photo credit: Photo: Courtesy of Ocean Naturals
I miss traveling. You miss traveling. We all miss traveling. In the moments when the golden-hour-soaked facades of Porto, the endless tapas crawls of Barcelona, or the bicycle-lined streets of Copenhagen seem forever out of reach, popping open a perfectly preserved tin of mussels or sardines from those destinations can do just enough to momentarily scratch that itch.
You might have noticed that tinned fish is thriving on social media and not just because we all miss vacationing in foreign locales. Generally speaking, fish in a can can be totally delicious, nutritious, and quite sustainable when compared to its fresh or frozen counterparts. And it’s more than just the tuna you grew up eating: you can find anything from octopus to sardines to mussels.
Knowing what to purchase can be confusing, especially if you don’t have access to a gourmet market with a robust tinned fish (also known as conservas) selection. Fortunately, the cuisine’s portable, shelf stable nature makes the internet a valuable resource for finding some of the world’s greatest products. Not only does tinned fish make for a nutritious snack or meal, but it offers a path for storytelling. As the tinned fish culture continues to spill outside the bounds of trendy wine bars, domestic fishing communities will get the chance to share their stories through canning, from the open seas to the comfort of your home.
Read on for our guide on how to buy tinned fish and shellfish online.
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I grew up in a household where tuna fish sandwiches were a stead part of my diet. It usually consisted of the cheap, canned stuff mixed with heaps of mayonnaise and spread on fluffy white bread. While a tuna melt will never lose its place in my heart, the tuna-verse drastically expanded when I discovered that not all canned tuna is composed of cheap hockey puck-shaped hues of pink and gray.
Albacore and skipjack make up for approximately 90 percent of all canned tuna stacked on the supermarket shelves, but occasionally both yellowfin and bluefin varieties find their way into premium cans.
The health of wild tuna populations is constantly in flux due to unsustainable overfishing practices, making it all the more important to purchase it responsibly. The three main questions to keep in mind when purchasing this canned fish are:
Where was it sourced?
How was it caught?
How is it packed?
Should you want more resources, this guide will provide more details on what to look out for.
Ventresca is the belly of the tuna, where much of the fish’s fat is stored. Decadent and highly celebrated in much of Southern Europe, Ocean Naturals does their own very affordable Pacific take on the delicacy, with much tribute being paid to the original. Get it preserved in olive oil with the additional option of a much-welcomed piquillo pepper.
If you’re going to try one thing off this list, make it this tuna because it is divine. Giant bluefin is the only tuna species that forages in the Gulf of Maine and their flavor is especially rich, delicious, and versatile. That’s due to its diet of herring and mackerel in the cold waters off Rye, New Hampshire which makes it especially nutrient-rich. The brand is also extremely careful: it’s caught by rod and reel, always one tuna at a time. Use it for a Niçoise salad or even as a potato chip topper.
Looking for a tin to pop for a special occasion? Look no further. Like Ocean Naturals, this ventresca comes from the belly of tuna, but unlike the Pacific albacore product, this comes from yellowfin tuna. Enjoy it simply with some quality crusty bread and a squeeze of citrus.
Of the bunch, this might feel the most familiar, but don’t be fooled: this tuna has a unique, delicious flavor that’s warm, slightly complex, but still ideal for a tuna melt. It’s brined in extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt, garlic, and brown sugar before being smoked in small batches over alderwood. Bonus points for being hand-packed and canned by a family-run cannery on the central coast of Oregon.
So while the Notorious B.I.G reflected on his tough pre-success days of eating sardines for dinner, I don’t think these were the ones he was talking about. Unique in that they are seemingly both the most photographed and most polarizing of the tinned varieties, this fish has a huge range from cheap utility to gourmet decadence. The quality is important but you also need to consider the oils, sauces, and accouterments that come along with it.
Generally speaking, small, delicate sardines are more sought after than the big fatty ones that you’ll often find in supermarkets and bodegas. The texture is better, the flavor is better, and well, there’s more of them. These smoked Portuguese sardines take on a really nice flavor that goes great on its own, with crackers or bread—just make sure to sop up that primo olive oil.
No surprise, the French have a uniquely sophisticated tinned-sardine culture and they even sometimes age them in the tins for up to 50 years!
These aren’t your aged sardines because unlike their counterparts that are preserved in oil, these are preserved in fancy French butter. I highly recommend throwing them in a frying pan on low until the butter begins to bubble, and then topping a baguette with the fish and all of that buttery goodness.
If you’ve ever walked the streets of Lisbon or Porto, you likely came across tourist shops that feature walls lined with tinned sardines in beautiful, colorful wrappers. While they’re one of the best souvenirs out there, you don’t necessarily need to travel to Portugal to get them. This variety pack from Nuri offers some really high-quality, traditional Portuguese sardines. The best part is you get to try them preserved in olive oil, tomato sauce, spiced olive oil, and spiced tomato sauce for a little crash course in what the stores usually have to offer.
Espinaler is one of the oldest producers of tinned seafood in Spain. These baby sardines are a classic premium product in the region. Take a long lunch, crack open a tin, pour yourself a glass of sweet vermouth with an olive, and maybe wait until tomorrow to think about work again. Bonus points if you top your sardines with Espinaler’s signature hot sauce ($10.99 on Amazon) which is perfect for cutting through its fattiness.
Along Spain’s rugged Northwestern coastline, Güeyu Mar is doing things differently. The legendary seafood restaurant located in Asturias is now canning its seafood. Before it hits the tin, they throw it on the grill over a live oak wood flame. The unique result will transport you to a campfire along the Cantabrian Sea. You’ll notice that this tin is solely composed of the sardines’ midsections (the loins). If you want the tails, they come in separate tin and are equally divine.
I get it, you hated anchovies growing up. So did I, but I grew up and now I love them! Similar to sardines, these fish catch a bad rap (unless you have a Southern European grandmother) but there are plenty of reasons to love them. For one, they’re low on the food chain and generally have quite healthy wild populations. They’re also nutrient-rich, making them great for snacks or to enhance a meal. Think of them as umami-rich slivers that act like the bacon of the sea. You’ll commonly find them as salt-packed filets in olive oil.
Looking for the perfect anchovies to toss on a pizza, melt into a sauce, or to create a flavorful Caesar dressing without breaking the bank? This tin is it. If you don’t like them too salty, give it a quick rinse before using.
These anchovies are simply in a world of their own and share no resemblance to the salty anchovy filets we’re all used to. This aged French tin is prepared much like sardines and has a nice meaty texture. Grab a sleeve of crackers, some bubbly, and call it a day.
You might normally head to this sustainable outdoor company for gear but they also make health-focused, sustainable food items including jerky, soups, and of course, tinned fish. Similar to Les Mouettes d’Arvor, these anchovies are not meant for pizzas. They’re also prepared much like sardines with the added bonus of pieces of lemon and olives.
Clams, Oysters, and Other Bivalves
Most of the mussels, clams, oysters, and scallops that we eat are farmed but don’t let that freak you out. It’s potentially the most sustainable harvest we have at sea. Not only do bivalves help promote biodiversity within the waters they inhabit, but they also require zero inputs. That means no water, no fertilizers, no antibiotics, no feed. Instead they survive off algae and organic nutrients, giving them the properties to clean our oceans and waterways. Oh, and they’re also delicious.
This is about as traditional as it gets when it comes to Spanish tapas. Walk into a small tapas bar and you’ll likely see three things: olives, potato chips, and tinned mussels in vinegar (escabeche.)
In Galicia, where this product is sourced, mussels are very abundant, to the point that eating fresh mussels is a part of daily life. The tinned varieties, however, are seen as a superior product, similar to how cured meats gain value over time. A Galician family might bust these tins out on special occasions and celebrations. The best way to eat it? Keep it simple. Right out of the tin is great, perhaps with alternating potato chip bites.
Prince Edward Island has a long history of harvesting mussels and this tin pays homage to that. With a Mediterranean-Canadian fusion of a flavor profile, these mussels are coated in a warm, smokey, flavorful sauce. Slice a baguette and top it with some crème fraîche, a couple of mussels, and some of that sauce! These also are great when heated up—and bonus points if you heat them in the tin (open of course) above a campfire this summer.
Raw oysters on the half shell aren’t always practical. Smoked with maple chips, these plump and meaty oysters are enhanced with a subtle lemon pepper spice blend. Perfect for those who like a little tang.
While less commonly canned, scallops make for the perfect addition to some crusty bread or a pasta dish. These are preserved in salsa gallega, a tomato based sauce, that has a nice sweetness which really balances out any charcuterie board.
This might not be particularly common in the Western Hemisphere but razor clams are highly sought after in the Mediterranean. Generally taking on salty ocean flavors, these go great with a pinch of acid and potato chips.
Octopus and Squid
For those that frequently order octopus when available, you’ve likely experienced the tough, chewy, amateur-cooked version that no one wants. It’s tricky to cook it well and the same goes for squid too. That’s where the tinned versions come in. They’re an easy way to have fork-tender versions of this seafood, without the fuss or necessary extensive cooking technique.
Unfortunately, octopus is often unintentionally caught by many fishing boats. Wildfish Cannery recognizes this and helps their local fishers by creating markets for this extra seafood by making a delicious tinned product. These large pieces of octopus are smokey, briny, and tender. As great as they are right out of the tin with a squeeze of lemon, you can also serve it with fried potatoes, as a riff on a Mediterranean pulpo dish.
You don’t even need to like tinned fish to enjoy this. These stuffed baby squids are essentially a dish of their own. Stuffed with rice, onions, fresh tomatoes, and spices, you can eat them right out of the tin, although they’re even better after a few minutes in a frying pan.
If you’ve never experienced the gothic goodness that is squid in its own ink, well, welcome! The name really says it all, the flavor is truly otherworldly and it’ll ruin every other variation of that comes your way afterward.
What’s so unique about these tins, besides harnessing the flavors of a campfire at sea, is that there is no oil or brine—just squid ink and a bit of fish stock. To best appreciate the product, we recommend grabbing a loaf of your favorite crusty bread and something briny, like capers in vinegar or pickled onions.