When I was a kid, my dad would sometimes take advantage of a weekend afternoon to indulge in what I considered to be the most disgusting lunch of all time: sardines on saltine crackers. I couldn’t believe he actually enjoyed downing the stinky fish bait with nothing more than a bland, unremarkable square of processed wheat to hide its intense fishiness. I would never imagine that this quintessential dad food would reach the height of popularity that it’s achieved today.
But ladies and gentlemen, it’s happened: tinned fish has finally found its way to TikTok. The influencers are having tinned fish Fridays. Smoked mussels and Spanish octopus are finally getting the love they deserve. If you’ve taken notice of the tinned fish trend reaching a fever pitch on social media, you’re not alone. But in reality, the tinned fish revival has been happening for a while. Here in Boston, tinned fish hotspot haley.henry opened all the way back in 2016, but the trend really seemed to explode in food-people circles in the midst of the pandemic. We were all stuck inside, largely barred from our favorite restaurants, and popping open some tinned fish felt fun and fancy and low-effort enough to fit into the predominant pandemic routine.
Now, as we face the rising cost of essentially everything and it’s getting even more expensive going out to eat, tinned fish is functioning as a slightly more affordable treat—and one that requires little to no cooking skills, at that.
If you’re new to the whole tinned fish zeitgeist, you may be wondering what you should even do with the oily, deliciously stinky things anyway. As a seasoned tinned fish acolyte, I’m here to tell you how I use various types of tinned fish in my own kitchen. Keep things simple and eat them with some crackers, or get creative and add a salty, umami note to your already tried-and-true recipes. Here are some ways to enjoy tinned fish at home.
The magic of tinned fish is that it’s already cooked and doesn’t even need to be heated up. You can pop open a can at any point in the day and have a delicious protein source ready to go instantly. If you’re looking for a quick snack or meal that feels unexpectedly fancy, just open a tin or two of the seafood of your choice, grab some crackers and slice some onions. Add a lemon wedge for more bright acidity. It’s as simple as it sounds: Stack the fish on a cracker, add some crunch from the onion and squirt a bit of lemon on top. Eat. Repeat. This has become a standard no-cook meal in my house almost every week.
This next idea is just a remix of the first. Fish carb veggie = easy, reliably delicious meal. Spread some butter, mayonnaise or mustard on a slice of toasted bread, carefully lay some tinned fish on top and finish it off with microgreens or any other veggie of your choosing. Opt for a fishy toast situation or add more bread for a fish sandwich. Apart from quickly toasting your bread, there’s no cooking required, and you’re left with all of that wonderful fishy oil soaking into the bread.
During some of my busiest weeks, the thought of writing down a grocery list and actually going to the store to pick up what I need seems like an insurmountable task. It’s at times like these when I rediscover the beauty of the pantry pasta. I always have pasta on hand, so it’s just a matter of combining the random ingredients I have around until I come up with a flavor combination that actually tastes good. For these recipes, I know I can never go wrong with tinned fish. Anchovies are perfect for melting and adding a rich, salty flavor to whatever fat I’m cooking my pasta in, and mussels and octopus add a lovely chewy texture and an easy serving of protein into a dish. Add it while you’re combining your pasta and sauce so it gets some heat on it, then enjoy the simplest seafood pasta you’ve ever made.
If you’re lucky, you’ll live near a store that stocks tinned fish. They’re pretty easy to find in any major city; just look for a spot that sells gourmet food products like homemade pasta or artisanal bread, and you’re likely to find several options to choose from. However, not everyone has the luxury of living near stores that carry tinned fish. If you fall into this latter category, it’s time to take to the internet. Companies like Fishwife, Patagonia Provisions and Tiny Fish Co. sell direct to consumer and offer a wide variety of tinned fish, so it’s easy to find what you’re looking for.
Don’t know where to start on your tinned fish journey? Start with a basic canned salmon or tuna, which is essentially just a premium version of that water-packed StarKist your mom always made tuna salad with when you were growing up. Work your way to roasted mackerel, smoked clams and bone-in sardines when you’re ready to branch out. (Yes, the bone-in kind really is better.)
This year has seen some bizarre food trends (we all remember the Pink Sauce fever dream, right?), so something as simple and elegant as tinned fish is a nice reminder that food trends don’t have to be gimmicky to get their due. And to my dad, who I mercilessly mocked for years for eating those stinky little fish, you were right all along.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.