart sent out a request with a monetary reward for a way to preserve food for his armies while they sought to conquer new land. The reward went to a Parisian man who took the concept of winemaking and applied it to preserving food. He used a glass bottle and an airtight cork.
Soon after, the canning process was improved and patented by an English merchant who used iron-coated tinplate for a more durable vessel that wouldn’t corrode.
By using tin instead of glass, carton, or plastic, the food is completely protected against water, light, and air, which can spoil the food easily, thus preserving the flavor and quality.
In today’s age, most tin cans are made from tin, some from steel, and sometimes from aluminum. It is important to check which material the can you are intending to use is made from. Aluminum can release high amounts of chromium and nickel when heated, so avoid heating anything in aluminum cans.
New Safety Measures
In the beginning, manufacturers used lead alloy to solder the lids on the cans, which often resulted in lead poisoning.
Fortunately, through the years, manufacturers have continued to change and upgrade the process, making canned food safer. Now, food-safe glue is used.
A large majority of tin cans are lined with food-safe epoxy to further prevent corrosion. This epoxy is generally harmless, however, some of the plastic liners are also made with Bisphenol A (BPA), a plastic chemical that is harmful when ingested.
BPA is unsafe and can contaminate the food when heating the tin can. Therefore, you should always check to see what the lining is made from before you heat food in the container. Avoid cooking in tin cans lined with BPA.
If you choose to cook in a tin can lined with plastic, you can first burn off the plastic lining by transferring the contents to a bowl, then sticking the can upside down in a fire. Make sure to wash it out with soap and water afterward so you aren’t cooking your food in burnt plastic.
Is It Safe to Cook With a Tin Can Over an Open Flame?
Whether you’re camping in the wilderness or living off-grid on the homestead, you’ll need to cook. Out in the wilderness, fuel in the form of gas is hard to come by. So more often than not, cooking outdoors is usually done with an open fire.
So can you put a can over an open flame?
You sure can!
But there are a few very important things you need to remember when cooking with a tin can over an open fire in addition to the aforementioned cautions from above (don’t cook in a BPA lined can, and don’t use an aluminum can).
1. Remove the Label
Always remember to remove the label from the can. They are almost always made from paper or thin plastic that will catch on fire if you put them in, on, or near the flame.
2. Remove the Lid
It is extremely important to remember to remove the lid from the can before placing it in or near the fire, or at the very least, puncture some holes in the top. Pressure will build up inside the can during the heating process and can lead to the can exploding. This can be very dangerous and will result in ruining your dinner.
3. Don’t Touch the Can With Your Bare Hands
Once you put the can in the fire, the metal will heat up very quickly. Use tongs, oven mitts, or some kind of heat-proof material to help you turn the can and get it out of the fire.
4. Turn the Can for Even Cooking
When cooking in an open fire, it would not be very wise to put the can directly into the middle of the flame. Not only would that make it very difficult to remove and potentially lead to burned food but it would also be hard to avoid getting ash in your food.
For best practice, place the tin can near the edge of the fire and turn it often to ensure even cooking. If you have a metal grate over the fire, it would be perfectly fine to place the can directly over the fire.
As long as you keep these precautions in mind, you can use a tin can as an additional cooking pot if needed.
Be aware that using an open flame will most likely cause damage to the tin can so you will only want to use it once.
Is It Safe to Cook Food In the Same Can It Comes In?
Soups, stews, and vegetables are some of the most common food items that come in a can, and boy, are they delicious. But why dirty another dish to cook these foods up, especially when you’re outdoors and resources are limited?
As long as the lining of the can does not contain BPA and the label has been removed, it is perfectly safe to heat food in the tin can in comes in.
There are many ways to heat up the food in a tin can, including using a jet boil or an open flame.
When heating food up in its own tin can, the instructions will often tell you not to boil the contents. During the canning process, the food is partially or fully cooked, placed in the can, then put into boiling water to kill bacteria and create an airtight seal on the lid.
Therefore, when reheating, it is not necessary to boil the food as it could potentially lower the quality.
Simply heat the food until it is thoroughly heated to your liking.
Is It Safe to Reuse Tin Cans for Cooking?
Let’s say you have an old Folgers coffee tin and you want to cook something like a baked potato in the fire, would that be okay?
Reusing an old tin is a great way to recycle it before actually recycling it. Keep in mind, though, you will want to make sure that it is a food-safe tin. You would not want to use, for example, an old paint tin.
You will want to wash the container with soap and water before cooking anything in it since it may have collected dust or other unwanted particles.
Be sure to double-check if there is a plastic lining inside the can like mentioned above. If there is, you can burn it off in the fire first and then wash it out before cooking with it.
If you wanted to avoid that, you could simply wrap that potato in tin foil and stick it right into the coals.
But if you wanted to be a little fancier with your outdoor cooking, you could place that same potato in the Folgers coffee tin with some butter, salt, and pepper, place tin foil over the top, and then stick that in the coals. About an hour later it would be perfectly cooked and ready to eat. It is a perfectly good way to reuse an old tin.
Can I Bake With a Tin Can?
Using a tin can over a fire would be similar to using a dutch oven. The biggest difference will be the thickness of the cooking container.
It is possible to bake using a tin can, but it is easier to burn your baked goods if you use a tin can since the thin metal heats up very quickly.
If you want to use a tin can to bake, it would be wise to use a metal grate over the fire to place the can on. You could also cut a small hole just under the rim on either side of the can, pull a string through the holes, and suspend it over the fire. This will help keep the items inside from burning.
Be sure to remove any label on the tin can and ensure the lining does not contain BPA. Then, grease the inside of the tin before placing any kind of batter inside to help prevent sticking which could ruin your perfectly good baked goods.
There are many ways to enjoy canned goods and great options for reusing old food-safe tins. As long as you take the proper precautions and handle the tins safely, it is possible to use them as cooking containers.
The most important health factor to be aware of is the BPA in some can lining. BPA is a harmful chemical used in the plastic lining and can leach into food while reheating.
One of the best things about using tin cans is the many ways they can be reused and recycled. According to the Can Manufacturers Institute in 2010, about 63% of steel cans are recycled and two-thirds of new steel is produced using old steel. It’s an incredible resource because it can be used again and again without lessening its quality.