Canned food is a lifesaver—whether you’re trying to save time and money on an average weeknight or making yet another meal from the stuff you stocked your pantry with while waiting out a pandemic. As we all practice social distancing and more cities and states implement curfews and shutdowns in order to help flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases, shelf-stable foods like canned goods are becoming an increasingly central component of our diets.
But, of course, as wonderful as canned food is, it’s not always top dog in the Exciting to Eat department. While lots of us already cook with canned food, you might be feeling hard-pressed for fresh ideas when you’re eating out of cans more often than not. So we spoke with a couple of people who are bona fide experts when it comes to making canned food taste delicious and feel special, about how to make the most of canned food. Here are their favorite tips and preparations for making canned goods of all kinds less bland and boring and more fun and flavorful.
1) Finish a dish with a crispy topping.
Topping your dish off with a bit of crunch is an easy way to create the satisfying textural variety that’s often missing with canned foods. “A really good thing for adding texture in general is a crispy breadcrumb topping,” Lola Milne, author of Take One Can: 80 Delicious Meals From the Pantry, tells SELF. You can use premade breadcrumbs or blitz some stale bread in the food processor to make your own. If you feel like getting a little fancy, Milne recommends crisping up your breadcrumbs in a skillet for a few minutes with a little bit of olive oil and some garlic and dried or fresh herbs.
You can also use pretty much any crispy carb here. Lindsay Livingston, R.D., creator of The Lean Green Bean, tells SELF that she likes topping casseroles with crushed potato chips. Crushed pretzels or crackers could work too.
2) Roast basically any kind of canned beans.
You may have already heard of roasting chickpeas for a snack or salad topper. But actually, canned beans of any kind—navy, kidney, black, adzuki—will benefit from a few minutes in the oven in most scenarios. (Skip if you’re making a soup or stew.) “It just makes them more crispy,” Milne says. And crispy beans are all the tastier for tossing with pasta, grain bowls, or roasted veggies.
You can follow a simple recipe for roasted chickpeas using whatever beans you have: Drain, rinse, dry, toss with a little oil (and seasoning if you like), spread evenly on a baking sheet, and roast at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. I usually roast mine for about half as long as those recipes recommend, though (so about 15 to 20 minutes), to make ’em just a little crispy.
3) Use pickled garnishes liberally.
Put that jar of sauerkraut in your fridge to work. “It’s a way to easily add crunch and tang to various things like [beans and legumes] or canned fish—to give it some freshness,” Milne explains.
Milne also likes using capers and pickles, surprisingly versatile flavor bombs commonly found in pantries. Kimchi is another tasty option. And if you’ve got red onions on hand, you can easily quick-pickle them yourself—try this super-simple recipe from Bon Appétit.
4) Don’t wait till the last minute to add beans and lentils into a dish.
“A lot of recipes say to throw them in toward the end,” Milne explains, “but canned [beans and legumes] can really benefit from a bit of a cook when you’re making a soup or stew or sauce.” Letting canned beans and legumes simmer with their fellow ingredients—spices, herbs, onions, garlic, stock, tomatoes—also gives them time to take on those flavors. “You can cook them for a while and they won’t get mushy,” Milne says.
5) Fry up veggie fritters or burgers.
Canned veggies and legumes take on a whole new life when you mix them with egg and flour. One of Milne’s all-time favorite canned goods recipes is corn fritters. “You blitz some of the corn in a food processor and mix it with flour, egg, [whole] corn kernels, and whatever spices you’ve got around—curry, coriander, fennel—and dollop little bits into a pan.”
Livingston does something similar with canned black beans, mixing them with oats, eggs, and seasoning, forming into patties, and baking.
6) Turn to bold spice blends.
If you’re not cooking with much fresh produce or aromatics, take advantage of shelf-stable ingredients that pack a lot of flavor into a little bottle. “[You want] something that adds a load of depth and complex tastiness without having to use [a bunch] of different things,” Milne says. Her favorites are curry powder and harissa. Za’atar is another great option.
7) Puree veggies into a chowder
Not a huge fan of canned veggies? For a silky-smooth bowl of canned goodness, try pureeing veggies with dairy or nondairy milk and aromatics or spices. You get all the flavor and nutrition without the mushy texture that some people find unappealing.
Milne likes making a simple corn chowder using canned corn, stock, milk, a potato, and bay leaves. (You could do something similar with jarred red peppers or canned pumpkin puree.) The Hungry Housewife has a clever recipe for carrot coconut soup made with canned carrots and coconut milk.
8) Make a kitchen-sink soup.
Soups and stews are one of the lowest-effort ways to transform whatever canned (and fresh or frozen) stuff you have on hand into a legit filling and familiar comfort meal. (I also find them ideal for when you might not have every single ingredient listed in the recipe—leaving out or subbing in an ingredient or two is unlikely to mess up the whole thing.) Combine veggie or chicken stock (cans, cartons, or bullion) with any variety of canned beans, legumes, veggies, grains, herbs (dried or fresh), and spices.
Get creative with your ingredient combos here. For instance, use canned tomatoes, black beans, corn, chilies, and chili powder to make a chili, served with tortilla chips or rice. For a rustic minestrone-style soup, try using chickpeas or cannellini beans, green beans, carrots, lentils, spinach (canned or frozen), and barley or pasta.