In most recent history, canned fish has been considered poor quality or strictly an “emergency” food. Why is there a stigma against these little fish here, when in Europe and Asia, they are highly prized? Canned sardines used to be considered so high-class that in the late 19th century, American luxury jeweler, Tiffany & Co., made fancy little six-pronged silver sardine forks for this very occasion. At this time, canned goods, especially meat and seafood, were in their golden age — they were a symbol of wealth. A few decades later, advanced freezing techniques largely replaced canning and the American fish canneries didn’t put forth much effort into canning carefully or delicately, resulting in cans of fish-like substance. A lot has changed since then, and we now live in a world where our tinned fish options are of much higher quality.
Why should you eat tinned fish? Nutritionally speaking, health experts recommend eating two portions of fish every week, one of which should be oil-rich such as sardines, mackerel, herring, tuna, trout, or salmon. These tasty fish are nutritional powerhouses high in protein, omega-3s, and vitamin D. The bones in canned salmon and sardines are soft, edible, and pure calcium. Boneless (and skinless) options are also available and recommended for canned fish beginners.
With so many choices, both domestic and imported, where to start? From humble to luxurious, there are tinned fish from all over the world to choose from, all varying in flavor and cost. You don’t have to splurge on a $12 can of Portuguese sardines to have a good time, but if you do you won’t be disappointed. Tinned fish imported from Spain and Portugal, known there as conservas or latillas, are often seen as the crown jewel on tapas. These treasures require hard-earned knowledge and skill reflected in the delicate flavor, eye-catching packaging, and immaculate filet arrangements. These silver stars are showing up more and more at restaurants and bars for a reason, and you can enjoy them just as easily at home.
Preserved seafood wins over fresh in a few categories, such as price, shelf-life, and convenience. Even the most expensive jar of Italian olive oil-packed tuna belly will still cost less than its fresh counterpart, plus it’s ready to eat whenever you are ready to eat it.
Also a sustainable choice, tinned fish doesn’t require refrigeration or cooking, is usually sourced from small fish with healthy populations, and comes in small portions yielding little to no food waste.
As a general rule of thumb, the price and ingredients will tell you about the quality. For canned fish, avoid the cheapest stuff, if possible.
Tuna is by far the most popular canned seafood in the U.S. and retains a solid presence in American pantries. An inexpensive source of low-fat high-protein, it also closely resembles chicken, making it a more familiar option. Canned, jarred, and pouched tuna comes dozens of ways, as do most seafood varieties. Choose oil-packed over water-packed, if you are looking for flavor and added nutrients (hello healthy fats!) Brands like Tonnino and Ortiz use high-quality olive oil that gives the tuna incredible flavor and a silky tender texture.
Water-packed tuna is best for tuna salads and when you want just straight-up tuna as an ingredient for certain recipes. If choosing water-packed tuna, look for brands that have been ethically sourced and are labeled as “pole caught.”
Whether choosing fresh or canned salmon, wild is superior to farmed. Not only is wild salmon a more environmentally sustainable choice, but it is also free of antibiotics, harmful chemical toxins, and exposure to farmed waterway pollution. Atlantic salmon is almost always farmed, so try to avoid this. Alaskan, Sockeye, or red salmon are good indications of North American wild salmon — choose this when available.
Canned salmon is not a substitute for a nice filet of seared salmon, but it does work exceptionally well in pasta, salads, sandwiches, and patties.
Canned mackerel is milder than sardines and twice the size, and more flavorful than tuna but with a similar firm texture. It also has some of the highest concentrations of heart-healthy omega-3s. If you are not ready to venture into a can of sardines quite yet, mackerel is a great entry point into the delicious world of tinned fish.
Sardines and anchovies are often mistaken for the other. Yes, they are both small fish packed head-to-toe in a can, but they are quite different. Sardines are plump, meaty, and can be eaten as they are, while anchovies are usually preserved in salt and have a more intense salty/fishy flavor best used as a seasoning element or garnish. Spanish anchovies, called boquerones, are marinated rather than salt-packed giving them a much milder flavor. They can be eaten the same way as sardines, alongside some good crusty bread.
Of all the canned fish, sardines take up most of the shelf real estate with all the different varieties available like, whole sardines, small sardines, boneless/skinless sardines, lightly smoked sardines, sardines in tomato sauce, mustard sauce, hot sauce, with chili peppers, lemon, etc. Like anything, read the ingredient list to make the best choice. For beginners, start with a simple slightly smoked, boneless/skinless sardine.
Anchovies can be found in cans, jars, or even as a paste in tubes. Opt for resealable jars or tubes so you can use only what you need.
Clams and mussels are high in protein, low in fat, ecologically sustainable, carry a low toxicity risk, and are rich in iron, potassium, and phosphorus.
Canned mussels can be found packed in brine, olive oil, smoked, or escabeche-style (a vinaigrette marinade).
Nothing compares to an ice-cold, freshly shucked oyster. Canned oysters are never going to substitute that experience or flavor, but there is a place for them. Canned oysters, not to be confused with the refrigerated jars of raw shucked oysters from the seafood counter, usually come boiled or smoked. Most commonly used in holiday specialties like oyster stew and oyster stuffing, these little morsels are a bargain at around $3 for a small can and are packed with 20–30 small oysters.
While fresh crab is one of life’s greatest pleasures, it is not always accessible. When it is, removing the meat is quite labor-intensive. Canned crab is a great alternative and a huge time saver when making something like crab cakes. The strongest, cleanest, and healthiest crab fisheries come from the Pacific northwest, so look for anything from Canada, Washington, California, and Oregon — usually of the Dungeness variety.
There is a whole world of undiscovered delicacies waiting for you to give them a try. As a healthy, affordable, convenient, sustainable, and delicious option tinned fish is finally winning the hearts and bellies of Americans.
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