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A Starter Guide to Buying, Eating, and Cooking With Tinned Fish

Tinned, canned, jarred, preserved: these sea creatures are a pantry must-have

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A shelf of tinned fish in Lisbon.
A shelf of tinned fish at a shop in Lisbon.
Meghan McCarron

In spite of what you may have learned from your parents or grandparents, canned seafood is a lot more than just a practical and economical way to shop for a big family. And in spite of what you may have heard from restaurant critics like the New York Times’s Pete Wells, it’s not just an inferior, more convenient version of the fresh stuff. It may have taken my generation a few trips to Lisbon and Barcelona and Tokyo to realize it, but canned fish (or “conservas,” or “tinned fish,” depending on who you ask) is a whole category of its own, full of carefully crafted specialties with the potential to reinvigorate your home cooking — and snacking.

The canned fish aisle at the grocery store can be a bit overwhelming (and let’s face it, all aspects of the grocery store are a bit overwhelming right now), but armed with a bit of fishy know-how, you’ll walk out of there in no time with the makings of toasty sandwiches, nourishing rice bowls, and unbelievably easy tapas spreads.

Tuna

The little disc-shaped tins of water-packed tuna might bring back some pretty visceral elementary school lunchroom memories, but it’s time to give it another shot. Mix it with mayo, lots of salt and pepper, finely chopped celery and scallion, and a smattering of fresh herbs (whatever you have on your windowsill or on the verge of wilting in the crisper), for a salad that you can eat tucked into toasted baguettes or turned into a quick tuna melt under the broiler.

If you’re not mixing it with a fatty dressing (like mayo), buy the stuff that comes packed in olive oil. This can be added to a salad straight out of the can (or sometimes jar). The most classic way to use oil-packed tuna is in a French-inspired salad Nicoise, but you can create a pretty beautiful composed salad from whatever you have around, even if that just means a handful of tiny steamed potatoes, a couple 8-minute eggs cut into quarters, a drizzle of sherry vinaigrette, and a handful of parsley.

What to look for:

  • For those conscientious tuna sandwiches, look for a sustainable brand like Wild Planet at your grocery store.
  • For an olive oil-packed option, both Ortiz and Tonnino deliver a lot of flavor, with a silky richness from the high-quality olive oil.

Sardines

Sardines are great straight from the can, and they only get better with age, so consider building a little bit of a collection. You can turn almost any can of sardines, whether it’s packed in tomato sauce, with pickled peppers, or with bits of lemon peel, into a perfect backyard (or living room) picnic with a few slices of buttered bread or a stack of saltines. If you’re feeling really fancy, add a few lemon wedges, a bit of quick-pickled fennel, or a little bowl of onion jam to this snack spread.

If you want to feel more like you’re eating an actual meal, consider tossing some more neutral oil-packed sardines with soy sauce, and eating them on top of a bowl of fluffy, steamed white rice, with a sprinkle of scallions and black sesame seeds. You can even bust out some seaweed snacks, and make the rice and fish mixture into some little nori wraps. Sardines packed with tomato sauce or spicy peppers are great thrown in a hot pan with some garlic and shallots, with eggs cooked into the mixture shakshuka-style and a handful of parsley sprinkled over the top. And if you’re still feeling on the fence about these tiny fish (or if you’re trying to convince someone in your household to give them a shot), a classic pasta con le sarde rounds out the fish’s flavor with plenty of sweetness from onion, fennel, and wine-plumped raisins.

What to look for:

  • To snack on, Matiz has great Spanish sardines that come beautifully intact in the can, tails and all.
  • If you want to try your hand at aging sardines, try a French brand like Rodel or Connetable, and stick with the sardines that are packed in olive oil.
  • For an option that won’t cost a fortune and that’s easier to grab at your local grocery store, try Roland sardines for cooking or incorporating into pastas.

Shellfish

In Spain, it’s not uncommon to snack on some mussels or clams straight from the can with a little pile of potato chips alongside a glass of beer or wine. Angelica Intriago, a co-owner of Despaña in Manhattan and Queens, says that as Despaña has pivoted to home delivery, they’ve been selling a lot of ready-to-eat mussels en escabeche (pickled mussels), in addition to all of the usual sardines and tuna. Intriago tells me that for shellfish that’s canned in brine, like cockles or razor clams, she likes to drain the liquid from the can (sometimes preserving to add to fish stocks), and drizzle with a little bit of olive oil before serving. If your grocery store offerings lean a little more American, and you find yourself with a classic old can of chopped clams in clam juice, try mixing them in with the garlic butter for a batch of garlic bread.

What to look for:

Anchovies

Unlike sardines and tuna, anchovies should be treated more as a seasoning element than as the protein of a meal. While there are plenty of specialty anchovies out there (like Spanish boquerones) that are designed for snacking, as Intriago explains, “An anchovy that is in a grocery and is shelf-stable is going to have a high content of salt. It’s the only way it can be preserved.” Keep the canned variety around for mashing into vinaigrettes for at-home Caesar salads, sauteeing into garlicky oil to begin tomato sauces, or for punching up the umami in a meaty braise.

What to look for:

  • For cooking, you can’t go wrong with a can of Cento or Roland.
  • While they’re not technically canned, Ortiz anchovies are great, and you can scoop them out of the jar one by one as you use them (with the added bonus of the tiny keepsake anchovy fork).

Anna Hezel is senior editor at TASTE and the author of Lasagna. She has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, and more, and you can find her on Twitter at @hezelanna.

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