Nyesha Arrington's Favorite Canned Meats And Her Best Tips For Using Them - Exclusive

Open up your pantry and look around — you can likely spy at least one canned meat or fish product. The history of canned and tinned meat goes back centuries but hit its stride in the early 1900s during World War I when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) vouched for pressure canning as a safe method to preserve and store low-acid foods. For people who didn't have access to anything close to a refrigerator or a freezer, canned meat and fish were the best ways to preserve protein at peak freshness and ensure there was always something nutritious around — especially if cold storage wasn't an option. Fast forward to today, and even though a majority of Americans have refrigerators, chefs are pushing the envelope with flavor-packed canned foods as the trend continues to fascinate and influence the cultural culinary zeitgeist. 

Nyesha Arrington, a restaurant chef, former "Top Chef" contestant, and host of Fox's "Next Level Chef," is not only a lover of canned meat and fish, but she wants more people to embrace these proteins in their home kitchens instead of just watching them being used on shows or online. We got the chance to chat with Chef Nyesha about this fast-moving yet still-underrated food trend and her tasty tips for preparing some of her favorites. From familiar staples to the most luxurious of proteins, there's a wide, wonderful world of options just waiting to be uncanned.

Canning is an old world technique embraced by social media

Like so many cultural phenomena, trends in the culinary world are cyclical. A trend from decades ago can go out of style but then come back again. In our current social media age, what was once antiquated can be cool again with the click of a button. This is certainly the case with the canned food renaissance, which, due to popularization by chefs on social media, has brought an old-world preservation technique into a new era of culinary creativity.

"All over social media, you can literally search 'tinned fish,' and chefs are out there doing incredible toasts. And, I love it because I grew up watching my mom eat these things, and now, in my generation, people are doing cool dishes with them," chef Nyesha Arrington says.

On "Next Level Chef," the chef mentors encourage the contestants to think outside the box and make the most of the ingredients. This is especially true with the canned meat challenge, which pushed the competitors to think of the canned foods as an opportunity to be creative. "The contestants should look at it as mindset. It's an opportunity to say, 'What can I do with this?' " She explains.

Don't knock it 'til you try it

For chef Nyesha Arrington, canned meats are a misunderstood protein that can bring a lot to a dish in terms of flavor and seasoning. Despite being unfairly considered low-brow and low-quality, some of the most luxurious proteins on the market come in a can — like caviar. 

"Preserved and canned meats offer such an incredible umami and depth of flavor to dishes that are hard to achieve," Chef Nyesha says. She notes anchovies and canned tuna as some examples, which have very different flavors when eaten fresh versus when they are preserved with salt or oil. 

If preparing a hearty lunch or dinner just isn't in the cards for you on any given day, you'll likely reach for something quick and easy to throw together. This is one occasion where canned meat can become your best friend. Even the tried and true tuna sandwich, which utilizes canned tuna, can be transformed into something delicious and refined. For Chef Nyesha, that starts with building a pantry filled with an array of quality canned products. "It doesn't just have to be this low-grade food," she remarks. 

Chef Nyesha's favorite canned meats

As someone spreading the good word about the canned meat movement, chef Nyesha Arrington also practices what she preaches and uses canned food in her everyday life. While canned tuna is a classic sandwich go-to, there's one humble fish she notes will never fail to upgrade a dish from just okay to truly extraordinary: anchovies. 

"These days, as an adult, I'm a big fan of anchovies and the opportunity they bring for a depth of flavor and umami," she says. "I didn't love them in my adolescent years, but I have a newfound appreciation [for them]."

On "Next Level Chef," Chef Nyesha sees canned and tinned fish specifically as a pathway toward added flavor and depth without necessarily making the protein the focal point. Instead, these canned meats can complement the primary proteins available to the contestants and level up the entire dish. "They don't always have to be the star," she comments.

The best recipes to make with canned meats

You may not realize it, but when you get that can of preserved meat, much of the hard work has been done for you. The canned protein is often already preserved with oil or salt, which is why chef Nyesha Arrington recommends using it to turn up the flavor. 

For example, Chef Nyesha recommends thinking beyond the traditional Caesar salad or salad dressing applications when it comes to anchovies. She suggests using the salt and oil to your advantage and letting those flavors melt into something slightly more elegant, like an Italian puttanesca sauce. Additionally, she proposes folding anchovies into butter for an umami-packed compound butter before broiling it on toast. 

While these fanciful applications are all great, Chef Nyesha remembers growing up and her mom using oil-packed mackerel for a snack that she describes as "low brow high brow." Still, we think of it as absolutely brilliant. "It's so delicious," she notes. The creation consists of a salty Ritz cracker, heirloom tomato, black pepper, and an oil-packed mackerel filet on top. "The saltiness from the mackerel and the crackers — the oil with the tomato — I add a little piece of fresh Italian parsley. I'd eat that all day, every day."