For quick, flavorful meals from the pantry, oil-packed tuna is our top choice. Trouble is, which tuna?
Published Dec. 6, 2019. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 21: Bistro Classics at Home
Want to learn more about canned tuna? Check out our review of canned tuna in water.
Canned fish is having a moment. More and more trendy restaurants across the country have begun featuring preserved, tinned seafood on their appetizer boards. In the test kitchen, we always keep canned or jarred oil-packed tuna in the pantry for use in recipes such as salade niçoise and pan bagnat, pasta dishes, and crostini—and to compose our own restaurant-style appetizers. Unlike water-packed tuna, which is primarily used as an ingredient in tuna salad and casseroles, oil-packed tuna is ready to serve straight from the container, with little to no intervention on the part of the cook. At its best, this fish has a moist, silky texture and rich, meaty taste that is enhanced by being preserved with oil. But given that it’s not going to be disguised in a casserole, which product should you buy to enjoy the best flavor and texture?
Americans eat about 1 billion pounds of canned, jarred, and pouched tuna a year. According to the National Fisheries Institute, only coffee and sugar exceed canned tuna in dollar sales per foot of shelf space in the grocery store. In our desire to decode the teeming tuna aisle, we figured that there were just too many variables—the species of tuna, the packaging (can or jar), and the packing medium (oil or water), among others—to eliminate styles without tasting them all. So we narrowed our search to 16 products packed in oil, including both canned and jarred tunas and both albacore and yellowfin species, which are often labeled “white” and “light” tuna, respectively. Some were sold as “solid,” others as “chunks,” and yet others as “fillets.” The oil they were packed in ranged from soybean oil to regular olive oil, and even extra-virgin olive oil. Some products specified that they were seasoned with sea salt, and a few included additives such as vegetable broth and pyrophosphates. (We eliminated pouched styles from this lineup after a pretasting showed that the soft pouch tends to smash and break up the big flakes and chunks we prefer for maximum versatility.)
We removed them from their containers as carefully as we could to preserve their texture and served them plain in two blind tastings. Tasters were very enthusiastic about the best tunas, describing them as dense, meaty, and silky, with “rosy” flakes and chunks that were “beautiful to look at,” and packed with rich, “clean” seafood flavor. And then there was the other end of the spectrum: Tasters called the worst samples “mushy,” “stringy,” “flabby,” “soggy and wet,” “spongy and greasy,” “tinny,” or “metallic,” with plenty of complaints that they were overly “fishy.” Several even brought up “cat food....
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Lisa is an executive editor for ATK Reviews, cohost of Gear Heads on YouTube, and gadget expert on TV's America's Test Kitchen.