When Bellingham fisherman Jeremy Brown started offering tuna-canning classes in his kitchen, he could pick up the pressure cookers needed to safely process fish at garage sales for about $5 apiece. Ten years later, he says, "You better be there bright and early, and be ready to bid it up."
Sales of home-canning products have jumped 35 percent over the past three years, earning the hobby what seems like a permanent spot on food-trend lists. But many amateur canners willing to experiment with pickles and jams shy away from low-acid foods such as tuna, which tend to provoke fears about deadly contamination incidents and exploding pressure cookers. Slow Food Seattle co-chair Jennifer Johnson thinks that's why a tuna-canning class led by Brown is the most popular event on the organization's calendar. "It's not something that people do at home," Johnson says. "You don't want to kill yourself."
Nearly 100 Slow Food members and friends crowded into Gourmondo Catering's South Seattle kitchen on January 8 to clean, slice, jar, and preserve 1,000 pounds of albacore tuna caught 50 miles off the Columbia River. Although most participants were first-timers, the group included a few returning canners anxious to replenish their tuna supply. "I gave it away as gifts, and people were like, 'Can I have more?'," Brook Boeskov said. "It's so good."
The flavor gulf between commercially available canned tuna and tuna canned by hand is among the widest confronted by grocery shoppers. While locavores may prefer farmstead cheeses and small-batch soda pops, it's hard to argue that Cabot Sharp Cheddar and Coca-Cola aren't tasty. Tuna is different, because producers rely on processing methods which sap the fish of its natural flavors. According to Brown, "They cook the fish whole, in steam; break it down; and cook it a second time." Late-stage broth additions can't amend the oil loss: Most home cooks don't serve canned tuna without first subjecting it to a slathering of mayo or heavy dousing of cream-of-mushroom soup.
When tuna is raw-packed, the fish retains its oceanic integrity, although Brown ordered canners on slicing duty to trim dark spots from the frozen tuna steaks. ("Too strong," he explained, suggesting cat owners save the scraps.) Once preserved, the tuna can be used in salads or vitello tonnato. "You don't have to do much to it," Boeskov says. "You can pour the whole jar over pasta."
Under Brown's guidance, canning students salted and olive-oiled the tuna. Before sealing each jar, they added a "secret ingredient"—a carrot—to counterbalance acidity.
Brown says his recipe was sometimes questioned back when salt and fat were eaters' biggest worries. "You could argue the oil is just adding fat, but it adds to the mouthfeel," Brown says. "It's worth it."