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Your Ultimate Guide to Canned Tuna and Other Tinned Fish

Plus, why you really should be eating canned salmon.

tuna and beans on gray plate

I love tinned seafood. There's a whole world of it to explore, ranging from the everyday to the artisanal. Like the best of foods, it can take you on a trip to another place, allowing you to experience new food cultures—or give you the opportunity to bring an easily packed bit of another place home with you. A deep dive into tinned seafood would be a book, not an article. For now, here is an introduction to some of the most widely available types of canned fishes.

 

Related: Our Guide to Shellfish Including Scallops, Mussels, and Clams

 

How to Choose the Right Can of Tuna

The type of tinned fish most beloved here in the United States is canned tuna. It's the third most popular fish we eat. While most consumers are now used to looking for canned tuna labeled "dolphin safe," there are a host of other issues (fishing, environmental, and labor related) attached to tuna fishing around the world. Luckily, there are some easy ways to make smart decisions when buying a can of tuna. Look for tuna that's domestically "troll/pole" caught and processed. There are several small brands on the West Coast of the U.S. (and a few bigger ones) canning tuna today. In many cases, you can buy these tins online, frequently directly from the fishermen and women! Most of this tuna is albacore, though there is also some yellowfin and bigeye available. Many small boat fishermen are able to select smaller fish for their canned tuna, so this fish has much lower levels of mercury than industrially canned tuna. At my shop we sell canned albacore from Joe and Joyce Malley, caught on their boat, the Fishing Vessel St Jude.

 

canned sockeye salmon from Drifters Fish
Photography by: Camrin Dengel

Salmon Is the Best Tinned Choice

Salmon is widely available canned, but it's far less popular than tuna. This should change! Wild Pacific salmon is a true treasure. Unlike canned tuna, the canned salmon you'll find in the grocery store is always a responsible choice, as it's caught and processed in the United States and Canada. Both of these countries have strong fishing regulations in place. You can swap canned salmon in any recipe for canned tuna, with one caveat: A lot of salmon is canned with the bones, and sometimes with skin, so you'll need to remove them if they're present. Canning salmon with its bones is highly beneficial, as it increases the calcium in the canned fish. I also find it produces a moister, tastier product, so don't let the bones scare you. Most of the big commercial fish companies make canned salmon. These products are quite economical, especially compared to fresh wild salmon, which are some of the costliest fishes on the market. 

 

Many of the smaller West Coast companies that sell tuna also sell salmon, and there are also some small boat fishermen that focus on salmon exclusively. I encourage you to seek out these smaller operations. Many of these artisanal fishermen/canneries also can smoked salmon. This is a special treat. I love the beautiful smoked sockeye from Nelly and Michael Hand of Drifter's Fish. These fellow Martha Stewart contributors fish in Alaska on board the F/V Pelican.

 

Little Fishes in Cans

We are often encouraged to eat smaller fishes like sardines and anchovies that are lower on the food chain. Like many issues involving seafood, this advice is considerably more complicated when we look at the big picture. Populations of these little guys, known as forage fish, are under extreme fishing pressure around the world. That said, these fishes are delicious and highly nutritious. When selecting them, the first thing to look for is their provenance. That is key to making responsible choices. Many tinned fishes from Europe are labeled with the U.N. FAO Fishing Area zone where they are caught. Look for sardines (also called pilchards) from the Bay of Biscay, Brittany, and Cornwall (all three are in FAO zone 27.)  I love the pilchards from The Pilchard Works. Anchovies from the Adriatic Sea (FAO 37.2.1) and the Bay of Biscay (frequently labeled Cantabrian anchovies) are good choices and are among the highest quality tinned sardines available. Closer to home, tinned herring from the Gulf of Maine are a delicious and sustainable choice.

five-fish-mld109040.jpg
Photography by: Andrew McCaul

How to Use Tinned Fishes

While choosing tinned fish can be tricky, eating them is not! I consider how a canned fish is packed when deciding how to use it. Fishes canned in water are best incorporated into dishes, as they can be dry on their own. Canned smoked fishes are lovely used instead of bacon; think riffs on pasta carbonara, for example. Fishes packed in olive oil can be used as part of a recipe as well, but they are also fantastic just as they are. One of my favorite things to do with canned fishes in oil is to open them a tiny bit and pop them in a hot oven (or campfire). Once the tin is hot, carefully open it completely. Add a squeeze of lemon and eat the fish directly from the can. Paired with toast, pickles, hard-cooked eggs—just about anything really—this makes for a simple, satisfying meal, especially when consumed al fresco. Finally, while anchovies are frequently and well used as condiments, at their best they are stars in their own right. If you have good bread, good butter and good anchovies, you have one of life's greatest pleasures at hand.