Little may you know, there is a delectable and nutritious seafood gem hiding in the aisles of your local grocer or specialty foods store.
Tinned and canned fish is a product of Old-World preservation methods, but it touts modern convenience, fresh flavors, and sustainability.
What IS Tinned Fish?
“Tinning is just a good way to preserve a fish at its peak point—catching fish at its best and then preserving it in such a way that takes very little energy to store and for a very long time,” says Kyle Bart, General Manager of Wixter Market, a popular gourmet seafood retailer in Chicago.
Essentially, “fish in a can,” tinned fish is a centuries-old way of preserving and eating fish in Europe (specifically Spain and Portugal where it’s a part of daily life) and throughout the world. The fish are canned in a variety of oils and spices to complement their natural flavor. In the last few years, as more tinned fish brands and varieties from Europe have become available to us here in the U.S., tinned fish have been deliciously appearing on menus and in specialty stores.
Contrary to a typical can of tuna, the tinned fish being imported from Spain and Portugal requires hard-earned knowledge and skill, which is reflected in the final product. “It is most definitely a craft,” says Bart. “The people who are doing it right learned from the people before them. They have been doing it for a long, long time.”
The Benefits of Going Tinned
Tinned, or canned, fish are nutritional powerhouses. For starters, it offers a highly portable source of protein that you can take with you on-the-go (Tim Ferriss won’t travel without a can of sardines—or sometimes a case). Oilier varieties, such as sardines and salmon, are high in omega-3s. In fact, canned salmon, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, herring, crab and clams are among the highest sources of omega-3s in the grocery store according to Seafood Nutrition Partnership. Tinned whole fish also tend to be a good source of calcium: the processing helps soften the calcium-rich bones, which makes them easy eat. (Sardines contain 43% of your daily calcium due to the edible bones.)
Tinned fish (certain species more than others) also offer a sustainable choice when eating seafood:
#1 In many cases, the method of canning makes use of smaller fish such as sardines or mackerel, which are lower on the food chain and have healthy wild populations.
#2 Tinned or canned seafood doesn’t need to be refrigerated, meaning it requires less energy to preserve the product.
#3 Because tinned fish isn’t perishable until it’s opened there is minimal food waste.
Here at Australis, we’re all about making sustainable and high-quality seafood available to everyone, which is why we’re fans of tinned fish. Our CEO, Josh Goldman, is known to eat sardines every day for lunch, and Julie Qiu, our Director of Marketing, loves them over soba noodles and scallions at home.
Why is Tinned Fish Having a Moment?
“Food has become a bigger and bigger part of popular culture,” says Bart. “The general public in the U.S., who maybe weren’t so educated about food in the past is becoming more educated about it. It’s also becoming more and more difficult to find an option for a convenient, healthy, and honest food. We’ve traded a lot in this country for convenience. Tinned fish are one of the few things that can be a nice quick meal for someone. Even at the higher end, unless you’re going crazy for the sea urchin, you can get a can of tinned fish for about the same price as a meal at McDonald’s.”
Bryan Jarr, owner of JarrBar in Seattle and soon-to-be Little Fish, a restaurant that will serve a variety of canned and tinned seafood that will also be sold in an attached market, credits tinned fish’s increasing popularity partly to accessibility: “In Spain and Portugal, because they have a longer history of using [seafood] in that way, they have more of a spectrum of types of product.” It’s only been in the last few years that food purveyors have started importing tinned fish with increasing variety from Europe.
“Just as you got more and more restaurants that had cheese and charcuterie boards, we’re now starting to see that with the seafood size,” says Jarr.
In an article in The New York Times about Conserveira de Lisboa’s, his family’s tinned fish shop in Lisbon, Tiago Cabral Ferreira says, “I’d say canned fish is almost like Portuguese fast food,” he explains. “I want it to be enjoyed frequently, not saved for some special occasion.”
How to Choose the Best Tinned Fish
Like all seafood, not all tinned or canned fish are created equal. “A lot of people’s first exposure to tinned fish is that of low and mediocre quality,” says Bart. “And for a long time in the States that was mostly what was available. It can be stinky and weird. Low-quality tinned fish lack the variety of species and flavor that are actually available. The flavors of high-quality tinned fish can be incredibly delicate and refined.”
When it comes to tinned fish price is an indicator of quality, says Jarr. When buying tinned fish, he recommends staying away from the $2- or $4-dollar tin and looking at the ingredient list. “In general, you will get a certain flavor profile for fish packed in oil rather than water, and whether they are packed in vegetable oil or olive oil. It comes down to personal preference.” (Opt for olive oil for an additional boost of heart-healthy fats. Go for fish packed in water if you’re worried about calories—although a little good fat is beneficial.)
Also, ask around: Find someone who is knowledgeable and that you trust. It could be the owner of your local specialty store or fishmonger. When it comes to seafood, going off the information provided on the package may not be enough.
Lastly, as with buying any fish, find out where the fish is from. “Sustainability is incredibly important to us and I think it should be for everyone,” says Bart. “But at the very least you should know where your food is coming from because it’s something you’re putting into your body.”
With that in mind, start with one (or all) of these highly recommended tinned fish brands:
- Matiz (Spain) – A great entry-level, everyday brand.
- La Brujula (Spain) – One step up from Matiz, Bart recommends the octopus, sea urchin (“uni”), and white tuna belly.
- Jose Gourmet (Portugal) – Try the smoked sardines, mackerel, and calamari in ragout.
- Ortiz (Spain) – Specializes in tuna, anchovies, and mackerel.
- Ramon Pena (Spain) – “It’s incredible,” says Jarr of this premium tinned fish. “When you open the can, it’s a work of art.”
- Don Bocarte (Spain) – Jarr recommends the anchovies.
As for where to buy tinned fish: You can purchase online from Wixter Market—it carries the Jose Gourmet and La Brujula brands. Also, check with your local specialty food store. And if you find yourself in the Pacific Northwest, Little Fish will open later this year and will include a restaurant and market.
Serving Tinned Fish: Keep it Simple
Both Jarr and Bart recommended keeping it simple when eating or serving tinned fish. At JarrBar, the tins are served on a wooden platter with some sea salt and ground Spanish red pepper. Customers can choose a sauce (or sauces) from a short list including salsa verde, harissa, and romesco, and either bread or crackers. I’ve done a version of this at home—it’s so satisfying and so easy.
But that is just the beginning. The thing about tinned fish is that they are incredibly versatile and are a sure way to create or round out a simple meal.
Kyle’s tips for ways to eat tinned fish:
- Eat them straight of the can. (Some varieties are better than others for this.)
- You can never go wrong with a crusty baguette and the tin of fish. Maybe add some pickles, fresh herbs or olives. And don’t forget a sprinkle of sea salt.
- Sea urchin roe is delicious but very intense. You can eat it out of the can or make a uni butter with it: just mix softened butter with the roe. Spread it on a nice piece of toasted bread, melted over grilled spring vegetables (such as ramps or radishes), over any type of fish (especially shellfish), or as a sauce for pasta.
- “The uni is my favorite, but because of the price point and richness, it’s not the tinned fish that I consume the most of. So, my absolute favorite is the squid and ink. I’ll have it over rice or a baguette, depending on what I have around.”
Bryan’s tips for ways to eat tinned fish:
- For an easy meal, take a tin of sardines or mackerel, drain it, and put the fish on half an avocado. Spring with salt, pepper, and some chile flakes.
- Make a quick pasta out of tuna, mackerel, cockles, or clams. Take your cooked noodles and oil (or brine) that was in the tin of fish and heat it up in a pan. Sprinkle with chile flakes, salt, pepper and some mint and top with the fish.
Your next step? Get a can or two of tinned fish, a baguette, and some Maldon sea salt. Grab a friend and a bottle of Spanish or Portuguese wine. Pop open the can(s) of fish and enjoy. It really is that easy, and it will be that delicious.