Are you ready to hear a controversial opinion? Sometimes canned tuna just might be a better option than a fresh one.
Wait! Before you start waving pitchforks at us, demanding we hand our gourmet food aficionado badge in and evict us from the community, let us make our case first.
We get the skepticism. Canned tuna just doesn’t have a particularly good reputation among people invested in the food they put on their plates. I, personally, have heard it characterized with epithets that range from “college bro-food” at kindest to “gourmet cat food” at worst.
In short, it’s considered to be a cheap sub-par ingredient that’s kept in the pantry or fridge by people who aren’t particularly interested in putting a lot of time and effort into the food they eat. Mix it up with some mayo, stuff it in between two slices of bread, and there you have it - a dish that’s a step above Subway, the best you can do with it.
We’re here to prove that canned tuna, mainly canned Italian tuna, deserves more recognition than it has gotten among epicures. Especially, considering a lot of smears to its reputation came by way of unsubstantiated food myths being spread on the internet, often by people who know little about how the product is sourced, packaged, and maintained for distribution.
The most popular seafood in the USA:
Did you know that canned tuna in olive oil has been on the list of best-selling seafood products for over 25 years now? In 1997, journalist Suzanne Hamlin pointed out that it was the #1 best-selling seafood in the country, and it hasn’t left that list ever since then. Even as the consumption of seafood in America steadily grew over the decades and other products, like frozen shrimp and salmon, started “expanding their userbase,” so to speak, canned tuna in olive oil remained a steady bestseller, even as it changed positions.
So, at the very least, we must assume that when a product inspires such devotion among people that they keep going back to it year after year, there are a few reasons for it. The biggest of them? Accessibility and dependability.
We’ve repeatedly heard that fresh fish is better than canned. And as gourmet food lovers ourselves, we’d like to argue that some canned foods are better than fresh ones when factors like source, quality, and taste come into play.
But that’s beside this point. The point is that many people rarely, if ever, get the chance to choose between fresh and canned fish. And when there’s no Fish Market, and a reliable fishmonger you can trust will get you the good stuff - quality canned fish is often the best choice.
When it’s bad, it’s terrible. But when it’s good, it’s epic!
That is not to say that ALL canned tuna in olive oil is better than nothing. No, some of it tastes so bad that you’re better off with no tuna at all. We absolutely agree with you on this one.
If you’ve only ever tried random canned tuna without paying attention to labels, your disdain for it can be perfectly understandable. Cheap, low-quality variations often tend to have very mild or no flavor, are often oversalted, with unnaturally tough texture, and an unpleasant, pungent fishy smell.
The big difference between the bad stuff and high-quality canned tuna is that quality product retains most of the characteristics of fresh fish.
You can easily recognize if the canned tuna you’ve picked up is high-quality via texture, aroma, and flavor. It’s supposed to have a tender and juicy texture, mildly fishy smell, and briny, creamy taste. That’s how you know you’ve got the good stuff.
What’s the big deal about Italian tuna?
Italian tuna has become somewhat of a household name over the years, though most people likely do not know what a significant producer Italy is. Heads up: if you’ve found a good tuna in olive oil, there’s a high chance it’s Italian, likely sourced in the south.
Seafood as a whole, and tuna specifically, has long been a staple product in Southern Italian, particularly Sicilian cuisine. Tuna used to be a seasonal product, mainly caught in spring and summer. To have the fish last longer, locals started preserving tuna in olive oil, both to be able to keep it for winter and transport it to the north for sale.
Companies known to manufacture high-quality canned tuna do so because they respect long-standing traditions. The fish for Callipo or Rio Mare tuna products is sourced and processed with traditional taste in mind. The idea is to maintain the feel of home-preserved Italian tuna taste while letting the people avoid all the bother associated with the preservation process.
In other words, Italian manufacturers that want to be the best know they cannot cut any corners.
Why is Italian tuna considered to be “better” than tuna from other countries?
But why is it that canned Italian tuna tastes different than canned tuna from other countries? A few arguments are floating around, but two are the most oft-repeated ones.
The first answer is simple enough: the “canning process” is unique!
Italian tuna from the Southern coasts is a high-quality product that attracts attention worldwide, from the US to Japan (and the country known for its seafood products can surely be trusted about quality). Add to that high-quality olive oil, and you’re pretty much set to have a product that tastes well on your hands.
But that’s still not enough to get a truly gourmet canned Italian tuna. It can take up to two months of marinating pre-cooked tuna in olive oil before the product is deemed ready for distribution. This marination period is considered uniquely long and ensures the flavors are genuinely set before the product is distributed.
It’s one of the reasons Italian tuna can be pricier than canned tuna from other countries.
The second argument is a tad complicated: Italian tuna is known to be low in mercury levels compared to other varieties.
The majority of canned tuna from large Italian manufacturers (i.e., most Ritrovo, Flott, or Rio Mare tuna products) are made with tuna species that are naturally lower in mercury levels, like light (aka skipjack) and yellowfin tuna. Additionally, the fish caught for canning tend to be younger than those caught to be sold fresh, further reducing the mercury levels in their flesh.
It must be noted that canned tuna overall contains lower mercury levels than fresh fish. But Italian tuna has earned its devoted fans because the chances of encountering albacore tuna as an ingredient are slim to none.
Albacore tuna, known for its higher mercury levels, is much more often used in canned products manufactured in the US, Canada, Japan, and Spain.
While it’s been long confirmed that consuming tuna - including albacore with its higher mercury levels - in moderate amounts is perfectly safe, there’s certainly a segment that views low mercury levels in Italian tuna as a clear marker of high quality.
In our opinion, the superior flavor and texture, along with consistently maintained quality, are the genuine reasons to pay attention to Vantia, Callipo, or Rio Mare tuna, and not the perceived mercury threat in alternatives. But if it’s a factor you’ve been worried about and cut down on tuna consumption because of it - hopefully, that fear is now assuaged.
Which is better: Italian tuna in olive oil or water?
We’ve only mentioned Italian tuna in olive oil up until this point as if there are no varieties canned in water. Our bad. There are; they’re just fewer in number than you’d expect.
A large part of it comes down to traditions. Many Italian manufacturers either produce tuna exclusively in olive oil or keep a much more meager selection of tuna in water. It’s pretty evident that tuna marinated in olive oil is a much more popular option.
But is it truly better?
Well, yes and no.
We know that’s the most annoying answer one could get to this question, but the uncomfortable truth is that there’s a reason why both varieties have their fans.
Preserving tuna in olive oil is a classic option. The belief is that instead of “washing” the flavor out of the fish, oil seals the flavor in, so the chunks of tuna maintain their natural flavors better and are closer to tasting as fresh-caught tuna would.
Comparatively, the water is thought to dilute the flavor, making the taste lighter.
But see, that’s the problem. It all comes down to what you prefer your tuna to taste like!
On the one hand, olive oil-canned tuna can be a little heavy for some, with too intense a taste that overpowers other ingredients it’ll get paired with.
On the other hand, water-canned tuna can be too mild for those who like their fish flavorful, with a flavor that gets easily overpowered by other ingredients.
We do think that those who dismiss tuna in olive oil as too heavy should at least give authentic Italian products like Ritrovo or Rio Mare tuna a try. But this is a shame-free zone. Whichever way you like your canned Italian tuna, we support you.
(That said, we genuinely believe the debate is about olive oil or no oil at all! If we’re talking about any other type of oil like soybean or canola oil, the argument could swing towards water being better, as the final product could be uncomfortably greasy. Luckily, high-quality canned Italian tuna tends to come with olive oil, so the argument is mainly moot).
Which is better: Italian tuna in a tin can or a glass jar?
Certain Italian companies can tuna in two ways: in a hockey pack-like tin we’re used to seeing on supermarket shelves or in glass jars.
Contrary to what one may think, the difference in canning containers rarely, if ever, means the difference in quality, especially if we’re talking about the same producer. For example, the already mentioned Callipo and Rio Mare tuna come packaged both ways.
The most significant difference between the products is visual - and we don’t mean just the way they’re packaged.
Tuna in the tin can is commonly in small chunks and can be somewhat flaky. Tuna “canned” in a glass jar typically comes in larger, firmer pieces vertically placed in the jar. It can undoubtedly be advantageous if you want to keep your tuna intact for specific recipes, especially since they can easily be flaked later with a fork.
However, that difference isn’t ubiquitous. Indeed, some companies prefer using glass jars as primary canning containers for the appeal (among other reasons), with tuna chunks inside being no different from classically tin-canned tuna.
How to make the most out of Italian tuna in your pantry:
Here’s what many don’t understand about canned tuna - it can be an incredibly versatile product. A high-quality Italian canned tuna is doubly so.
It can be good in classic recipes like Nicoise salad and tuna melt sandwiches, especially if you add lemon juice and chili pepper flakes to amplify flavors. These types of recipes highlight the need for high-quality products. Try making a classic tuna melt with your favorite cheese and Rio Mare tuna with a bit of extra heat from the chili flakes. Thank us later.
Italian tuna goes fantastically with certain pasta dishes, as is typical for most truly Italian products. You can put in a little extra effort and make a tuna sauce for the pasta. Or just put chunks on top, add parsley or basil, and a splash of lemon juice. Simple recipes like these can be a lifesaver on busy nights.
But most of all - be open to experiments. As long as you’ve got good stuff in your pantry, you can be bold with trying new recipes because you won’t need to think about covering the taste up.
We keep a carefully curated selection of Italian tuna from premier manufacturers you can explore if you wish to add a can or two to your collection. Add a little flight of imagination, and you might even enjoy the dishes you’ve never thought about before.