Best Tinned Seafood
We tasted a lot of tinned fish and seafood, including Fishwife anchovies, Matiz sardines, and Ramón Peña, to find the perfect snack
By Angela Lashbrook
If you enjoy an occasional tuna salad or salad niçoise, you’re already halfway to being a tinned fish aficionado.
“There is a particularly modern-day American notion that tinned seafood is somehow different from other canned products and other seafood products,” says Dan Waber, owner of Rainbow Tomatoes Garden in East Greenville, Pa. “There are many people who, if asked, ‘Have you ever tried tinned seafood?’ will answer, ‘no, never,’ but will in the course of further conversation indicate they have, ’of course’ eaten canned tuna.”
As delicious as canned tuna is, there is a problem: It often has mercury, a neurotoxin that is harmful to children, adults, and, in particular, pregnant people. Big fish like tuna typically contain more mercury, because they live longer and are higher up in the food chain. Smaller fish, like sardines, anchovies, and salmon, contain much of the healthy deliciousness of tuna with less harmful mercury.
If you’re looking to diversify your seafood consumption, there are lots of other options at various prices. We tried 12 tinned seafoods—three each of smoked salmon, sardines in olive oil, anchovies, and mussels in escabeche—to find the best. While we kept it pretty basic in terms of what we tried, don’t be afraid to mix it up if you end up falling in love with these little fishes in tins. Octopus, oysters, herring, sardines in lemon-flavored oil or tomato sauce, mackerel, and trout are a few fun and varied types of seafood you can have a great time experimenting with.
What is perfection? What is bliss? Turns out, it’s a Fishwife Cantabrian Anchovy. These little guys pack a punch: they’re rich, salty, and deliver a roundhouse kick of umami. Hardcore anchovy lovers will appreciate these right out of the tin; everyone else should enjoy them on a piece of toast, with some butter or olive oil and a spritz of lemon. “I found the flavor to be mild and not overly salty as anchovies tend to be,” says Anna Kocharian, a CR shopping editor and evaluator. “Texturally, these were soft and buttery. A+ from me!”
“The Fishwife fillets were firm, with good flavor and no weird aftertaste. The oil is clear and neutral,” says Perry Santanachote, a writer and evaluator at CR. “I liked them on thin slices of baguette with dabs of butter and marmalade to contrast the saltiness of the fish.”
My husband and I polished off a tin of these anchovies, eating one right after another like they were potato chips. Thankfully, my local coffee shop has a great selection of tinned fish; I’ll be loading up on a few more tins of these ASAP.
None of us disliked any of these sardines, but the Jose Gourmet march at the front of an impressive lineup. “I was genuinely sad to finish this tin,” Anna says. “I would enjoy this with a glass of vermouth on ice and a side of olives, a snack I ate in Spain and loved. I’d also happily serve this at a dinner party.” Indeed, these are beautiful sardines, intact and silvery, and appear almost like a painting of sardines. They’re meaty and earthy but delicate in flavor, with a firm texture. I’d serve them to guests in the tin, with guests fishing out their own sardines with a canapé fork, rather than arranging them on a plate beside other hor d’oeuvres. Bonus: The delicious leftover oil is perfect for dipping crusts of bread.
This tin is a real people-pleaser. If you have folks in your life who aren’t convinced that tinned seafood is for them, serve them the Wildfish Cannery Smoked White King Salmon, and I guarantee you’ll have a convert on your hands.
“This was pretty amazing,” says Diane Umansky, an evaluator and a deputy editor of Consumer Reports magazine. “A deep smokey flavor and pleasing meaty texture.” Her son, Kyle, is even more enthusiastic. “This felt freshest to me and had a crisper flavor than the others,” he says. “This one’s definitely the tastiest. I’d even go so far as to say this is the one you want to eat. Could put on a bagel and get a lox feeling, but better.”
Not convinced? Perhaps Perry’s praise will be enough to get you to click “purchase.” “I’d eat this salmon in an omelet, on pizza, in a sandwich, as salmon cakes, in a casserole . . . the list goes on. If eating it didn’t require a can opener, I’d keep a can on me in case of emergency hangry-Perry scenarios,” she says.
Yes, this tin doesn’t have a tab for opening. It’s not super convenient—but it’s worth digging the can opener out of your random kitchen stuff drawer for this.
Tinned mussels are an acquired taste. But these are pleasing and complex, for those who have acquired the necessary palate for them. I found them to be deeply smokey and rich, and they have a pillowy, silky texture. They’d be beautiful on potato chips, and the lightly spiced sauce in which they’re pickled tastes spectacular on white rice.
But they’re not for everyone. “This is definitely not something I would eat casually or often,” Kyle says. “But with crackers, it wasn’t bad.”
Anna had a similar reaction. “I found this option’s flavor to be milder than the other two and a bit more palatable. It has hints of smokiness,” she says. “That said, I did not love the aftertaste and had to scarf down quite a bit of bread to mask it.”
These anchovies are elegant and refined in flavor, with a softer taste than the Fishwife. They’re an excellent starter anchovy, as they’re less salty and intense than many anchovies. The meat is firm, and the skin is flawless—no crumbling and flaking here. “The oil had a mild but pleasing taste and we’d happily dip some crusty bread in it,” Diane says. “Fish were perfectly intact. These were our favorite, but only by a hair.”
Keep in mind, these lovely anchovies require refrigeration. Upon first opening them, several evaluators were shocked to see a coagulated “goo” coating the fillets. That goo is just cold oil, but still, these fish would look more inviting after about a half hour to an hour. Avoid our mistake, and don’t serve these right out of the fridge.
This smoked salmon is mild and versatile, and is a great option for using in your favorite canned tuna recipes if you’re trying to avoid mercury. It’s also delicious enough to eat on its own, and if you prefer a strong salmon flavor in your recipes, you’ll probably prefer it this way; its flavor is softer and less smoky than the Wildfish.
“These looked gorgeous upon opening the can, a couple of rich, brightly colored little steaks packed together,” says Justin Brookman, an evaluator and the director of technology policy at Consumer Reports. “Well-balanced smoke, noticeable and tasty, but not overwhelming. Excellent rich flavor, excellent flaky (big rich flakes!) texture.” Justin preferred this fish straight out of the tin, though he did also enjoy the significant leftovers that remained in the can on a sandwich.
“Texture-wise, it wasn’t too different from really well-made salmon, either roasted, steamed, or fried,” Anna says. “Aside from tasting this by itself (which was delicious and I had to stop myself from devouring the whole tin in one sitting), I also paired it with a side of jammy eggs and salted crackers. The combination was perfection, and it made for a wholesome, protein-packed breakfast.”
You’re not really going to want to eat these right out of the tin. They’re dark and dank, and they stick together, making them difficult to separate and place on a piece of toast or a saltine. But they’re rich, salty, and clean-tasting, and thus would taste perfect in a Caesar salad dressing or a pasta sauce. My husband and I, who are intense anchovy fans, didn’t finish this tin while we sampled them alongside the others. But neither of us disliked them, and we would have happily whipped them into one of our favorite pasta recipes if we’d had access to a working kitchen (long story).
Although the Jose Gourmet sardines came out on top, it was a narrow race. Diane considered these plump sardines as her favorite. “They had a meaty, earthy, but mild, flavor and the texture was pleasing,” she says. “Good on their own, with a cracker, and over arugula with a couple of squeezes of lemon.”
Justin adored them as well. “Platonic ideal of canned sardines,” he says. “Perfect level of saltiness, excellent texture. Really enjoyed on toast with lemon—that might be the best way to eat them. Or straight out of the can.”
These make a great sardine for beginners because of their tender, mellow flavor. Consider keeping these budget-friendly little guys on hand for an elegant salad or last-minute pasta.
Other Seafood We Tried
If You Love Your Fish Mushy
Trader Joe's Lightly Smoked Salmon
Trader Joe's salmon: There's not much to see.
Photo: Alisa O'Connor/Consumer Reports
It’s pale and limpid in the tin, and falls apart as soon as you attempt to wrest out a piece with a fork. My husband, after taking a bite, made a face: Did he have to eat another? (It’s hard being a Consumer Reports spouse.) “It was very mild, such that I’m not even sure I would have identified it as salmon in some cases. Slightly grainy and dry texture at times,” Justin says. “This is salmon for people who don’t like salmon!” He says it would work well in a salmon salad, punched up with some cornichons and mayo; I heartily agree. Consider serving this to your kids, perhaps.
Mussels We Wouldn't Purchase Again
Island Creek x Mariscadora Mussels in Pickled Sauce and Ati Manel Mexilhões em Escabeche (Ati Manel Mussels In Pickled Sauce)
We hoped for better.
Photo: Island Creek, Ati Manel
Look, I’d eat these, were I served them. I liked the Ati Manel mussels well enough; they were enjoyable on rice, with a milder fish flavor and a brighter escabeche (pickled sauce) than the Ramón Peña mussels. But I’m the only one who feels this way about the Ati Manel, and nobody was thrilled about the Island Creek x Mariscadora Mussels.
“The texture of an Ati Manel tin mussel is extremely mushy—it melts in your mouth upon the first bite, but not necessarily in any pleasant manner,” Anna says. Perry says that they’re “mealy” but that the escabeche itself is vinegary yet balanced.
Regarding the Island Creek x Mariscadora Mussels, Kyle says, “No, just no.” Perry, Anna, and I noted an odd, briney, and unpleasant aftertaste with these.
The Forgettable Fish
Nuri Sardines in Olive Oil
The Nuri sardines are fine. Just fine.
Photo: Perry Santanachote/Consumer Reports
These are acceptable. Nobody will hate these. Not many will love them. They’re on the dry side, and if I hadn’t written down notes as I tasted them, I never would have remembered what I thought. Turns out, I wrote, “Bland, dry, mushy—better on a saltine. Would serve it on a salad.” By which I meant, not a beautiful, light, leafy green salad—these are much too mild for that—but rather a tuna salad, with sardines instead of tuna.
“The flavor is dull, bordering on bland,” Anna says. “The fish were wrinkled in the can, and the skin was falling off the fish. It looked as if the sardines had absorbed much of the oil in the can, and that made me hesitant about the quality of the product and how it was preserved.”
Still, the tin wasn’t a total dud. Justin called the sardines “fine,” and Perry enjoyed them, saying she’d like to eat them with lemon juice or vinegary hot sauce.
How We Evaluated These Tins of Seafood
First, we kept it simple: We tried each tinned fish straight from the can. We then placed each type of fish on a saltine—yes, a regular old saltine, highly recommend—to judge how the fish tasted with a simple carb. We evaluated each tin according to the following criteria.
- Is this fish good enough to eat on its own?
- Is this fish flavorful, or bland?
- How is the texture? Is it unpleasantly mushy?
- Consider the oil or sauce in which the fish are packed. Is it flavorful, rich, and meaty? Or unpleasantly fishy and murky?
- Consider the structure of the fish. Is it intact in the tin, or falling apart?
Superlative fish were additionally enjoyed in other formats. Bernard Lin, an evaluator and senior software engineer at Consumer Reports, enjoyed his on rice, sprinkled with chives. I tossed some leftover sardines in a modified version of this pasta recipe. Anchovies ended up on a tomato and mozzarella sandwich (add basil, mint, olive oil, and flaky salt).
A Mini History of Tinned Seafood
Humans have been preserving food—salting it, drying it, pickling it—for time immemorial: In the Middle East, for example, evidence shows that people have been drying food in the hot sun since 12000 B.C. Canning, however, is a more relatively modern invention. In 1795, Napoleon Bonaparte promised 12,000 francs to whoever could devise a method of food preservation sufficient for cheaply and easily feeding French troops. A French confectioner named Nicolas Appert took 14 years to eventually invent canning, although at the time, he used reinforced glass jars. His method, which more or less is still in use today, involved boiling glass jars filled with food such as fruit, dairy products, and soup. Though Appert knew that his food didn’t spoil when he boiled the jars, he didn’t know why, and it wouldn’t be until Louis Pasteur invented pasteurization that it would be broadly understood why heating and sealing food protects it from spoilage.
Cans weren’t invented until about 1810, though it would be thirty more years until can openers arrived on the scene, forcing soldiers to bang their cans on rocks or stab them with bayonets to get the food out.
The first canned sardines were produced at a cannery in Nantes, France, by 1822, where 30 men manufactured cans that 300 women would fill with food, such as sardines, that they had first extensively prepped. By the middle of the 19th century, French sardines would explode in popularity, buoyed by a constellation of events that included the 1851 Universal Exhibition in London, the California and Australia Gold Rushes around that same decade, and the building of a railroad between Nantes and Paris. Gold miners in California would take a particular liking to tinned food, like the nutrient- and calorie-dense tinned fish, which would eventually translate into a prominent California industry—canning.
By the late 19th century, the sardine fishing industry would gradually shift to Spain and Portugal, where yields were extravagant and consistent. And although you can get tinned fish from just about anywhere in the world today, much of the best tinned seafood on the market hails from Spain and Portugal. Of the 12 tins of seafood we evaluated for this article, seven are from Spain and two from Portugal; the others are a mix of tins from Chile, Alaska, and Norway.
Is Tinned Seafood Good for You?
Is it ever! Tinned seafood is rich in nutrients. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that adults eat at least two servings, or a total of 8 ounces, of seafood a week. And while most Americans are meeting or exceeding the recommended amounts of eggs, poultry, and meat, almost 90 percent aren’t eating enough seafood.
That’s a shame, because seafood is incredibly nutrient-dense. Fish and shellfish are rich in protein and various vitamins and minerals, and they’re low in saturated fat. Sardines in particular are nutrient-heavy hitters. They’re brimming with vitamin D, which many Americans don’t get enough of. They’re also one of the richest sources of omega-3s that you can find: Three ounces of sardines provides between 1 and 2 grams of omega-3s, which could on its own knock out your daily requirement for these fatty acids (women need 1.1 grams while men need 1.6 grams of omega-3 fatty acids each day). Omega-3s are important because they can protect against blood clots that lead to heart attacks or strokes, and can help lower cholesterol. And omega-3s are especially critical for pregnancy, as fetuses use omega-3’s for the development of their nervous system, depleting their parent of their own omega-3 stores in the process.
Sardines aren’t the only super-healthy seafood. Mussels and anchovies are loaded with omega-3s, vitamin B12, iron, iodine, and selenium, while salmon is an excellent source of vitamin B6, vitamin D, and niacin, as well as those crucial omega-3s (though the amounts may vary depending on whether you’re eating farmed or wild salmon).
Just don’t forget to eat the skin and bones! The bones in canned salmon and sardines are soft and edible, and provide quite a bit of the nutrition found in some tinned seafood. “The bones provide much of the calcium found in sardines, and sardines with the bones are a much better source,” says Amy Keating, a registered dietitian at Consumer Reports. The skin, meanwhile, is rich in omega-3s. The soft bones in canned sardines are even safe for babies who are already eating solids—just be sure to get sardines that are low in sodium.
Is Tinned Seafood Sustainable?
In many cases, the smaller the fish, the more likely it is to be sustainable. Take sardines, for example. “They usually reproduce between 1 and 2 years old,” says Michael Tlusty, associate professor of sustainability and food solutions at the School for the Environment at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “So their reproduction is faster, meaning if their populations go down, they’ll bounce back much quicker than something where you have to wait multiple years.” Mussels have a similarly fast reproductive life cycle, and have a lot of babies at once. “We all should be eating mussels,” Tlusty says. Some research has even called mussels “one of the most sustainable foods on the planet”—more sustainable than other fish and meat, as well as land-based crops like rice and soy.
That said, as much as we adore salmon—as delicious and healthy as it is—it’s one fish you’ll want to eat more mindfully. While some salmon, such as wild Pacific salmon fished in Alaska, is more sustainable to eat, wild-caught Atlantic salmon across the North Atlantic fishing region is at dangerously low levels.
Seafood in cans has several other benefits that make it more sustainable than fresh. “When animals are in abundance, we can harvest them and then put them aside for consumption later on,” Tlusty says. “The good thing about tinned products is we don’t need cold storage. We don’t have to rely on continually pumping energy into the process to keep them frozen.” Plus, because several types of fish—including salmon and sardines—are canned with the bones and skin, so there’s less waste involved.
If you’re looking for a little extra confirmation that the seafood you’re buying is sustainably fished, check for the MSC—Marine Stewardship Council—label on the packaging. The MSC certification guarantees that the fishery doesn’t use harmful fishing practices like poison or explosives, hasn’t been convicted of forced labor violations in the past two years, hasn’t been convicted of shark finning violations in two years, only fishes healthy stocks, and minimizes its impact on other species and the general ecosystem.
How to Eat Tinned Seafood
You could do as I do and eat it standing up at the sink right out of the tin, but there are plenty of more glamorous, or at least dignified, ways to eat tinned seafood, too.
If you’re a tinned seafood newbie, Dan Waber of Rainbow Tomatoes Garden recommends starting out with sprats, also known as brisling sardines. These sardines are smaller than the average sardines and have a milder, more delicate flavor. “Eat them on your favorite cracker,” Waber says. “To go really wild, add a dash of a favorite vinegar-based hot sauce or mustard, and/or any pickled vegetable you have.”
Jonathan Larrad, co-founder of the online tinned fish shop Tinmonger, says Cantabrian anchovies are a good choice for the tinned fish skeptic. Most people have grown up around the salty anchovies you find on pizza, but according to Larrad, Cantabrian anchovies are next-level, so to speak. Rub some tomato on toasted bread, then drizzle a bit of olive oil before laying a few anchovies across the surface. Cut vertically so that you have strips of toast for the perfect canapé. “You can tell the difference immediately that it’s not any old anchovy that you’re eating,” he says. “That one surprises a lot of newbies because it sounds very adventurous. It also converts them from thinking they didn’t like anchovies and then, suddenly, ‘Oh, I do actually like them. It’s just that I was having bad ones before.’”
If you want to branch out, consider the humble potato chip. Serving tinned mussels on potato chips makes the bivalve, which may be somewhat unattractive merely sitting in the can or on a plate, more palatable looking and fun to eat. “You get the crunch of the chip and the flavor of the vinegar, and it does really work,” Larrad says. “It’s obviously cheap and efficient, and you can feed quite a few people this way.” Get a better quality kettle chip rather than your average gas station bag, which won’t stand up in heft or flavor to a rich mussel.
Anna has been enjoying tinned fish since she was old enough to eat solids. “For me, high-quality tinned fish is one that can be enjoyed as is—lemon, salt, and various other accouterments are unnecessary because why mask the flavor of the fish?” she says. “Pair it with a delightfully crusty—yet soft on the inside—slice of bread (to dip in the oil afterward) and that, to me, is perfection.”
As you’re setting out on your own tinned fish adventure, consider Waber’s advice for what makes good tinned seafood. First and foremost, though, don’t forget: Does it taste good to you? “There’s very little in this world more subjective than what flavors and textures we each enjoy, and tinned seafood is subject to the same sorts of personal variation there,” Waber says. “If any food product appears discolored, moldy, or smells bad, it probably is bad. Bad is much simpler to detect.” Do not eat moldy, discolored, foul-smelling tinned fish should you come across it, please.
Anchovies: “This is a product that changes noticeably as cost changes,” Waber says. “For many uses, like incorporating into a sauce, lower-cost products are completely appropriate.” If you’re making Alison Roman’s famous caramelized shallot pasta—complete with a full 2-ounce can of anchovy fillets—you don’t need to use your $30 tin of Cantabrian ‘chovies and can probably rely on whatever you can find at your local grocery store. For example, he says, “You don’t need Stoli to make a screwdriver,” though you certainly can if you want.
High-end anchovies are often called “the ham of the sea,” Waber says, and should be reminiscent of a fine ham: “just the right amount of resistance and give to the bite, firm without being tough and then meltingly soft without being mushy.” Good midrange anchovies “should still be firm, clean smelling, even-colored, and hold together as they are handled. These are a salt-cured product, so they are going to be salty.”
Smoked salmon: “In general what you’re looking for are large, intact pieces that lift cleanly from the tin and are deliciously fragrant.”
Mussels: “These should be plump, unbroken meats that hold together without crumbling and are soft without being mealy.”
Sardines: “Intact pieces with attractive silver skin, clean-smelling, and consistently firm flesh that flakes easily.”
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