Canned pineapple is a staple for Southern cooks and bakers, which might seem curious given our abundance of fresh fruit. Turns out that our loyalty to canned, even when it’s easier than ever to find fresh pineapple in our grocery stores, is one part convenience and one part culinary chemistry, plus a big pinch of recipe tradition.
Convenient, it is. Cans of peeled, pre-cut, perpetually ripe, and ready-to-use pineapple keep well in our pantries for years, as good the day we lift off the lid as the day those rings and tidbits came to rest in their time capsule cans. When we open a can of pineapple, we don’t have to wonder whether we’ve picked a ripe one, or whether it’ll be sweet, or whether it’s gone bad. The worry free consistency is reassuring.
But there’s another reassuring thing about canned pineapple: It works predictably in our beloved family recipes. We know that a cup of crushed pineapple is always going to be a cup of crushed pineapple without no need to fret over whether we cored and chopped it correctly before adding it to our Hummingbird Cake. The golden yellow rings will always be uniform, pineapple upside-down cake after upside-down cake, so we can confidently arrange them across the bottom of our black skillet, nestling them into the sticky, buttery brown sugar, knowing that perky red maraschino cherries will always sit pretty in their identical holes. And we know that unless the recipe calls for it, we get to sip every last drop of that sweet juice, a cook’s treat for sure.
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When it comes to our congealed salads and Jell-O molds, in particular, we must use canned pineapple without exception. (Oh yes, plenty of us still make and adore them, especially around the holidays, no matter how much shade and side eye some people throw onto these sentimental, traditional creations.) Fresh pineapple contains bromelain enzymes that react with proteins, softening them and changing their texture. The enzyme action is what makes pineapple juice an effective meat tenderizer for our teriyaki flank steak and tropical chicken kabobs, but it’s also what prevents us from being able to use fresh pineapple in our sweet, fruity, jewel tone gelatin creations. The bromelain would essentially dissolves the collagen protein in the gelatin, so our festive mold wouldn’t set, no matter how long it sat in the fridge. The heat involved in the canning process inactivates the bromelain, so canned pineapple doesn’t interfere with the congealing process. The day is saved.
Fresh pineapple is delicious, but when it comes to many of our favorite family recipes, we still have plans for the cans in our hands.