Canned foods often get a bad rap, but hidden inside the tiny tin capsules, you’ll find some of the most versatile and flavorful ingredients. Creating an enticing and appetizing meal using them doesn’t have to be hard when you know how.
Whenever you’re cooking with canned ingredients, inventiveness is always the secret ingredient to success. While it may be tempting to rely on old favorites, take the time to experiment with flavors and create dishes that are showstoppers.
Should you be entirely new to this essential cooking skill, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve enlisted the help of culinary experts to share top tips for cooking with canned food. Use them as a starting point, but also experiment with your own recipes—you may just surprise yourself.
Give Beans and Veggies a Good Rinse
When you’re working with certain canned ingredients, it pays to give them a wash ahead of time. The reason is simple: In some cases, the liquid in the container will have high levels of salt.
“Thoroughly rinse off the liquid that they come in, so that you’re able to control the sodium content going into whatever it is that you’re making. And if you’re using canned beans or chickpeas over dried, add them toward the very end of the cooking process because they won’t take as long to cook through,” says "Top Chef" host Padma Lakshmi.
The Draining Exception: Canned Tomatoes
Are you committing this culinary sin? If you happen to drain canned tomatoes before you use them, you’re making a serious mistake, says Pamela Reed of Brooklyn Farm Girl. When you’re cooking Italian-inspired dishes, you can make use of the vitamin-rich juice in your meals to delicious effect.
“For canned tomatoes, don't drain them. Instead, use the juices to your bonus. There's no reason to drain stewed tomatoes if you're using them for a pasta dish. Pour the entire can in, tomatoes and juices, for the full taste!”
Use Salsa to Make a "Lazy Chili"
If you open your pantry to find line-upon-line of canned beans, don’t despair. There are plenty of ways to turn these staples into a mouth-wateringly good meal. To get your creative juices flowing, why not try making a super simple chili in minutes?
“We absolutely love the simplicity of what we call ‘lazy chili.’ You simply rinse and drain a can or two of black or pinto beans and add them to a skillet with a jar of your favorite salsa,” says food blogger Jessie May. “Salsa basically has everything you need for an amazing chili: tomatoes, onions, garlic, seasonings, jalapeño, etc. You simply simmer this for a bit and can add any additional spices or salt if you’d like. Serving this over baked sweet potatoes with a little avocado or cashew cream is heavenly and super affordable too.”
Add Instant Flavor With Vegetable Broth
Yearning for more flavor? While you may be used to draining canned ingredients and putting them straight in the pan, there's another way to go here. Utilizing something as basic as vegetable broth could help you elevate your dish in an instant.
“Blanch canned vegetables to remove the canned taste. Submerge vegetables in boiling water for a minute before submerging them in ice water to stop the cooking process. Cook ingredients in vegetable broth instead of water to add more flavor. Use seasoning and spices to add more flavor,” says chef Sapna Chandra, owner of Real + Vibrant and author of Plant Power Bowls.
Spicy Bean Salads for the Win
Looking for another way to use up your canned beans? If you happen to have some chorizo in your pantry, you can make a spicy salad that will stand the test of time. Alternately, you can use some dried spices and vegetables to make a veggie version.
“Spice up canned white beans with chorizo, another staple that can be frozen, to make a white bean chorizo salad that will last. We make ours with tarragon, but if you don’t have a fresh herb on hand, use dried tarragon and a little dried oregano,” says Jill Donenfeld, chef and co-founder of The Culinistas.
Tinned Fish = Healthy Burgers
Craving fast food? When burger night comes around, you might have to experiment with the canned ingredients you have in your pantry. Making your own fish burgers can be fun for the whole family and costs next to nothing.
"One of my favorite pantry recipes is salmon burgers—yes, for real, salmon burgers! We use canned salmon for our salmon burgers recipe, but you could also use canned tuna or even canned chicken. This is the season for making do with what you have. Everything else you need for this base recipe is pantry-friendly, too—panko, mayo, and some seasonings. If you happen to have some remnants of a head of cabbage in your fridge then you can serve these salmon (or tuna, or chicken) burgers on a quick slaw, but they could also go on other greens, or on buns, or with some roasted sweet potato wedges," says Lindsay Ostrom of Pinch of Yum.
Season, Season, Season
Needless to say, whenever you’re working with canned foods, seasoning is everything. The last thing you want is to end up eating bland and basic meals. You don’t need a ton of spices to make these ingredients flavorful. Simply stick to three basics to get started.
“Whenever you’re using canned fruits, toss them with a bit of red chili powder, lime juice, and salt. You can also use rock salt here. It will take the flavors to the next level,” says Harshad Sawant, the blogger behind Sprout Monk.
When in Doubt, Stick to These "S" Dishes
“My top tip to using canned foods is to use them in stews, soups, and sauces instead of stir fries. If possible, don't waste the ‘juice’ that the canned product came in as there are valuable nutrients in there,” says The Highest Critic's Caleb Chen.
“Utilizing canned foods effectively requires understanding that the water content of canned foods is going to be different than what you would expect from the fresh equivalent. Whether it's canned vegetables, canned meat, or canned whatever, understanding that your product might be softer or ‘wetter’ will allow you to cook with canned foods better.”
Make Tomato Paste Your New BFF
Looking for that rich, intense flavor you get from professionally-cooked meals? Adding something as simple as a spoonful of tomato paste could be the answer. This canned ingredient works in an array of dishes and always helps to intensify the flavor.
“Tomato paste is a great flavor enhancer for any tomato-based sauce, especially when fresh tomatoes are out of season and not at their flavor peak. One of my favorite uses for tomato paste is in a classic shakshuka. It adds a deep, rich tomato flavor and really intensifies the sauce, especially if you’re working with less-than-stellar tomatoes,” says Liran Leibman, executive chef at Mediterranean restaurant ZIZI.
Don't Overlook Corn
The next time you’re in the mood for a fresh and light lunch, here’s a dish you can try that takes mere minutes: a quick corn salad from canned ingredients is as easy as pie.
“You can make our light corn salad using canned corn, if you don’t have fresh corn available. Adding garlic and spices will brighten up the dish and make the corn feel fresh,” says Ohm Suansilphong, chef at Thai spot Fish Cheeks. “In a mortar, pound garlic cloves and chilis together to form a smooth paste, then add palm sugar, fish sauce and lime juice and pound until combined. Add cherry tomatoes and long beans to the mortar and lightly crush them with the sauce. Finally, add corn kernels and stir to combine.”
If All Else Fails, There's Always Hummus
Hummus is the unofficial king of canned foods. Spread it on toast, put it in a salad, or simply use it as a dip—there are oh-so-many ways to enjoy this Middle Eastern treat. While you may not be able to get a fresh batch from the store right now, you can make it at home easily.
“Canned chickpeas go from basic to brilliant when blended with beets for a beet hummus to nosh on with chips or to use as a spread for a sandwich,” says Donenfeld.