A guide to tinned fish

A display of tinned fish in a grocery store
When cooking more at home comes with limited access to ingredients and fewer trips to the grocery store, we turn to more shelf-stable, affordable, and convenient items. Like tinned, or canned, fish. You may have noticed the myriad varieties in the aisles of your grocery store, but maybe haven’t explored the idea of actually cooking with them. Tinned fish can feel intimidating at first, but with some guidance on what to look for, what to steer clear of, and how to best enjoy them, you’ll be well equipped to give them a try.

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.

Tinned fish on toast with herbs and capers

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 salad in a bowl with asparagus, tomatoes, and eggs

Tuna

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.”

Salmon

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.

A plate of pasta with salmon on a wooden table

Mackerel

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 & Anchovies

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, Mussels, and Oysters

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.

Crab

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.

All varieties

  • Serve with fresh crusty bread, olives, and a glass of wine or beer
  • Mix fish with fresh herbs and chili flakes and stuff in an avocado
  • Get creative with toasts, like one topped with fish, olive oil, lemon, greens, and hot sauce
  • Make a party dip with a cream cheese or creme fraiche base, lots of fresh herbs, garlic, and your choice of seafood
  • Add to chowders or stews for more variety at a more affordable price

Tuna

  • Use oil-packed tuna to make a Tuna Nicoise salad with greens, small potatoes, boiled eggs, green beans, olives, parsley, and a vinaigrette
  • Toss pasta with oil-packed tuna, capers, and fresh basil for a quick and satisfying meal
  • Prepare an all-America tuna noodle casserole or tuna melt like Mom’s, with water-packed tuna

Salmon

  • Whip up some salmon burgers or cakes with tartar sauce and coleslaw
  • Add to a pasta or grain salad with green peas, lemon, and parsley
  • Make a healthier version of salmon salad by replacing mayo with plain greek yogurt

Mackerel

  • Try it on your next avocado toast with a little lemon juice, salt and pepper
  • Use it in place of tuna on a sandwich with plenty of mustard and crisp lettuce
  • Top on a bowl of steamed rice with sesame, soy sauce, and scallions
  • Wrap it in nori with cucumber and pickled ginger for an easy at-home temaki

Sardines

  • Serve with a lemony arugula salad and your favorite crackers on the side (my go-to lunch at least once a week)
  • Make a Pasta con le Sarde, a Sicilian pasta with sardines and fennel
  • Chop sardines with sun-dried tomatoes, toasted nuts, mint, chili flakes, and lime juice to top on toasts or salad greens

Anchovies

  • Make a real Caesar salad dressing with mashed anchovies, plus whole filets for garnish
  • Spread bread with salted butter and top with anchovies and citrus zest
  • Add a little anchovy paste when you need a punch of umami to meaty braised dishes
  • Use it as a substitute for shrimp paste or fish sauce in Southeast Asian recipes
  • If you can get your hands on the meaty white Spanish boquerones, serve them as is on ripe tomato toasts with black pepper and green olives

Clams

  • Simmer a pot of chowder or other seafood stews and serve with sourdough bread
  • Make a clam dip and serve with potato chips or buttery crackers
  • Toss together a Pasta alle Vongole, linguine with clams in a white wine garlic sauce
  • Top a homemade white pizzas with clams, tons of herbs and garlic, and chili flakes

Mussels

  • Serve straight out of the can with toothpicks, a side of potato chips, and some cold beer or wine for happy hour right out of Barcelona
  • Add a can to your favorite pasta sauce (at the end of cooking) for a depth of flavor and texture you didn’t know you were missing
  • Chop and mix with sauteed mushrooms, breadcrumbs, and herbs for tasty little stuffed mushrooms

Oysters

  • Throw into a pot of gumbo just before serving
  • Fold into eggs with scallions to make a Tawainese oyster omelet
  • Puree and add to tomato sauce for umami, great in a puttanesca sauce!

Crab

  • Hand pack crab cakes and serve with tartar sauce and Old Bay
  • Deep-fry crab fritters for parties
  • Toss with melted butter and chives and put on corn soup
A variety of tinned fish arranged on a wooden table

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.

If you need a specific recipe for one of the ideas or ingredients mentioned in this article, go to www.mealhero.com to find something delicious. Have questions or comments? We’d love to hear from you, please write to us at culinary_expert@mealhero.com.

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