Everything You Need To Know About Tinned Fish

It's packed with protein, omega-3s, and vitamins, so follow these tips to enjoy tinned tuna, anchovies, salmon, and shellfish with abandon.

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Assorted Tinned fish in cans and packaging

Ted Cavanaugh / Prop Styling by Marina Bevilacqua

If it feels like tinned fish is everywhere right now, including restaurant menus and taking up more real estate in the supermarket, you're not wrong. And for good reason. Canned and tinned fish has so many perks. It's nutritious, often inexpensive (unless you buy a really fancy brand!), versatile, and delicious. Here experts share their favorite ways to choose and serve a variety of tinned fish.


“Anchovies can be the stars of the show,” says Chris McDade, author of The Magic of Tinned Fish. They’re great on skewers with pickled peppers and olives, a classic Spanish snack. “But they’re often better in the background—simmered with braised lamb or whisked into a dressing, for example.” The humble anchovy has long been a chef secret for sneaking umami, the “fifth taste,” into sauces, soups, and other savory dishes. You can use oil- and salt-cured anchovies interchangeably. Just be sure to rinse salt-packed fish well before cooking.


Sardines are larger and milder than anchovies but just as versatile. They’re meaty enough to stand on their own in a salad or on buttered toast with a squeeze of lemon. They also make an excellent flavor base for pasta sauces and soups, since they’re not overwhelmingly fishy. For a nibble inspired by a beloved Portuguese bar bite, batter and fry the shimmery fillets and serve them with a spicy tomato-based dipping sauce. Susan Sampson, author of Tinned Fish Pantry Cookbook, notes that smaller sardines (sometimes called sardinillas) are tastier and can be costlier, but they’re worth the splurge if you’re giving them the center-of-the-plate treatment.

Salmon & Trout

These big-finned fish, often smoked before canning for extra flavor, are low in mercury, so enjoy them with abandon. They flake up nicely to shape into patties for crispy pan-seared burgers, make for flavorful spring roll filling, and play well in smoky chowders. For these (and also, by the way, tuna), McDade suggests avoiding the kind packed in water. “Oil is a great preservative and flavor enhancer, adding an unctuousness that water can’t. Use the leftover oil to season roasted vegetables or sauté onions and garlic for pasta.” And don’t worry about bones in tins of salmon: The high heat during the canning process essentially melts them away, infusing the fish with tons of calcium. Even if you spot a few, you can eat them!


The quintessential canned fish is getting an upgrade with higher-quality ingredients and more sustainable fishing methods. McDade blends tuna into a basic tonnato sauce to drizzle over pork or roasted vegetables. Try tuna meatballs with pasta and arrabbiata sauce, or build Mediterranean nachos by topping tortilla chips with tuna, chopped tomatoes, avocado, and olives. Steer clear of less expensive flaked tuna, Sampson says, as it “can taste tinny.” Again, look for fillets in extra-virgin olive oil for the richest flavor, and opt for chunk pole- or troll-caught fish. Avoid bluefin tuna, which has been severely overfished, and go for Atlantic or Pacific albacore, bigeye, yellowfin, and skipjack; skipjack has some of the lowest mercury levels. Speaking of mercury, we like the Safe Catch brand for its stringent low-mercury thresholds.  


With so many pantry-friendly options out there, mussels, clams, and oysters are now more like shelf fish — get it?! Keep tins of meaty mussels or surf clams on hand to add instant and fancy-feeling protein to pastas, pizzas, and soups (baby clams and cockles can get lost in cooked dishes). The words “en escabeche” on a tin mean the fish is preserved in a punchy vinegar-and-oil marinade that doesn’t need much doctoring. Pop one open for a sophisticated centerpiece on an appetizer board. 

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