Why Marcella Hazan Said That Canned Tuna Is Tastier Than Fresh

It's hard to describe the scope of Marcella Hazan's impact on Italian cuisine in the United States. The late Italian food writer authored more than a dozen English cookbooks chock-full of Italian staples from every region of the Bel Paese, lauded by Nonnas everywhere. Even if you've never heard her name or owned one of her books, chances are you've made a recipe for an Italian dish that's inspired by one of hers. 

As well as Hazan knew her American audience, she wasn't afraid to stir up previously held notions of Italian cooking in her recipes. Her legendary, mischievously simple tomato sauce, which features a holy combination of whole peeled tomatoes, butter, a halved onion, and salt, is — or should be — a mainstay in every home cook's repertoire. After making it for the first time, you might be inclined to take every single pearl of her cooking wisdom to heart. One such pearl maintains that canned tuna is better than fresh. 

Go for the best oil-packed tuna you can find

Marcella Hazan stressed the importance of fresh ingredients in her cookbooks, but tuna was one of the few exceptions. In many of her fishy recipes, from her bean and tuna salad to her tuna pasta, she recommends trading fresh tuna for a high-quality canned or jarred variety (preferably Italian-style or imported from Italy) packed in olive oil

If you're having flashbacks of the not-so-delicious tuna casseroles of your youth, don't be discouraged. Hazan, too, was once wary of canned tuna dishes. "Although I was once very fond of it, there was a harshness to the taste of tuna sauces, both other cooks' and my own, that began to trouble me," Hazan wrote in "Marcella's Italian Kitchen." She realized that the problem wasn't the tuna, but the flavor transformation that messed with it during the cooking process. That's why her tuna-centric recipes call for adding the tinned fish at the very end.

What's so great about canned tuna?

There's a time and a place for fresh tuna, but only when it's the star of the show. If it's sharing the stage with a bunch of other ingredients, as in Marcella Hazan's bean and tuna salad or tuna pasta — or, if you're feeling French, a salade niçoise — the fresh fish's delicate flavor can get lost in the sauce. Instead, follow Hazan's advice and use high-quality oil-packed tuna instead. The fatty oil provides instant flavor insurance, not to mention richness, making it a perfect home for acidic ingredients like lemon, capers, and olives. 

Whatever you do, avoid water-packed fish like Bumble Bee or Chicken of the Sea. Since you won't be cooking the tuna, it's important to spring for the best quality you can find. We like the Bonito Del Norte white tuna in olive oil from the Spanish brand Ortiz, which gets extra points for its packaging. You might not find it at your local supermarket, but any specialty food store or Italian market will likely have it in stock.