Oil-Packed Tuna is Rich in Flavor – and Deserves a Spot in Your Pantry

Photo for The Washington Post by Scott Suchman; food styling by Nicola Justine Davis for The Washington Post
Canned and jarred tuna come in a variety of brands, from fisheries and canneries worldwide.

The tuna, not much bigger than an average house cat at 20 pounds and shaped like a silvery football with fins, swim inland toward the Northern coast of Spain every July to feast on anchovies. From then until September, small bonito del norte (albacore) are fished by line and rod, carted ashore and sold at auction.

That’s where canneries such as Conservas Ortiz, established in 1891 and based in Ondarroa, Spain, buy their tuna each season. The fish are immediately brought to the company’s factories, trimmed and cooked in salted water according to a family recipe. Then they’re cleaned by hand and the loins are separated from the belly before the meat is tightly hand packed in cans and jars. Finally, as is tradition, the containers are filled to the lip with Spanish olive oil. Rich in flavor and tradition, tuna canned in this way is more than a budget protein – it’s the start of a satisfying meal.

“Canned fish is childhood for me,” says Pepe Moncayo, chef of Cranes in Washington, D.C., who grew up in Spain. “Every Saturday would start with my father popping open a can and passing us a fork.”

Though Americans eat plenty of canned tuna today, for decades we shunned the fish, according to “American Tuna” by Andrew F. Smith.

In the early 1900s, emigrants from Japan and Italy created some of the first early demand for tuna in the United States. Tuna started to take off after new fishing technology allowed sport fishermen to catch larger and larger fish, and processing technology drained excess fat from the fish, mellowing its flavor.

Early advertisements compared tuna to chicken long before canner Chicken of the Sea landed on grocer shelves. By the late 1980s, American tuna consumption had reached its peak.

Still, the majority of tuna sold in the United States is canned in water. That’s at least partly because of the popularity of the deli-style tuna fish sandwich, and its cousin, the tuna melt, which combines flaked canned tuna with gobs of mayonnaise.

“If I’m making a tuna melt or a classic tuna sandwich, I go for the water-packed tuna, because it’s a little cheaper and you’re introducing fat from the mayo anyway,” says Anna Hezel, author of the forthcoming “Tin to Table: Fancy, Snacky Recipes for Tin-thusiasts and A-fish-ionados” and senior editor at Epicurious. “But if I’m snacking on it, or in most cases when I’m cooking with it, I go for olive oil-packed. It’s a little more delicious, and you get that fatty, tender texture. It’s fun to dip bread in the oil, which tastes faintly of the fish.”

Ellie Krieger, dietitian nutritionist and Nourish columnist, agrees with Hezel that for mayonnaise-based tuna salad, water-packed is best, both in terms of flavor and nutrition. Mixing oil-packed tuna with mayonnaise creates a slimy mess that doesn’t taste great, anyway. But when she’s making a Mediterranean-style salad or sandwich, Krieger reaches for olive oil-packed tuna. The oil keeps the tuna meaty and moist, and the use of olive oil means it’s “marginally better” for you – at least compared to the oil typically used in mayonnaise.

The bigger nutritional issue, according to Krieger, is the mercury content of tuna, which varies by species and size. According to the FDA, smaller tuna species, such as skipjack (often labeled “light” tuna) contain less mercury than large albacore (labeled “white” tuna). Consumers, especially those who are or may become pregnant, should consult the FDA’s guidelines.

Canned seafood, including oil-packed tuna, has a deep history in Europe. Canneries line Spain’s coastal regions because, before cold packing technology allowed fish to be rapidly frozen, the freshest seafood went into cans. Plus, because Spain is the world’s largest producer of olive oil, it’s no surprise that olive oil-packed tuna is more popular than other types.

“We use a mild Spanish olive oil, so as not to overpower the flavor of the fish,” says Iker Fernández, Conservas Ortiz brand representative for the United States and Puerto Rico. He notes that the company works only with fishermen who adhere to the European Union’s seasonal quotas and those who practice line-and-rod fishing, which is less harmful to the ecosystem than net fishing. “We’ve been canning for more than 100 years, and we want to continue canning for another 100 years,” Fernández says.

Olive oil-packed tuna is so good, so well-balanced, so flavorful, I can eat it right out of the can or jar. At Saltie Girl, which has locations in Boston, Los Angeles and London, chef Kyle McClelland sources oil-packed tuna from José Gourmet, Conservas Olasagasti and Ramon Peña, among others. “Some brands specialize in different parts of the tuna, such as the neck and bellies, or ventresca; others focus on canning a variety of species, from skipjack and blue fin to albacore or yellowfin,” he says. Customers can make their own board of conservas, or order something off the menu, such as a tuna sandwich on a baguette stuffed with ratatouille and olive oil-packed tuna.

In addition to water-packed and oil-packed tuna, some canned tuna is smoked. It’s among the current offerings from Fishwife, which packs its smoked fish in Washington State and British Columbia. According to Becca Millstein, co-founder and CEO, due to consumer demand, the company plans to add oil-packed tuna to its offerings later this year.

The challenge, Millstein explains, is that many of the best oil-packed tuna canneries are in Spain, but there’s a high import tax on canned seafood. That’s why most of the olive oil-packed tuna for sale in the United States can seem quite expensive, ranging from $6 to $10 per jar or can. Still, that’s often less than a package of chicken breasts – and much more versatile, too.