We love tuna, but also canned salmon and sardines, saucy mussels, and squid in ink.

By Regan Stephens
May 28, 2020
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When Greg Vernick was planning to open Vernick Fish in Philadelphia last August, he knew tinned fish would make an appearance on the menu. The James Beard Award-winning chef had been a fan since a 2009 trip to Barcelona, where he dined at chef Albert Adría’s now-shuttered tapas bar, Inopia, and found an entire section of the menu dedicated to canned seafood. “My mind was blown,” he said. “It changed my appreciation for the food—it was so simple and restrained.”

Nowadays, his restaurant serves Ramón Peña sardines and sourdough, a deceptively delicious and easy-to-replicate dish: grilled-to-order bread spread with a compound butter (made with garlic, tomato, chili, lemon zest, and salt) and lined with the plump, tender fish. The finishing touch is a splash of lemon juice, zest, and a little sea salt.

Credit: Ted Nghiem

“Unfortunately, when they think of tinned fish, a lot of people think of the tuna fish sandwich of childhood,” said the chef. “And don’t get me wrong, canned tuna and mayo makes a meal for a lot of families, and if you like it, it’s hard to screw it up. But it's become the perception of what tinned fish is, and I think we under appreciate it a little more than other regions of the world.” Besides using canned fish to throw together a simple toast, Vernick suggests it as a base for vinaigrettes, pasta sauces and marinades.

While tuna might be the most popular tinned fish variety, in the past two months, the pandemic has prompted new shopping patterns and sales of many types of canned seafood are booming in the US. (Philly-based grocery co-op chain Weaver’s Way reports a 40% jump from February to March.) If you haven’t explored the world of canned fish yet, now is the time to get on board. Beyond tuna, options abound, from macker filets to razor clams, mussels in spiced sauce, and octopus in olive oil. They’re sustainable, long-lasting, and add a punch of umami flavor to so many dishes.

Below, 15 chefs share their favorite ways to use canned fish.

Mix into shaved fennel salad

“I have some tinned octopus in the cabinet. I think that could make a really nice addition to a shaved fennel salad. Toss together with extra virgin olive oil, shaved fennel, maybe some Calabrian chili, and finish with Maldon and fennel pollen. Or you can use things like marinated mackerel and make, almost like a bagna cauda, served with sourdough and spring vegetables.” — Julia Sullivan, chef and partner of Henrietta Red in Nashville

Put on buttered sourdough

"Canned fish is incredibly underrated and underestimated. One of my favorite things to eat on God's great earth is Ortiz anchovies on heavily buttered, toasted Sourdough. Add some crisp watercress, parsley and a few pickled onion slices and you’re good to go. Perfect for a quick snack in between meals, or really any time of day. Trust me on this one." Paul Donnelly, executive chef of Chinese Tuxedo in New York City

Make quick breakfasts

“Growing up in Nigeria as a kid I loved canned sardines! You can cook them with tomato paste, garlic, and onions for a quick and easy breakfast. I also stock at least a couple flavors of marinated anchovies in the fridge at all times.” — Kwame Onwuachi, Food & Wine Best New Chef and executive chef Kith/Kin at InterContinental - the Wharf in Washington, DC

Whip up a different kind of tuna salad

“I have fallen in love with the high quality tuna and sardines from Bom Petisco in Spain. We sell them in Centrolina’s market. Extremely high quality. I’ve been using the tuna in a very simple and delicious way:  chunks of tuna, avocado, hot pepper, lemon, drizzle of olive oil, and sea salt. Add toasted bread or saltines in the way of panzanella or add farm lettuces. I’ve fallen back in love with the classic bucatini con le sarde: garlic, anchovy, hot pepper, golden raisins, fennel fronds, lemon, and toasted bread crumbs. The canned sardines make a nice substitute for fresh if not available!” — Amy Brandwein chef and owner of Centrolina and Piccolina in Washington, DC

Make a tartine sandwich

“A tartine sandwich with tinned razor clams, mayo mixed with hot sauce, lemon, fresh herbs and sea salt—I made this for lunch today.” — Erik Anderson, Food & Wine Best New Chef, and executive chef of Truss in Calistoga, California.

Go the charcuterie route

"At Wolf's Tailor we use canned seafood (smoked mackerel, sardines, etc.) in everything from pasta sauce, salads, and as a quick charcuterie or garnish. Smoked sardine rillettes, are something we have on the menu right now and they are super simple to make at home. With smoked fish all you have to do is introduce a fresh citrus and garnish with good mustard and herbs. In 30 seconds you have an amazing charcuterie dish. I also love to use sardines in my Caesar salad instead of anchovies. It is more versatile because sardines have a more subtle flavor profile than anchovies." — Kelly Whitaker, chef and owner of The Wolf's Tailor in Denver

Credit: Tiffany Lopinski Boston Foodies

Make easy crostinis

I've always had a soft spot for canned tuna. My favorite actually isn't even in a can! I love the Starkist pouches best, and always have them in my pantry. I like to make a crostini using tuna from the pouch and dressing it up a little bit with lemon aioli, fried capers, and a little bit of lemon zest. This appetizer is in heavy rotation whenever I host a dinner party.” — Barbara Lynch, chef and owner of The Barbara Lynch Collective in Boston

Grill a salmon burger

“Canned wild Alaska salmon. Mix with some eggs, herbs, and bread crumb for a great salmon burger to grill or mix with canned oyster mushroom, canned carrot, canned greens like spinach or collard green, canned coconut milk, and curry paste for a totally canned lunch that is actually very healthy for you!” — Mandy Dixon, executive chef of Within the Wild adventure lodges in Southcentral Alaska

Make pizza

"At the restaurant we might take a round of pizza dough and bake it in our wood-burning oven. The outside becomes blistered and you tear it up into pieces that not only become the vehicle for the fish, but also a method to get to the good stuff—the oil." —Reid Shilling, executive chef and owner of Shilling Canning Company

Spread on bread

“I grew up in Bergen, a city on the west coast of Norway where there was an infamous tinned fish cannery, mostly used for packing herring. It's now an arts center! When it comes to canned fish, the one I love the most is mackerel and tomato purée from Stabburet, which I eat at home on a simple Kneipp bread. Though I can usually find it here in the States, I have my father bring cans to me from Norway because it makes him happy to do so.” — Henning Nordanger, chef and owner of Henning's Local in Cochecton, New York

Garnish with basil 

"Spanish canned seafood conservas are amazing! They are like opening up sunken treasures of umami. I like to use them to make an assortment of tartines in the summer while grilling. Roasted red pepper marmalade with Chipiron (squid in oil), or sun-dried tomatoes and black olives with zamburiñas Guisadas (scallops in sauce) topped with torn basil are magical.” — Trevor Teich, chef and owner of Claudia in Chicago 

Make tuna sauce

“We like to use the Genova brand tuna in olive oil to create a tuna sauce. (Think classic marinara sauce with tuna—it's one of our family's traditions at Christmas, but we like it anytime of the year). We also recently discovered Bom Petisco brand from Portugal, which has a range of canned tunas that we like to use for a classic tuna sandwich with a kick, or a cold tuna pasta salad as a side dish. — Marla Puccetti and Paul Nanni, owners of The Heron in Narrowsburg, New York

Pair with homemade garlic toasts

"Spanish sardines on top of toasted bread that was lightly rubbed with garlic and topped with fresh extra-virgin olive oil and parsley. Delicious." — Cedric Vongerichten, chef and owner of Wayan in New York City

Use to finish dishes 

“Brown anchovies cured in salt and oil are a great way to elevate a dish. By themselves, they can be chopped finely and added as a finishing seasoning to flatbreads, salads, or sandwiches. They can also be added to a dish like pasta, soups, or braises at the beginning of cooking. This application provides a tremendous depth of flavor and rounded seasoning to the dish as it cooks in with the other ingredients. One item I always enjoyed as a kid (and still occasionally indulge in) is canned smoked oysters on toasted seeded rye bread with sweet butter or cream cheese topped with chives or thinly shaved red onion.  Seasoned with some fresh ground black pepper it makes for a great simple snack.” — Jacob Jasinski, executive chef of Cara at The Chanler at Cliff Walk in Newport

Upgrade your avocado toast

“I really like the brininess of canned sardines. They have a salty, fermented flavor to them that can be used in a variety of ways. They’re a great alternative protein option for avocado toast—served on sourdough with guacamole and topped with an over-easy egg with heirloom tomato slices and a drizzle of oil.” — Cardel Reid, chef of The Signature Room in Chicago