I’ve never been one to claim the “I knew about X before it was cool” medal. I’ll admit, it’s mainly because I’m rarely ahead of the curve (27 going on 70 over here, folks), but I also feel that it makes anything that’s widely loved and celebrated seem lame. Sure, it’s fun to be unique, but when it comes to tinned fish, I’m grateful that my love for the little guys has gone mainstream. The more (who are enjoying their salty, briny deliciousness) the merrier, as they say.
But though the tinned fish trend has gained traction over the years, my *passion* is still often met with disgust from a strongly-opposed few who can’t get past the idea of… eating tinned fish. While we’ve been made to believe that anchovies are to be avoided and canned sardines are the Brussels sprouts of the fish world, believe me when I say that these are the little luxuries your meals have been begging for.
So, I felt strongly about giving the masses a little taste of what they’ve been missing. Below, you’ll not only discover the best tinned fish brands around, but you’ll also get an education on all things tinned fish. What they are, how to serve ’em, and what to look for when you’re shopping. Trust me: This ain’t no Chicken of the Sea.
Featured image by Michelle Nash.
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Tinned Fish 101
I know what you’re thinking—tinned fish is to fresh as canned veggies are to their farmer’s market-found cousins. And while there is a bit of overlap, the true beauty of tinned fish contains multitudes. That beauty, unsurprisingly, was brought to life thanks to France’s culinary prowess.
While skimming a brief write-up of the history of canned food (and its larger implications on world cultures), I learned that the French, searching for a way to send food safely to soldiers and sailors fighting in various parts of the world, were the first to preserve food in cans.
Their European neighbors in Spain and Portugal employ grilling and frying methods before packing the fish or seafood in cans with oil or infused sauces. Still, other populations, such as people in Alaska and northern regions of Europe in Scandinavia, smoke fish before canning. Clearly, not only are we gaining the benefit of flavor through these preparation and preserving methods, but as a result, we have culinary delights that double as a shelf-stable pantry staple.
What to Look For When Buying Tinned Fish
While there’s a lot to break down when it comes to buying any sort of processed food, the key with tinned fish is sourcing and seafood sustainability. Be sure to give your tin a thorough read-through before popping in your cart. Remember: It isn’t only the location of the processing facility, but more importantly, where the fish is being caught, and what particular species of fish you’re eating.
Thankfully, seafood sustainability is becoming a larger topic of conversation. If you want to learn more about seafood basics, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch is a great resource.
How to Enjoy Tinned Fish
It might sound odd (it certainly does to my partner and select friends), but I grew up eating smoked fish most weeks. In fact, after school, my sisters and I would top our favorite Ritz crackers with smoked oysters galore. While I might not have been able to put it into words at the time, we couldn’t get enough of the buttery cracker-meaty, oily fish combo. It was an absolute delight to my adolescent tastebuds, and little has changed since I was 12.
Nowadays, while the ubiquitous Ritz cracker still has my heart (I can’t step inside a grocery store without picking up a box), I’ve since upgraded and elevated my tinned fish snacking habits. However, when I’m wanting to share the umami flavor of tinned fish with friends, I like to serve it as an appetizer alongside my favorite crackers. I’ve found that radishes served with salt and butter (a French favorite) make an ideal accompaniment.
I also love keeping the high-low thing going and tossing together a mixture of sardines or anchovies with pungent vinegar, diced spicy peppers, and finely-chopped parsley for color and bite. Top that on your go-to potato chips, and you have a salty-spicy snack ready in seconds.
Lastly, I’ll say that my favorite elegant, picnic-style meal is tinned fish served alongside simple ingredients. A sliced baguette, a good butter or mustard, and fruity olive oil (plus a sparkling rosé or crisp white), and you have a five-minute meal that everyone will happily devour.
The Best Tinned Fish Brands To Try
The thing about tinned fish is that you’re likely to be sold on the packaging, and when it comes to José Gourmet, you’re absolutely welcome to judge a fish by its cover. I love the thoughtfully designed, quirky illustrations and get tickled by the joy of lining the boxes up in my pantry. I might go a day or two before recycling them—a true sign of my infatuation.
But of course, we have to get into the fish itself. José Gourmet offers a stunning array of clever and creative options that give a complete, comprehensive picture of tinned fish. The smoky sardines are (of course) good enough to eat on their own, but they also make the perfect accompaniment to a tomato-based pasta sauce. And trust me: the garlicky octopus will do away with all your fears. Because when it comes to José Gourmet, it’s not hyperbole to say that the experience is life-changing.
I’ve long been obsessed with Patagonia as an ethical, sustainably-produced outdoor outfitter. But now that the brand has added food—specifically tinned seafood—to its offerings, well, I’m forever sold. It’s odd to think that my fleece-driven brand loyalty would convince me to crack open a can of roasted garlic mackerel, but here we are.
The brand’s value of sustainability, of course, extends to the sourcing of its fish. Patagonia Provisions breaks down where the fish has been harvested, by what fishery, and the methods used to catch the fish. With all the information at your fingertips, you can trust you’re getting the best tinned fish available. Be sure to break these out on your next camping adventure. Wayyy better than any freeze-dried meal you’ll find.
Again, I’m a sucker for good branding. And while certain beauty and wellness products have occasionally led me astray, Pinhais’ bright and cheery cans wrap around delicious delights. Based in Portugal, Pinhais has been operating since 1920, working to ensure that the local customs and practices of fish harvesting, production, and preparation continue to be supported and celebrated. Good ingredients, quality sourcing, and longstanding traditions. What’s not to love?
Smoky or spicy—any way you season them, I’m a sardine lover for life. But when I first tried these sardines, preserved in olive oil and seasoned with cucumber, chili, carrot, salt, cloves, black pepper, and laurel, I learned to lean heavier on the spicier side of things. While I’m always on board with trying new toast trends, a few of these smashed on buttered toast is my idea of heaven.
Based in Portugal, Bela defines the paradox of fresh tinned fish. I’ll back up. Instead of freezing the fish before packaging, Bela’s sardines, mackerel, tuna, and other delights are packaged no more than eight hours after they’re caught. You’re getting fresh-from-the-sea flavor that’s infused with options like olive oil, tomato sauce, or peppery piri piri. This is the gold standard of tinned fish.
These sardines are all about the brine and careful preparations. Grilled over an open fire and canned using top-shelf olive oil and vinegar, these sardines are a true gift from the sea. According to their shop experts, “Sardines in escabeche is one of the most traditional ways to have sardines in Spain. This escabeche is more subtle than average and reminds you of a homemade product. The first time I tried these, I felt immediately transported to my grandmother’s kitchen when I was a kid.”
I’m sold. The fillets would be delicious used to top a salad—or I won’t lie, a simple sandwich. Be sure to include these on the menus of all your gatherings to come.
Growing up, my family would collectively devour bowls and bowls of fresh mussels steamed in the stockpot with tomatoes, saffron, and white wine. And though it wasn’t until years later that I discovered tinned mussels, Matiz’s fresh-caught option helps my childhood nostalgia live on. My dad has recently become known for his mussels in clam sauce pasta recipe, and he’s shared that he has these to thank for its standout flavor.
My love of tinned fish wouldn’t be possible without the help of all the incredible brands above. But I have to say: Fishwife is my all-time fave. It starts, as always, with the packaging. If something as polarizing as tinned fish is to go viral on social media, then you have to know the bright, poppy container it comes in had something to do with it. I love too, that Fishwife is a women-owned brand, working to increase representation in the male-dominated industry.
Beyond that, it’s the flavor and offerings that seal the deal. Select from premium picks like smoked rainbow trout, smoked Atlantic salmon, smoked albacore tuna, and wild-caught sardines. I’m one of the many fanatics contributing to the hype—and believe, it’s well-deserved.
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Ok. I bought a few tins of sardines and mackerel to have in my pantry when Covid lock down started. Just in case the world came to an end. Yet, I’ve been TOO SCARED to open the tins. I’m afraid they will stink up my tiny apartment. Are they stinkier than a can of tuna?