Nicolas Appert, the father of canning
Food preservation from the 18th century
Nicolas Appert was an 18th century French inventor of airtight food preservation. Appert described his invention as a way “of conserving all kinds of food substances in containers.”
Originally a confectioner and chef based in Paris from 1784 to 1795, Appert began exploring how to can all sorts of foods like soups, vegetables, juices, dairy products, jams and syrups. He placed food in glass jars, sealed them with cork and sealing wax and placed them in boiling water.
The process of canning works by placing food in jars or cans (jars in Appert’s era) and heating everything to a temperature that kills microorganisms. As the jars or cans cool, a vacuum seal is formed which keeps microorganisms from getting in. Although Appert didn’t understand the logic behind why his method worked at the time, he reasoned that if it was successful for wine then it should also do the trick for foodstuffs. Appert did correctly deduce that the two most crucial factors to canning were “the absolute deprivation from contact with the exterior air” and “application of the heat in the water-bath.”
When Napoleon offered a reward of 12,000 francs for an innovative way to preserve food, Appert jumped to the scene and presented a selection of preserved fruits and vegetables at Exposition des produits de l’industrie française. He never won the prize, but four years later was given an ex gratia payment of 12,000 francs by the Bureau of Arts and Manufactures of the Ministry of the Interior on the condition that he would make his findings public.
Appert accepted the offer and published a book describing his process that same year. Appert’s treatise was entitled L’Art de conserver les substances animales et végétales (The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances). This was the first cookbook of its kind on food preservation techniques.
La Maison Appert in Massy, France became the first food bottling factory in the world, years before Louis Pasteur proved that heat killed bacteria. It was later discovered that Appert’s early trials of food preservation involved heating food to much higher temperatures than pasteurization at 70 °C (158 °F) and likely destroyed some of the flavor of preserved foods.
Fast forward to 1942, each year the Chicago Section of the Institute of Food Technologists awards the Nicolas Appert Award, recognizing lifetime achievement in food technology.