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Is it Safe to Cook Food in a Tin Can?

We have all watched cowboy movies where, at the end of a long day, a campfire is lit, a tin of beans is punctured with a legendary bowie knife and placed over the open coals to cook. Those were the good old days, but is it safe to cook like that these days, especially on the homestead?

It is only safe to cook food in a tin can if it is not lined with BPA or any other lining. Using pre-washed tin cans that do not have any lining is an acceptable method of cooking over an open fire on the homestead. Tin cans can be used as makeshift ovens for baking.

There are many opinions on the subject, and depending on who you speak to, you will hear many different stories on the advantages or horror stories of cooking your food in a tin can. Over the years, quite a number of significant changes have been made to the tin can construction recipe to improve the quality of the food which is stored inside it. With all these improvements, is it still safe to cook any food in a tin can?

image of tin cans on a white background

Is Cooking Food In A Tin Can Safe?

A tin can that is used to store many different types of foodstuffs is generally made from tin or steel but can also be made from aluminum.

Tin cans were initially made for the preserving and canning of food for the Royal Navy in 1813. Back then, the cans were sealed by soldering a tin-alloy lid onto each one, which caused lead poisoning.

These days, using tin or steel cans for preserving and storing food is the material of choice as they are stronger than glass, cartons, and plastic. They offer 100% protection against contamination caused by water, air, and light, safeguarding the contents and preserving the flavor and taste of the food item.

Many tin cans used in modern times to store and preserve food are lined with a plastic chemical coating called Bisphenol A (BPA). This coating is to prevent acids from corroding the tin of the can, but BPA is not always safe as it can leach into the food inside the can.

If you do need to cook food in a tin can, check first to see what the can is lined with. If it is lined with BPA, open the lid of the tin can and use the tin can to warm the contents inside, but do not use it as an actual cooking vessel. If the lid is sealed, it could explode during the heating process.

You could safely reheat the contents while inside the tin can without the BPA leaching into the food, but do not cook any food which needs to be boiled or simmered for a more extended period of time in the tin can.

If the tin can does not use BPA as a lining, it could be used as a cooking vessel. Before using any tin can for cooking in, checking the materials used as a lining first!

Is Cooking Food In A Tin Can Over A Fire Safe?

As homesteaders living off-grid, fuel could often be a problem. Many homesteads have an outdoors cooking range that is used instead of a conventional indoor cooking area.

Outdoors’ cooking is generally done on an open fire with a trusted pan that can cook many one-pot wonders! But what if you need an extra pot to cook something else in? Can you use a tin can for cooking over an open fire?

There are a few different methods of using a tin can for cooking over an open fire. 

1. Cooking The Food Already In The Tin Can

As previously mentioned, if the tin can has a BPA lining, be careful and only re-heat food in the tin can. Alternatively, you can decant the contents into another bowl for safe-keeping and burn off the lining of the tin can by placing hot coals inside and allowing the BPA to burn.

Once the BPA has been burnt off the insides of the tin can, wait for the can to cool down, wash it with soap and water and place the food back into the tin, and put it over the fire.

If you have established that there is no lining in the tin can, remove the lid and place the tin can over the fire or hot coals until the food is cooked or heated.

2. Using An Old Tin Can To Cook Food

This is one of the best ways to re-use your old tin can cans. Simply use an old food storage tin can – make sure that the tin can is food grade and not an old paint tin!

Wash the tin can thoroughly with soap and water. Either place directly over the coals and cook your food inside it or make a hole on either side of the tin can just under the rim, tie a piece of string or rope through the holes, making a handle, and hang over a hook above the fire. The tin can is useful for cooking food when you don’t have enough cooking pots!

You could use the old tin can for cooking the best-baked potatoes over an open fire. Simply place a scrubbed potato covered with butter, salt, and pepper, with the skins still on, into the tin can. Cover the can with tin foil and set it down next to the hot coals or directly into the fire.

Do not take the tin foil lid off the tin. Instead, turn the tin can a few times to ensure all-around cooking. Remove from the fire after about an hour and enjoy your tender, baked potato minus the char on the outside!

Try using an old tin can for cooking a roast chicken over the fire. Prepare the chicken and place it into the tin can. Cover the can with tin foil and place into the fire. Check regularly to see that it doesn’t burn, and enjoy your hot, roasted, off-grid chicken meal!

Is It Safe To Cook Food In Its Own Tin Container?

Other than re-heating a tin of beans on the open fire like the cowboys did, is there any other food that can be cooked in the tin can?

We could argue that the tin can should be safe enough and food grade if it already contains food, right? Always check what the tin can is lined with before making any decisions on how to heat up the contents of the tin can.

The process of preserving food in tin cans means that the food is generally already cooked and is ready to be heated up or to be eaten cold directly from the tin can.

Most meat and vegetable products are heated in the can during the preserving process to destroy bacteria, but not all. In extreme circumstances, food can be re-heated in the tin can, but it is not recommended by the manufacturers.

Can I Bake On A Fire Using A Tin Can?

Many recipes today can be baked in a tin can! From cakes to ice cream to burgers in a can, there are plenty of recipes instructing how to bake using tin cans, which is good news for the homesteader planning campfire meals!

Before beginning your recipe, make sure that you have clean, food-grade tin cans. Old coffee tin cans are ideal for campfire recipes as they are big and strong enough to hold a variety of food and ingredients. Clean the tin can and remove any labels from the outside to prevent it from catching alight.

Lightly spray the inside of the tin can with oil or dust with flour to prevent the mixture from sticking before pouring into the tin can.

Prepare your cake batter as directed and pour it into the prepared tin cans. Cover the entire tin can with a few layers of tin foil to prevent burning and scorching.

Place the tin can into the fire. Turn often to avoid burning. Check after about 10 minutes in the fire. If cooked, take out of the fire and remove the cake from the tin can.

Slice the cake into thick pieces and layer with icing or frosting, and stick back together. Cover with frosting and slice!

Conclusion: Cooking with Tin Cans

Using a tin can for cooking your food can be great when cooking over a campfire while under the stars on a family camping trip, but always be aware of what the lining of the can is made from before you use it.

Tin cans can be recycled. Up to 65% of tin cans are recycled in the USA and 79.5% throughout Europe. As a result, tin cans leave a smaller carbon footprint than many other materials used for food storage, so don’t be afraid to throw out your used tin cans after a single-use, especially if you don’t have any other use for them.

Living off-grid on the homestead, you might have a multitude of uses for tin cans, so keep them, clean them, and re-use them. Learn what you can cook and bake in them for exciting and memorable times around the cooking fire with the family!

Cite this article as: “Is it Safe to Cook Food in a Tin Can?” Backyard Homestead HQ, 8 April 2021, backyardhomesteadhq.com/is-it-safe-to-cook-food-in-a-tin-can/.

Resources

It’s important to learn from your own experience, but it’s also smart to learn from others. These are the sources used in this article and in our personal research to be more informed as homesteaders. 🙂

  • Can-Don’t: Cooking Canned Foods in Their Own Containers Comes with Risks. 19 May 2010, www.scientificamerican.com/article/earth-talk-can-dont/.
  • MacWelch, Tim. “Survival Skills: How to Cook With a Tin Can.” Outdoor Life, 25 Mar. 2021, www.outdoorlife.com/blogs/survivalist/2012/05/survival-skills-how-use-tin-can-cooking/.
  • “Steel and Tin Cans.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Feb. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steel_and_tin_cans.

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