This is a guide for canning troll-caught albacore tuna using a raw-pack method in a pressure canner. It has been reviewed by a veteran, my fellow Master Food Preserver and an excellent teacher, Dale Dow, who has opened her home and taught annual tuna classes to willing new MFP volunteers for many years. I can’t replace Dale’s careful in-person instruction, but I’ve done tuna with her three years running, and tried to take notes on all the tips she provided this year so I can approximate her procedures. All mistakes and lack of clarity are mine, of course. Thank you for this and everything else I’ve learned from you, Dale!
Note: Interested in canning salmon instead of tuna? More tips here.
Is albacore the best tuna? In Oregon, we think so. It’s one of only two tuna varieties that are certified green-light sustainable by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Also, since the tuna are caught very young, they don’t have any issues with mercury buildup.
And they make the best tuna you’ve ever had. You haven’t TASTED tuna until you have a jar of homemade albacore.
Tuna is a low acid food, and must be canned in a pressure canner (the ones with a clamp down lid that has a gauge or a weighted top), not a waterbath canner (the ones that look like a big stockpot). The process takes the better part of a day, and you’re much better off canning tuna outside on a sturdy camp stove, as it smells strongly and the smell lasts on your hands and other surfaces. Trust me, you don’t want this smell in your kitchen.
I’m assuming you know how to use a pressure canner, have chosen top-quality and properly stored albacore tuna, and you have cleaned your canning jars, rings, and new lids.
If you are using a pressure canner for the first time or need a refresher, this publication from the National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia is a good guide.
OSU Extension has a publication, developed by a consortium of three Pacific Northwest universities, called “Canning Seafood.” It covers canning seafood in general, including fish and shellfish. I’m using this document as a base for this annotated guide. You can download a .pdf file (PNW 194) by following the links here. Please refer to this document if you have questions about safety, storage, or spoilage. This link also provides pamphlets on filleting your own tuna and on mercury and radiation in Oregon albacore (quick answer: don’t worry; it’s not an issue).
Your local fish monger is a good place to bulk-order freshly caught Oregon albacore tuna, cleaned, bled, and prepared as long, single-piece loins. We use Newman’s and Fisherman’s Market in Eugene. There are also places along the coast where you can buy tuna off the boat. Best to talk to someone with experience before undertaking this effort.
Edited to clarify: You’ll want to buy 1 lb. whole fish (also called fish on-the-round) per one half-pint jar of filleted tuna. There will be about 50% wastage during the filleting process, less if you have a very skilled knife-handler, more if you’re trying it at home yourself. It will be cheaper to do it yourself, of course, but much more work. If I want to fill my canner, for example, I should buy just under 50 lbs. for 24 half-pint jars. [Edited in 2018: after many years and a lot of leftover tuna, I now recommend 3/4 lb. fish on-the-round for each half-pint jar you wish to can, not 1 lb.]
The Set Up
I strongly advise you not to stray far from these instructions. You’ll be processing tuna for 100 minutes, and if you have to start over or if a jar breaks or otherwise fails to seal, you’ll be unhappy.
1. Check your jars carefully for chips and cracks. I always use new jars for tuna to minimize risk. After washing your jars, screw the rings on and keep them on as you are fitting tuna in the jars. This will make it easier to wash the muck off the jar mouth before canning.
2. Besides the canning set-up, make sure you have for each person in your group:
- Wide-mouthed half-pint jars. You can use regular-mouth jelly jars, but a tuna loin is a bit fatter than a regular jar (see disaster above), and it requires more cutting. You may also can in wide-mouthed pints, but half-pints are similar in weight to a standard can of tuna — think of how much tuna you’ll need per use.
- A very sharp, non-serrated, chef’s or boning knife.
- A non-porous cutting board, preferably one that can go in the dishwasher.
- Food-safe disposable gloves (optional — note: your hands will smell afterward).
- A large bowl to hold the tuna loins and a smaller bowl for viscera and scraps.
- A cat to eat the scraps.
- Distilled vinegar.
- Canning salt (optional – I use 1/8 t. per jar)
- Bottled lemon juice (added to canner)
- Tuna loins (as pictured above). A fishmonger can clean, scale, and cut the fish for you. Plan on a bit less than one pound of raw tuna per half-pint jar. Keep tuna on ice as you’re preparing it for the jars.
- Disposable ice packs which will smell strongly of tuna once you are finished.
- A Two-burner or otherwise powerful, sturdy camp stove for every two canners. The turkey fryer one-burner stove units run too hot, and may damage a pressure canner. Single-burner tabletop units are not strong enough.
This is the set-up we used at a recent tuna canning party. We put up 154 half-pints of 129 pounds of tuna. You can see the range of canners — two brand new 23-quart Prestos on the camp stove to the left, and a range of sizes and brands elsewhere. The canner closest to the camera on the right is a screw-down lid All-American, a heavier and more expensive canner that does not need a lid gasket.
Adding Tuna to Jars
4. Wash your jars and rings, and screw the rings on to the jars.
5. Prepare your lids. Older lids (unused boxes from years past, for example) may need to be boiled — read the instruction on the box. New lids are generally not boiled, but again, check on the box. They are usually prepared by bringing them up to 180 degrees in a pot of water. This is less than boiling — you can see tiny bubbles form on the bottom of the pot. Once up to 180, let sit at that temperature or slightly cooler for 5-10 minutes to soften the gum on the underside of the lids. If your brand new box does not provide instructions, follow the 180-degree plan.
You’ll see that we marked the lids with our names and the date. Names are important in a big canning party!
6. I hope you have a garbage disposal and a double sink, which are ideal for this project. [Edited 2018: I’ve now done tuna without a garbage disposal, and even though I thought I was being careful, the muck blocked my drainpipe and it was a pain to clear it out. I now have smaller hole sink drain filters, but strongly recommend a disposal.] Fill your non-disposal sink with hot soapy water. Use your disposal sink to rinse tuna bits off things like knives and cutting boards and hands.
7. Remove the small dark areas, larger veins, and other viscera, which make the product taste more fishy. I remove the stringy white connective tissue as much as possible for aesthetic reasons, but it doesn’t need to be removed.
8. Fill the tuna jars, as below, to no greater than one inch from the top of the jar. You may be able to get one large piece of loin in with only a bit of excess tuna to fill the crevices, or you may use smaller pieces of tuna. It’s better to be slightly under one inch than over.
It’s important to fill all the crevices to the bottom of the jar, so pack the fish in tightly. It will meld together during cooking to create one piece. Try to keep the jars as clean as possible. Our teacher uses only one hand for handling tuna, and keeps the other hand clean for handling the jars.
9. At this point, you may decide to add about 1/8 t. of canning salt. Salt is only a flavoring agent in this particular process, not a safety issue. Consider what you’ll be using the tuna for. If sandwiches, you may want a little salt. If casseroles, you won’t need it. [Edited 2018: I always add salt. I think it infuses the meat with flavor much better than adding it afterward. I also add a tablespoon of olive oil now, which softens and moistens the meat. It’s perfectly safe and adds a bit of a European touch to the tuna.]
10. Once your jars are all filled, remove the rings, rinse them in the disposal side of the sink, and then wash them in the hot, soapy water in the other sink. Rinse them off and set aside.
11. Pour some vinegar into a small bowl, and soak a paper towel in the vinegar. Use the paper towel to carefully wipe off the jar mouth, especially the top that will have contact with the lid. You want to remove any fish bits or oil, which will inhibit proper sealing.
12. Remove your heated lids from the hot water with a magnetic wand, and place them on the clean jars. Screw on the rings finger-tight (i.e., tighten them until they are just closed but not screwed on as hard as possible).
The Canning Process
Once you’ve filled and capped your jars, you’re ready to can.
13. Prepare a sheet with the following information. Identify the canner (see the example below, Anne’s canner), then places to mark the time for Vent Start, Vent End, Pressure Start, and Pressure End. We also marked down the number of jars in the canner so we could figure out the price per jar at the end of the session.
14. Add four or five quarts of hot water (about 140 degrees — either use very hot tap water or heat the water in the canner) to each canner. This is much more than usual, because you want to adjust for the longer processing time. You might also add 1/2 cup of lemon juice to the water — this is supposed to help reduce tuna smell in the canner.
15. Place the jars in the canner in layers, separated by canning racks. If you use wide-mouth AND regular-mouth, be careful that the racks are balanced.
16. Start the pressurizing process! Refer to your canner’s user manual, or the Georgia pressure canner link under “Resources” for instructions. Be sure that you are familiar with your local altitude — you will need a heavier weight if you are higher than 1,000 feet.
If you are at 1,000 feet or lower: Vent 10 minutes, then place 10-lb. weight (or watch the dial until it reaches 11 lbs.) and wait until proper pressure is reached before timing for 100 minutes. Use your little chart to mark down the times for starting and finishing the vent, then starting the timing at pressure (which could take anywhere from 2-10 minutes).
17. These canners are at the venting stage. Once you’ve hit pressure, can the tuna for 100 minutes, again carefully marking down the time.
If you are canning outside on camp stoves, be sure to watch for gusts of wind extinguishing the flame under the stove, or the propane canister running out of fuel. If your pressure drops under the appropriate level, you’ll have to start the entire process over.
Also watch for too much pressure. The jiggle of your weight (if you’re using one) should be an even, slow hula, not a frantic headbanging rock-n-roll.
18. When the 100 minutes are up, remove from the heat and let the pressure drop naturally.
Do not pour cool water over the canner or try to rush the cool-down. The cool-down period is part of the canning time, as determined by the experts.
19. Once you have depressurized and cooled the canner as per the instructions, it is ready to be opened. See your manual or the Georgia guide for tips on opening your canner, because you are at risk for steam burns if you open it too soon or in the wrong position. Remove the tuna jars and let them cool completely. The jars will still be boiling for quite some time after you remove them, so handle carefully.
Some of the lids may not have formed a seal in the canner, and this is normal. If they haven’t formed a seal by the time they are cool, you can either refrigerate the jars, or, for longer storage, freeze the jars. There’s no need to transfer the contents into another container, as canning jars are freezer safe.
Here are two jars of finished tuna. You can see that I didn’t completely pack in the tuna on the right, resulting in a less attractive product. The juice inside the jar is from the tuna — no water was added. You can also see a slightly darker color for parts of the tuna block. This comes from different parts of the loin.
20. After the jars are cool, you will want to remove the rings for storage. Test each lid to make sure it is firmly sealed, and store any jars that have not sealed in the refrigerator for consumption within a few days.
Wash the rings and jars carefully with hot, soapy water with some vinegar added. Often, I end up throwing away the rings because I can’t get the tuna smell out of them [Edited 2018: I can’t stand the waste of that any more, so I save the rings, wash them multiple times, and air them out for months before reusing. The rings often get mottled in the tuna canner, so you can tell which ones are the tuna rings.]
21. Cutting boards should be put in the dishwasher or sterilized with a bleach solution. You might try Febreze on non-washable surfaces. Good luck.
22. Store the jars in a cool, dark place. They will keep at least until next year, maybe longer. Watch for color changes and lids that pop open. If you suspect you’ve got a spoiled jar, don’t taste the contents before discarding. See the “Canning Seafood” link under “Resources” for more information about spoilage.
23. Be sure to clean your canner well after canning tuna. See your instruction manual for the best way to do this. For longer canner storage, fill the cavity with newspapers, which also help absorb smells.
Now sit back and enjoy your home-canned tuna.