Welcome to Popping Tins

This is a newsletter about tinned seafood; in its inaugural issue, Bela-Olhão Lightly Smoked Sardines in Olive Oil are reviewed.

Long written off in the United States as a food of grim necessity when not actively reviled, tinned seafood has in recent years enjoyed something of a renaissance. Everyone from New York Times food writers to brain-hacking thinkfluencers to “paleo” dieters preaches its merits; specialty grocers such as Philadelphia’s delightful Herman’s Coffee are lined with products from the adventurous likes of Spain’s Conservas Güeyu Mar; and enthusiast publications like Mouth Full of Sardines and communities like the Canned Seafood subreddit offer reviews, opinion, and analysis to a hungry nation that is learning what much of the rest of the world has long known: Seafood caught and preserved at the height of its freshness deserves a place in every pantry and on every table.

Launching a newsletter into such a vibrant and thriving ecosystem is inherently an act of hubris, but it can also be a modest one. I aspire to nothing more—or less—than providing trustworthy information two or three times a month that will help everyone from hesitant novices to experienced veterans make good decisions when purchasing and serving tinned seafoods, while appreciating the rich culture and history that surround them.

If Popping Tins leads to one tentacle being bought and enjoyed that otherwise wouldn’t have been, it will be a success.

Why tinned seafood?

Most of the merits of tinned seafood are either obvious or revealed via cursory Googling. Broadly, seafood tastes good and is good for you and most Americans don’t eat enough of it; more narrowly, tinning is an excellent way to preserve foods at the peak of their flavor and nutritional value. (Tinned seafood is also generally more sustainable relative to other animal foods, though this is a question to be gone into in more depth in future installments.) If you have the choice of eating something that was literally just hauled out of the water or something in a tin, probably go with the former, but otherwise it’s not so much a question of what’s better or worse but of what you like and of what makes sense, and there’s a lot to like and a lot that makes sense about what’s in the tin. Crucially—and this is a point that a lot of thinkfluencers and paleo dieters going on (rightly, as far as I can tell) about healthy fats and vitamin B12 gloss over—what’s in the tin is easy.

Tinned seafood can be cheap, but it isn’t, necessarily. My preferred sardine brand costs $3 per four-ounce tin; that makes it more expensive per pound than wild sockeye or cod or, for that matter, sardines from the fish counter. Part of the reason I reach for it over those options sometimes is that if it’s not necessarily better than they are, it’s different from them, with more umami. The main reason, though, is that it’s convenient! I don’t always want to heat up the oven or the grill or make a poaching liquid, and sometimes I can’t because it’s the middle of the day and I have a half-dozen things going on at work; sometimes I really want fish but am the only person in the house who does; sometimes I’m camping. This is one reason I don’t generally have much use for recipes that involve doing anything much to tinned seafood. (There are exceptions, though this is a question to be gone into in more depth in future installments here.) If I want to cook, I’ll cook; if I don’t or can’t, but want to eat some fish or just something good, I’ll reach for what’s in the pantry.

What’s to be found there is delicious! Right now, stocks are low, but I have three cans of inexpensive sardines, one can of rather expensive ones, two cans of inexpensive albacore tuna, and one can of inexpensive salmon. That’s a solid dozen meals, none of which will involve any real effort, the worst of which will be just fine and the best of which will be better and even fancier than most meals I put a lot more effort into, and all of which will be pretty healthy. What I reach for most often will be the subject of Popping Tins’ first review.

Bela-Olhão Lightly Smoked Sardines in Olive Oil

This is my baseline sardine, the one I buy by the case. In some ways, it’s most easily defined by what it’s not. It’s not, for one thing, especially fancy; you can get it for $3 per tin at any number of online vendors or at your local Whole Foods. It’s also not especially distinct; the offering here is plump, healthy sardines in olive oil with a bit of salt and some smoke flavoring that doesn’t really register. It’s a tin of sardines, and not much more. This all makes for an endlessly versatile offering.

Because this newsletter is pitched at a wide array of people, I want to take a step back and explain what “versatility” means from the perspective of someone who’s not all that into tinned seafood, or, perhaps, seafood, but has decided to take a bold step—due, perhaps, to having heard from foodies, thinkfluencers, and/or health enthusiasts—and has bought and is opening a tin . This is what you’re going to see if you open a tin of Bela-Olhão:

To my eye, those are the bodies of four healthy young sardines fished out of the water near Portugal, cooked and preserved in the can. Nothing much needs to be done to them; they’re ready for consumption as is, and there are no worries about there being bits you wouldn’t want to eat. (There are spines in there, but they’re cooked and soft and ready to eat; these bones are in fact what gives a tin of sardines a lot of its nutritional value and its texture.) What I would personally do is work these fillets out of the can with a fork and lay them on a slice of good, thick rye bread slathered with mustard—two sardine bodies to a slice—and then mash them up with the fork before adding some good aromatics like a bit of chopped parsley or green onions, some shallots, or whatever I had around. Then I would add something sharp, like lemon juice or hot sauce, because the oily fish loves the pungent contrast; and crack some pepper on it; and have it alongside a fresh green salad or, if I was being really lazy, whatever pickled and/or chopped vegetables were in the fridge. This past weekend, I mashed these up over some dijon on some good rye bread from Lost Bread Co., topped them with shallots and lemon juice, and laid them alongside some kimchi and red pepper slices. It was great.

This is just about the laziest possible preparation of a tin of sardines, and yet not only a wholly healthy and satisfying one, but a rich riot of sensations. If you’re not into this sort of thing that might be because you’re just not into it, but it might also be that you also would find, on digging in, that you’ve presented yourself with a deep pile of flavors with a lot of umami leavened by the sharp tang of the accompaniments, and so now you are into it. Try it out, I say.

What stands out about the smoked Bela-Olhão sardine in olive oil is how well its meaty yet delicate body lends itself to preparations both lazier and far less lazy than this. If you want to fish these fish out of a tin and lay them out on saltine crackers, the texture and flavor will give you a satisfying lunch; if you want to just plop them on top of laboriously handmade pasta with some aromatics and acid, the yield of the humble tin will reward your labor. Mash them into a paste or cut them with the edge of your fork as if they were the hearty animal food they are; you will be happy either way. There are tins this good that you can get for less, and there are tins you can pay three or more times as much for that are no better, but there is no tin that is so affordable, so ubiquitous, and so ready to serve as both the basis of and the backdrop for so many satisfying dishes.

The Bela-Olhão corporation makes other stuff. I can’t speak to the value of its sardines in sauces other than olive oil because I’m personally not interested in sardines in tomato sauce or water or lemon. I like sardines in olive oil, though, and while I’ve had ones that are richer and more deeply flavored, none are meaningfully better or more useful.

The future

Popping Tins will continue to review tinned seafood and address the uses to which it can be put. If you have takes on this subject—tins you would like to see reviewed, for instance—please feel free to email me at poppingtins@substack.com; you can also push the button below to have future editions of this newsletter sent to your email, though you should by no means feel the need to do so.

The next edition of this newsletter will review a tin of octopus in garlic that has been greatly enjoyed in my house lately.