February is officially Canned Food Month, or so it was deemed by the Canned Food Information Council in 1987. In the ’80s, the CFIC was doing major work to promote canned food awareness. Take a look at this weirdly sexy canned food commercial from 1985 that not only promotes canned food awareness, but also...space exploration?
At some point, I think the Canned Food Information Council turned into the Canned Food Alliance because while the former doesn’t have a website, the latter does. The CFA’s mission? To “drive increased consumption of canned foods by enhancing the perception of their numerous benefits.” Fair enough. This being Canned Food Month and all, let’s make the Alliance proud and unpack those many benefits.
The sexy commercial mentions that cans preserve the nutrients in the food, but I honestly rarely consider that. For me, canned food is all about dry-storage convenience. And it doesn’t just make things easier on home cooks, either; it’s the lifeblood of nearly every restaurant you’ve ever visited.
For starters, this stuff is mighty practical. I know sometimes these recipes published on The Takeout are complicated and elaborate. Sometimes we ask you to literally make cheese or simmer stock for eight hours. I totally understand whenever somebody shrieks “Instant Pot!” or laments that they don’t have time to make pasta shells. Canned food can often cut your cook time in half. (Much easier to drain a can of chickpeas to make hummus rather than soaking and boiling fresh ones, wouldn’t you agree?)
Then there’s the cost. I’ve been poor pretty much since the day I moved out of my parents’ house. Canned food has bailed me out of numerous financial jams over the years. It’s cheap and accessible. A good can of sardines packs a lot of nutrition and costs no more than $3. A filet of salmon? That’s anywhere between $5 and $8, usually, and the quality of the fish they’re getting at the supermarket from one week to the next is a gamble. That’s the thing about canned food: it’s consistent, and I truly don’t believe my quality of life has ever suffered because of it.
Speaking of quality...it will vary. Not all canned food is a slam dunk. For me, canned fruit reminds me of school lunch. It’s slimy and packed with sugar, and there’s just no beating fresh seasonal fruits. Most canned vegetables lose a little quality too, in my opinion. I’ve never been a fan of Southern-style soft green beans. I like mine to be a little crisp, with only a little bend. At the very least, I want the decision to overcook green beans to be mine to make.
So, assessing each product on the merits of its quality, practicality, and cost, here are some of the canned foods with the highest value, all of which are worth stocking in your pantry. And thanks to the Canned Food Information Council, we have the perfect excuse to celebrate them.
Anchovies have bailed me out more than the parents of a struggling artist. My unemployment routine: a pound of pasta with garlic, parsley, anchovy, and some olive oil. Food for the whole day at a total cost of, what, $5? While canned foods have a reputation for being bland, anchovies are the anomaly that carry strong flavor. Pungent, oily, and salty—it’s instant umami. They are also a multi-purpose tinned fish. I’ve found you can sneak a small portion of canned anchovies into just about anything (dips, dressings, salsas), and all it does is enhance, enhance, enhance. Any time I want a taste of salt, I first ask myself if I can somehow work in a little anchovy. It’s the secret weapon of the financially conscious, skilled home cook. The downside? One can of anchovies and you’ve already crossed your daily threshold for sodium. But the low cost and huge payoff are just too important to leave them off the list.
Beans might be the champion of canned foods, a brick of daily nutrition hiding in your cupboard. Virtually no sugar, high in protein and fiber, and incredibly filling. Versatility? Canned beans got you covered. Chickpeas for hummus, pintos for refried beans, and cannellini beans for soups and stews. Canned beans rule, and there is no substitute for the time you save merely draining a can of beans and deciding what meal to build around them.
Sardines weren’t really much of a staple in my household growing up, but I became drawn to them after reading Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, and Butter in which she details eating canned sardines after her father moves out of the house following a divorce. She writes of stale Triscuits and sardines, a comfort food that is not my own, but one that I’ve adopted. Sardines carry a high nutritional value: A ton of B12, protein, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids. There’s also a very high ceiling with sardines: The better the oil, the better the canned sardine. It’s practically a form of tourism in Portugal, a place where they’ve mastered the canned fish industry. It’s a quick, nutritious, high-quality snack. Sardines have range, too: They can be a splurge purchase or a cheap bite. It might not be the most versatile ingredient to cook with at home, but whenever I need a quick lunch, sardines and Triscuits do the job well.
We all need a little canned heat in the kitchen, and that’s what jalapeños are. A choice heavily influenced by my time in Texas, but man, what canned jalapeños do for queso and nachos is unparalleled. With their convenience and slightly vinegary flavor, jalapeños are a welcomed sight in the home cupboard. I would submit that nachos are better with pickled peppers than fresh ones. There is some bonus acidic flavor in canned jalapeño slices, and with no chopping or deseeding necessary, you avoid contaminating your hands, kitchen, and eyeballs with the capsaicin of a fresh pepper. A fine bailout, if you ask me.
Tomato paste is magic for Sunday gravy. It’s a natural roux for red sauce. Use it to coat your sofrito and develop a slightly caramelized flavor. It’s slightly cheating in that technically it’s adding sugar to your pasta sauce, but if you don’t want to wait eight hours for a fully developed, reduced sauce, then tomato paste is your friend. I’m sick in the head, but I’d eat tomato paste on a cracker.
Note: I’ve excluded canned tomatoes on this list. I know San Marzano tomatoes are the gold standard, but I don’t always have them in my cupboard. They can run expensive ($5 a can), and lately I’ve been having more fun with a fresh tomato sauce. It’s cheaper and slightly more acidic, which I like in a good gravy. There are many more flavor profiles you can achieve with a fresh tomato—for example, you can roast them—and I have found that boiling and peeling off the skin isn’t a ton of extra work.
Coconut milk is another one that scores high marks for usefulness. It’s the path of least resistance to a flavorful soup or sauce. An arrow in your quick-meal quiver, coconut milk serves a greater purpose than to merely be drunk. It is the key to refreshingly hot and sour tom kha gai. Marry a bunch of aging vegetables from your fridge into a pot with coconut milk to form a curry. It’s vegan-friendly, healthy, cheap, and versatile. Coconut milk might be the most underrated canned food item there is.
Google “Spam” and one of the first questions that comes up is, “Is Spam really that bad for you?” Well, it’s fucking filled with salt. I mean, one serving (about a sixth of a can) contains 33% of your recommended daily sodium. It’s slimy and mysterious, and it doesn’t score well in our categories of quality, practicality, or even cost. It’s nefarious, the quintessential processed meat mess. Why, then, is it on this list? Because once in a while you have to do some drugs. That’s what Spam is. Fry up a couple slices of Spam once a year like you might annually trip on mushrooms. A little processed food will open your mind, and hey, there are great applications for it: Hawaiian loco moco, for instance, uses Spam perfectly, a greasy layer between white rice and a fried egg. Spam is what it is. It’s like cheap bacon or shiny breakfast sausage. All filler no killer. It’s flawed, unpractical, outdated war food. Spam is, for better or worse, wholly American.