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How to open a can without a can opener

The best can opener in the world won’t help if you forgot to bring it. Here’s what to do instead.
Yes, you can open a can without a can opener — you just have to be extremely careful.
Yes, you can open a can without a can opener — you just have to be extremely careful.Tatiana Foxy / Getty Images/iStockphoto

It’s probably happened to everyone at least once — if not more. You’re camping, cooking at home or in someone else’s kitchen and dinner is planned out. You’ve picked up the necessary ingredients, including some canned goods, which are essential to your meal.

But wait, there’s no can opener. Did you forget it? Maybe there isn’t one or, if there is, it’s broken. Worse? you’ve got a can with a broken can tab and no way to get it open.

It’s a total disaster. But it doesn’t need to be. There are a surprising number of ways how to open a can without a can opener. They may not necessarily be easy, but that doesn’t mean opening a can without one is impossible.

“You could be as prepared as you want, but something always can happen. And that’s OK,” says Adam Witt, private chef and food blogger at Omnivorous Adam. “Just take a deep breath, take a step back.”

Witt says that even the most experienced chefs to run into snags along the way and that not having a can opener on-hand, no matter what the reason, is common. “I have run into this before, specifically while camping, maybe somebody someone forgets the can opener, which is never a good time.”

Fortunately, if you find yourself in an all-out can-opener jam, hope is not lost. According to Witt, a pocketknife or regular knife can help get the job done in no time.

How to open a can with a knife

Let’s start by stating the obvious: opening a can with a knife of any kind is risky business and should be done with the greatest care.

After all, it’s not the way cans are meant to be opened and no one wants to end up in the emergency room. That said, it’s always it’s best to use either an electric or manual can opener.

But, if push comes to shove and you’re in a bind, Witt outlines how to use a pocket or kitchen knife to accomplish your goal when attempting to open a standard can.

It’s a relatively simple process, he says, and suggests starting with the can in front of you. Insert the tip of a sharp knife into the crevice between the rim and the can, then give the top of the knife some solid taps with your hand to help it break through.

“You poke that knife in, give it a tap, and then you just work the knife sort of around the rim of the can and get the lid off,” said Witt.

When using this method, Witt says to be mindful about where you put your hand. “If you’re holding the can, (make sure to) not have your hand anywhere near that knife in case it were to slip off the side of the can.”

Between a pocketknife and a kitchen knife, Witt says a kitchen knife is the better choice if you’ve got one handy. “Any knife will work, but a longer kitchen knife is actually going to be easier because you’ll get a little more leverage.”

Once you've cut enough to get the lid off, be very careful of the sharp edges when you go remove it.

A pocketknife or regular knife can help you open a can in no time — as long as you're careful.
A pocketknife or regular knife can help you open a can in no time — as long as you're careful.UncleDmytro / Getty Images/iStockphoto

How to open a can with a metal spoon

While using a knife is probably the quickest and most efficient way of getting a can opened without an opener, a metal spoon will also do the trick and comes with a whole lot less risk. It does, however, require a bit of extra muscle.

To start, you’ll need a metal spoon (plastic won’t work, so don’t even think about it).

  • Set the can on a flat, solid surface.
  • Grip the can firmly with one hand and wedge the edge of a metal spoon between the lip of the can and the inner ring.
  • The spoon bowl should face the inside of the can.
  • With the spoon tip firmly wedged in the crevice of the rim, press down and move, or rub, the spoon back and forth in the same area to weaken the metal.
  • Continue until you’ve punctured the can, then move slightly over and do the same again until you’ve enlarged the hole.
  • Once you've gone around the entire can and the lid is loosened, use the spoon to help remove the lid without getting cut on the sharp edges.

How to open a can without any tools

If you’re totally stuck without any kind of utensil or sharp-edged tool to help get the lid off your can, don’t worry, you’ve still got options.

Find a flat rock, piece of concrete or something similar. Whatever you choose should have a rough surface.

  • Flip the can so the top is facing down, touching the surface of the rock.
  • Forcefully grind the top of the can, back and forth, into the rough surface.
  • Continue (checking occasionally to see your progress) until it appears that the metal of the lid is beginning to wear thin from the friction.
  • You'll know it's thin enough to pry off when moisture appears on the top. At that point, stop — you don't want whatever's in your can to dump out onto the ground, defeating the entire purpose.
  • Once the lid is thin enough to open, the tricky part is finding something else to slide under it to finish prying it off. A knife or tool works best, but if you had one, you wouldn't be using the rock in the first place.
  • Whatever you choose, make sure it's sanitary. You don't want to end up contaminating your food.