If you’ve read the food headlines lately (or just gone out to eat), you’ve probably come across the tinned fish trend. It’s seemingly everywhere, from restaurants like New York’s Maiden Lane and Boston’s haley.henry to Chef Ali Hooke’s popular tinned fish date night videos on TikTok. Specialty food and wine shops in major cities are now selling pricey conservas, and direct-to-consumer brands like Fishwife and Tiny Fish Co. are ensuring that consumers in every part of the country can get their tinned fish fix.
Although it may seem like the tinned fish trend has popped up recently, we’re actually already a few years into its latest revival. All the way back in 2018, Zoe Dubno wrote about the prevalence of tinned fish in restaurants in New York for Garage. By 2020, tinned fish was seriously catching on beyond the Big Apple as former restaurant-goers found themselves stuck at home. We were all looking for a fun food experience that didn’t involve risking a potentially fatal infection, and tinned fish offered just that. It felt fancy but was also portable and non-perishable—perfect for pandemic times.
But even as pandemic-era restrictions have eased and some of us are frequenting restaurants once again, tinned fish doesn’t seem to be losing its appeal. It’s now possible to find chili oil-infused mackerel, dill-seasoned sardines and tender squid conserved in its own ink even at shops and restaurants that never specialized in seafood in the past.
Admittedly, I am a tinned fish evangelist, and when my seafood-loving friends come over, I love to present them with oblong tins of salty, oily anchovies and spicy mussels instead of plying them with a subpar charcuterie board. However, I worry that in our quest for fancy fish, we’re overlooking some of the simplest, cheapest and, yes, delicious preserved seafoods out there: the budget-friendly canned tuna and salmon that we’ve forsaken for $9 tins of marinated rainbow trout. (I used “canned” here to describe the cheaper, less aesthetic pantry staple and “tinned” to denote higher-end, specialty preserved seafood, though I recognize that these two categories are not mutually exclusive.)
As grocery prices skyrocket, some of us are looking for more budget-friendly protein sources, and when you just can’t stomach paying $10 for five chicken legs, canned seafood starts looking like a more appealing option. If you’re used to buying chunk light tuna stored in water or you’re permanently scarred from your grandma’s old tuna noodle casserole recipe, a plain can of tuna or salmon might sound deeply unappealing, but hear me out: If you know what to buy and how to prepare it, plain old canned fish might become a pantry staple you actually look forward to eating.
Choose Canned Fish Packed in Oil, Not Water
If you’re looking for advice on how to eat the healthiest, least calorie-dense canned fish out there, I can’t help you. But if you want to make sure you’re getting the most flavorful and genuinely enjoyable canned fish, you should opt for tuna or salmon packed in oil. You won’t have to contend with the dryness often encountered with water-packed tuna, and the firmer texture is more reminiscent of fresh fish.
Use the Oil
Now only should you consider buying oil-packed canned fish, but you should also think about ways to utilize that oil in your cooking. This oil is packed full of healthy fats and nutrients, and it can also add a ton of flavor to salads, pasta dishes and more. Plus, you can feel good about cutting back on food waste in the kitchen.
Don’t Get Stuck in a Recipe Rut
Too many of us associate canned fish with specific recipes—recipes that we may have grown tired of. Tuna salad and tuna noodle casserole can be delicious dishes if you’re craving them, but don’t feel limited by your earliest canned fish experiences. Onigiri, puttanesca and fancy toast can all be elevated by a humble can of tuna or salmon.
Choose Sustainable Seafood When Possible
Not everyone can afford to seriously consider sustainability when shopping, but if you can, you’ll want to look into more sustainable canned fish. Canned tuna, particularly, is associated with environmental issues including overfishing and bycatch. According to Seafood Watch, you should look for terms like “pole-and-line-caught,” “FAD-free” and “free school” on canned tuna labels. These terms indicate more sustainable fishing practices.
Although I am fully pro-tinned fish, I don’t think we should write off its humbler, often more affordable canned cousin. Canned tuna and salmon should have a place in the kitchen, even if it doesn’t look quite as good on Instagram.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.