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How to Repurpose Leftover Sardine and Tuna Fish Oil

The oil in tinned fish cans can have more than one use

An open can of sardines with the filets still in their oil. Photosiber/Shutterstock
Rebecca Flint Marx is the editor of Eater at Home. Her areas of expertise include home cooking and popular culture.

This post originally appeared in the March 15, 2021, edition of The Move, a place for Eater’s editors to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.

When I was growing up, the most constant fixture in our refrigerator, aside from milk, eggs, and grapes, was the Grease Can. A repurposed 28-ounce tin of crushed tomatoes, the Grease Can did what its name suggested, which was to lurk in the refrigerator’s shadows, holding the sundry drippings rendered from whatever my parents were cooking. No one did anything with the drippings: They just sat there, congealing in the Grease Can until it was full, at which point someone, usually my mother, would throw it into the outdoor trash can.

The Grease Can haunted me long into adulthood. Even though I don’t cook meat, which largely obviates drippings, I eat a lot of tinned fish, and for years I clung irrationally to the idea that the oil in the tins was a one-and-done proposition: It had one job to do, had done it, and was therefore of no further use. So into the Grease Pint Container it went (unlike my parents, I prefer a grease vessel with a lid).

This mentality finally changed with a jar of Ortíz anchovies. My general practice when cooking with anchovies is to eat one directly from the jar for each one that goes into the recipe I’m making, and in the process of doing this one night, I realized that the oil itself was incredibly flavorful — salty, yes, but in small doses not overwhelmingly so. So I mixed a little bit with the olive oil I was using to saute some garlic and haven’t looked back since.

I now use the oil from jarred anchovies and tinned mackerel, sardines, and tuna for all kinds of things, from sauteing garlic and onions to mixing with boiled potatoes, cooked rice, pasta, and homemade salad dressing. Using the oil, of course, is not a one-size-fits-all technique, as its flavor and degree of fishiness varies according to the fish it’s packed with. I wouldn’t, say, fry an egg in sardine oil or toss a potato salad with a hearty glug of anchovy oil (though I am sure there are those who would, and more power to them). And some tinned fish oil just doesn’t have a lot of flavor — although even then, it can still be useful for sauteing. As with any other ingredient, getting the most out of it comes down to balance and proportion, plenty of taste-testing, and a willingness to look beyond the obvious.

The appeal of tinned fish oil, incidentally, is not limited to humans: As my dog will tell you, a spoonful of the stuff works particularly well when mixed together with kibble. And if the oil happens to contain tiny little sardine backbones, even better. Again, to each their own. There are no rules with tinned fish oil, except one: The Grease Can is no place for liquid gold.