Not so long ago, I was watching an episode of a "Top Chef" spinoff show, "Top Chef Duels," in which canned salmon was one of the ingredients featured in a "high-end and humble" cook-off between chefs. The chef tasked with using it said the only thing she could think of to "save" the salmon was turning it into a mousse with smoked salt, so it might taste more like smoked salmon. Wolfgang Puck, the judge, sniffed the open can of fish and recoiled violently, like he'd been slapped in the face. I was disgusted, too — but not by the salmon.
Canned fish is not at all cool. but it is nutrient-dense and shelf-stable, making it a great choice for busy cooks and shoppers. It's also genuinely delicious, especially used in salads, crisp seafood cakes, pasta, and more. And it's cheap — a whole lot cheaper than a fillet of fresh or frozen fish, and that's where the snobbery comes in.
Canned fish has not yet had the kind of food media makeover that turns inexpensive ingredients into Internet superstars — I'm thinking about chicken thighs, dried beans, and kale — but that just means we canned-fish lovers are trailblazers. Five years from now, when everyone is talking about their favorite brand of smoked trout and dropping stats about omega-3 fatty acids, we will be nodding wisely and giving out our go-to recipes with canned sardines.
Need some convincing? Here are a few reasons why I've fallen in love with canned fish in the last few years.
It's good for you.
You've probably heard that we should all be eating more omega-3 fatty acids and that certain fish are the best source for them. Many types of canned fish are high in omega-3s — such as salmon, herring, lake trout, sardines, mackerel, and albacore tuna — and make it easy to get the two servings of fatty fish per week recommended by the American Heart Association.
Boneless, skinless fish is the way to go if you're feeling squeamish about seafood from a can, but when you are ready for the next level, fish packed with the bones is a great way to get more calcium in your diet. (The bones in canned fish are soft and easily crushed; I like using this type in fish cakes, as the bones disappear into the mixture.)
If you are pregnant or lactating, your protein, calcium, and omega-3's need to go up, so canned fish is an especially convenient way for women to consume more of these important nutrients. (Just stay away from fish high in methyl-mercury, including certain types of tuna.)
More on Mercury and Tuna: Should I Feel Guilty Buying Canned Tuna? Expert Advice from Seafood Watch
It makes lunches and weeknight dinners easier.
Do you have time to thaw and roast a salmon fillet for lunch? Are you always on top of your meal planning and grocery shopping? Cool, me neither. Thankfully, if I have a few types of canned fish in my pantry, I have a meal.
For lunch, mixing any type of fish with a little mayo, some herbs, and a squirt of lemon makes a tuna-salad-type mixture that you can stuff into a pita, spread on crackers, or eat on an avocado half. Fish can also be flaked or tossed whole into green salads to make them more filling. (I particularly like doing this with sardines and a very lemony vinaigrette.)
And when dinnertime rolls around, and there's nothing in the fridge, canned fish can be used in seafood cakes, pasta, frittatas, and stir-fries.
More Dinner Ideas: 7 Ways to Eat Canned Salmon for Dinner
And yes, it's cheap.
Both Trader Joe's and Whole Foods have house brand canned fish that is good-quality and inexpensive, and there are plenty of other options that are significantly cheaper than buying fresh or frozen seafood.
No, it's not as fancy as serving a glistening plate of lox or as cool as throwing whole fresh sardines on the grill, but canned fish makes incorporating seafood into your weekly meal rotation convenient, tasty, and affordable. And there's nothing shameful about that.
What are your favorite types of canned fish? How do you eat it?
(Image credits: Anjali Prasertong; Izy Hossack)