When it comes to canned foods, we're all likely have the usual suspects in our pantry from canned corn and green beans to baked beans and canned ravioli. In fact, these items plus soups, canned tomato products, canned tuna and even cranberry sauce make the list of top 25 canned goods sold in the United States in 2018, according to the Canned Food Alliance.
While fresh and frozen foods are often touted by nutritionists as better-for-you options, canned foods are an inexpensive alternative that can offer flexibility and nutrition ... if you know what to do with them
No matter what canned items you have stored away in your pantry, it's likely you have some hidden gems perfect for making a delicious dinner tonight. But what are the canned food must-haves you should stock in your pantry? And how can you use the fruits of your pantry clean-out to whip up an impressive meal?
"For the most part, I try to rely on plant-based proteins like chickpeas or white beans," Hannah Crowley, an executive editor at America's Test Kitchen, tells Yahoo Life. "I love canned beans because they're a great dinner shortcut. They're a great way to bulk something up when you need a little more heft and you have a couple of fresh ingredients you want to use."
Jacoby Ponder is a private chef and culinary curator who says people usually have pantry staples like tuna, black beans, canned cheese, corn and diced tomatoes on their shelves. "These items alone could make an easy fish taco meal, along with adding a few fresh ingredients like garlic, cilantro and lime," he says.
Ponder says adding fresh ingredients to any canned food-based dish is the key to turning up the flavor and hiding the fact that a dish is made from canned goods. Fresh ingredients worth keeping on hand include aromatics like garlic, ginger, onions, celery and carrots. Fresh herbs and dried spices like thyme, parsley, rosemary, cinnamon, peppercorns and paprika are also a great way to amp up the flavor without blowing your food budget.
Also perfect for giving canned foods a boost, citrus fruits like lemons and limes are essentially two ingredients in one: the pungent zest that should be taken off with a microplane before cutting into the fruit and the juice,which can be used at the end of cooking for a quick burst of flavor over soups or tacos.
For a simple pasta dinner, Crowley's secret is canned artichokes. "I think of canned goods as my in-a-pinch weeknight helpers," she says. "I make a super-simple artichoke pasta: They're one of my favorite things in the world."
"I combine two cans of artichokes — chopped up — with some garlic, lemon juice, lemon zest, salt, olive oil and whatever pasta I have on hand, and it's absolutely delicious," she continues. "I also like to add a little Parmesan cheese on there."
Once you've opened that can of beans or veggies, though, the question of whether or not to rinse them comes into play. "It is definitely a good practice to always rinse off your canned goods to prevent contaminants," says Ponder.
Rinsing vegetables is also a great way to reduce your sodium intake when using canned goods: According to a 2010 journal entry in Today's Dietician, draining canned veggies can reduce sodium by 36 percent, while rinsing them with water can cut sodium by 41 percent.
Amping up some of your favorite meals using canned condiments is also easy, according to Crowley. "I love pickled things like capers or banana peppers, or on the other end of the spectrum, something like chili crisp to jazz up a meal to bring it to the next level," she says. "And anchovies are a magical ingredient as far as I'm concerned. They don't need to taste fishy at all — you put in a little bit at the start of the pasta sauce you're making and it just brings that rich umami-ness and depth."
And what about that canned soup sitting in your pantry? Ponder says it's easy to enhance the texture and flavor profile of a basic can of soup. "If it's the right brand, it could taste good all on its own," Ponder shares, adding that his favorite canned soup to build upon is tomato soup. "However, adding things like fresh chopped basil or green onions, then topping it with parmesan cheese and toasted croutons can make all the difference."
Canned foods also don't have to be boring. One of Ponder's favorite dinners to make completely from canned products is pan-seared SPAM with sweet barbecue baked beans. "It's one of my all-time childhood favorites," he says. "The sweetness and heat from the baked beans pairs perfectly with crispy pan-seared SPAM."
As for desserts, Crowley suggests amping up a boxed cake mix with canned mandarin oranges: Simply swap out the liquid in the cake mix instructions for the syrup from the oranges, then mash up the oranges and toss them into the mixed batter. Bake for the specified amount of time, then top the cooled cake with cream cheese or white icing and you have a canned food-based dessert in no time.
Next time you're in a pickle about what to make for dinner, search your pantry. What canned goods you have might surprise you, and with a little creativity and a few spices or fresh ingredients, no one at your dinner table will know the meal is from a can.
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