Too Much of a Good Thing: Canned Tuna

Originally published in the February issue of Dispatch Magazine

In a normal human’s life, there’s never an occasion that warrants tasting dozens of kinds of canned tuna fish. In fact, the mention of such an endeavor is enough to induce the gag reflex of almost everyone I know.

But everyone thinks that canned tuna comes in one form only — the 99-cent tin of Bumblebee or Chicken of the Sea, drowned in mayo or Miracle Whip, served as the primary component of the ubiquitous tuna salad sandwich. While I grew up on them (and liked it), there are much tastier options out there, even if you’re trained to make a beeline for the old standbys.

To prove it, the Too Much of a Good Thing tasting crew piled into a booth at Hugo’s with a mother of pearl caviar spoon and sampled 28 kinds of canned tuna. We broke them down into the three best, worst, and otherwise noteworthy to assist as you wade through the supermarket aisles.

General Observations

A vast majority of the canned tuna out there is either albacore or yellowfin. Overall, we preferred yellowfin due to its softer, richer quality; the albacore tended to be a bit dry. (All tuna was labeled “dolphin safe.”)

The fish comes packed in either olive oil or water. We unanimously preferred the oil-preserved style, but it is important to note the huge variation in the quality, as some tasted like olives but others had the consistency and flavor of pure castor oil. As for the water-packed, there’s a reason you drain it as thoroughly as possible. The liquid is essentially a disgusting stock made from the cheap fish in the can.

The Best

1. Ortiz Bonito del Norte Ventresca$14.99/3.95 oz. tin at Whole Foods Market

The high price tag is due to the fact that it is 100% tuna belly, from fish caught in the Cantabrian Sea and packed in Spanish olive oil. It’s visually appealing too, with sizeable, perfectly lined-up cuts of meat, best eaten straight from the can. As tuna goes, this is about as good as it gets.

2. Genova Yellowfin Tuna in Extra Virgin Olive Oil with Sea Salt

$2.13/tin at Hannaford Supermarket

The tropical and slightly floral characteristics of the velvety fish balanced with decent olive oil and a perfect bit of seasoning make this an incredible value. For skeptics, this is a reasonably priced can of tuna to demonstrate that all canned products are not created equal.

3. Crown Prince Natural Yellowfin in Olive Oil

$5.79/tin at Whole Foods Market

Again, the supple texture and slightly fruity taste of the yellowfin is superior, combined with peppery Greek olive oil. Here, the visual appeal of the fish makes this one ideal for preparations like Niçoise salad.


The Worst

1. Natural Sea Wild Caught Chunk Light Tongol Tuna in Spring Water$3.50/tin at Whole Foods Market

Joe: “I suppose we should start by dumping out this disgusting gray water. The fact that the can bears the phrase “You’ll Love It” is confusing. Do they mean “It” as in the “strong urge to kill yourself after tasting?”

Dietz: “Are we entirely sure this isn’t cat food?”

2. Chicken of the Sea Chunk Light in Water

98 cents/tin at Hannaford Supermarket

Joe: “This tastes like blood.”

Thomas: “Not unlike liver from a very old cow, a bit like mutton.”

Mike: “Yes, this definitely tastes … mature. I’m feeling nauseous.”

3. Chicken of the Sea, Ace of Diamonds Chunk White Tuna Light

99 cents/tin at Hannaford Supermarket

Joe: “This is as delicious as low tide can get.”

Thomas: “It says it’s packed in veggie broth, soy, and phosphates. I can actually taste the bad soy.”

Arlin: “Seriously, how many of these goddamn things are left to taste?”


The Interesting

1. Trader Joe’s Brand (all of them)$2.29/tin at Trader Joe’s

The quality of these impressed us, and we all agreed they were ideal for classic tuna salad. The yellowfin in particular is quite good.

2. Ortiz Bonito del Norte El Velero Reserva la Familia 2011

$6.99/tin at Whole Foods Market

In Spain, it’s actually quite common to age fish in oil, and this 2011 vintage was full-flavored, albeit a touch dry (especially compared to the more expensive Ventresca). Regardless, very interesting and worth a try for sure.

3. American Tuna Brick Smoked with Olive Oil

$4.99/tin at Whole Foods Market

After getting our fill of jokes regarding the words “smoke” and “pole-caught,” we settle down and agree that while the level of smoke is aggressive, the flavor is somewhat sweet. The whole thing would be quite pleasant with mayo on a buttered, toasted roll.