Good things come in cans
Tinned food has gotten a bad rap. Fish, soup, tomatoes, you name it: nearly every food that has been put in a can for sale has suffered indignation. Tinned food is treated as less refined, less worthy. It’s seen as convenience food that should be cheap and never moderately – let alone expensively – price. Its sister foods, sold in tall glass bottles, thick jars, or fresh – the ultimate status symbol in America’s food chain – are seen as better. Think about olive oil in a sleek bottle versus a tin. Or think about a fresh tomato versus canned. It’s no contest; fresh is always better, right? No. Here are three reasons why.
1. Sometimes tinned beats fresh
When tomatoes are in season they are unequaled, one of the finest foods on the planet. When they are out of season they are a completely different species and often borderline inedible. That’s why ten months of the year tinned tomatoes – especially organically grown tomatoes from Northern California – canned at their seasonal peak beat anything you can buy fresh.
2. Tinned can be different – in a good way
If I had to pick tinned or fresh grilled tuna for a decade-long, I’m-so-stranded, desert island picnic, I’d choose tinned. Sound crazy? I don’t think so. Tinned tuna from Ortiz, bathed in olive oil, is more complex than fresh tuna. It’s got more going on flavor-wise and you can use it in more ways. Assuming the fish and process are top notch, tinned fish are different than fresh – in a good way.
3. Cans are often a better material
Storing food in tins versus less weight to ship and no light damage. It’s a win for cost, for the environment, and for the food’s flavor.
Tinned fish is having a moment
Tinned fish might be having its biggest moment since Napoleon held the contest that created it.
Maybe you didn’t hear that tale? Back at the turn of the 1800s Napoleon issued a challenge and the winner was Nicolas Appert. The problem Nicolas solved was an MRE for the military. The winning idea was tinned food.
The first food to find its way into a tin was sardines.
For a couple of hundred years afterward sardines held a similar place of regard that followed most foods invented for military convenience: a source of cheap sustenance. The same went for many other fish that got tinned, like tuna. We never grew up thinking it was special.
But something has changed in the last decade. Tinned fish is popular. Coveted. Desired. There are the breathless headlines. There are restaurants putting it on menus, served straight from the tin. There are social media splurges. There are loads of new tinned fish brands popping up and sending us samples at Zingerman’s. What’s behind all of it?
Certainly flavor is part of it.
Tinned fish, when it’s good, is absolutely delicious. Is it heresy for me to say some fish tastes better in a tin? It’s not a stretch to say ham is better cured than fresh. I think tuna is too—when it’s done right. I’d much rather have a tin of Ortiz tuna than a seared slab of yellowfin.
Tourism has something to do with it too.
There are places where tinned fish has long been held in high regard, made to taste great. The European capitals of tinned fish, Portugal and Spain, are booming with visitors. There, tinned fish flourishes in window displays. It is listed on restaurant menus, often served straight from the can. It fills entire aisles in supermarkets. Many Americans have packed their suitcases with foreign fish finds and come home searching for more. And maybe they found Zingerman’s — I don’t count us out as one source of the surge. We’ve been pushing tinned fish as great eating for years.
But let’s not discount cuteness.
Tinned fish packaging can be adorable. It’s certainly one of the reasons I buy it when I travel. But here’s a little secret. Within the cute boxes, a lot of the different packages hold the same fish. There are not that many tinned fish factories. But there are a lot of tinned fish brands who put their name on the packaging. That’s because most of the factories are happy to let companies rebrand their product. We found out about that years ago and are guilty of it too. Sorry to burst your bubble, but Zingerman’s sardines are not tinned at Zingerman’s Cannery in Ann Arbor along the banks of the mighty Huron River. We work with a century old fish factory near Porto, Portugal. We use both their regular stock, and, once a year, we tin a selection of the fattest, best harvest for our Vintage Sardines.