Canning fish with The Little Tin Co.

DAN and Rachel Weeks found themselves isolated in the middle of the Bass Strait on Deal Island. Their volunteer role as caretakers was the ideal spot to sit out their COVID isolation. One of the key staples of the three months of food provisions was tinned fish, given its long shelf life as a source of protein. It seems that they had so much tinned fish that it came to a point after their daily ritual of selecting their favourite canned flavour to peel the lid off, that they questioned the sustainability, ethics and quality of such mainstream products. Their research opened up a whole can of questions that led them down the path of establishing their 100% Australian owned, sourced, produced and packaged gourmet fish. 

Little Tin Co. 

Little Tin Co. has produced a small range of rapidly expanding products. Each ingredient and combination of flavours has been meticulously compiled with the facilitation of preservation technicians, chefs and good old trial and error that family and friends love to get amongst. These tins are a superior product. After sampling a few myself, I soon understood that they probably were not going to become a regular addition to your child’s daily school lunch box. These tins are more for occasions such as a picnic, entertaining guests with nibbles or producing a gourmet salad or sandwich.

A recent addition to the range has seen the preservation of the ever-abundant and often-ignored Australian Salmon. Little Tin Co. has found the perfect balance of spice incorporating Nduja to highlight the flakey goodness of the Aussie Salmon. If you are on the fence about trying this stereotypically poor-eating species, locate your closest stockist of the Little Tin Co. and wrap your lips around a unique flavour profile. Ideas like this shift the imbalance in our fisheries by targeting species that are not on everyone’s radar. 

After spending some time chatting with Dan they directed an interesting conversation regarding the ethics of commercial fishing operations. Immediately when I hear the word ethical and fishing attached, my mind goes straight to the species being targeted. For example, are they in abundance and is research suggesting that the species is under heightened pressure? Is the commercial operation avoiding bycatch? Are the fish dispatched humanely? Do the fish get stored and treated with respect so that there is minimal wastage? These questions are something that everyone needs to questions when purchasing commercial fish. All recreational anglers are encouraged to spend time thinking about their processes and whether they are upholding individual standards at the highest attainable level.

Dan and added to the above questions when discussing the ethics of commercial operations. You can go to a supermarket and purchase a can of yellowfin tuna for $2 which usually goes for around $50 per KG. That yellowfin tuna may have flown halfway around the world to be processed, packaged and brought into Australia. This only makes cans of fish more accessible due to the low cost, increasing demand and applying pressure to overfish. Ethics not only extends to the fish itself but to the fishermen and women, mongers and packages. How much are these workers being paid? Just like in fast fashion. 

Knowing where you get your fish from can make a bigger difference than you think. Locally sourced food ensures that fair working conditions are being met. Which is important.

Each tin, from Little Tin Co. has been hand-made and hand-packaged with care to ensure the high standards remain consistent. The cans are not mass-produced in fact, sealed only one at a time, ensuring quality control.

Fish Preservation

I have been having some interesting conversations around this topic of late. The idea of canning fish at home keeps popping up. When chasing bigger fish for food there can often be a dilemma. If you intend to eat the fish fresh it becomes the next week’s worth of breakfast, lunches and dinners. For some, this can get old. You eventually get stuck for ideas and just stick with fish tacos, which are easy enough to mask the odour of fish that has not been stored correctly. 

Believe it or not, you already have everything you need at home to create gourmet tinned fish. Fish that can sit in the pantry for months and still taste fantastic when you need to bust one out. The process is simple. Although you need to be diligent in each step, any contaminants can reduce the shelf life of the tin and become a serious health risk. I have tried, homemade tinned fish and even made it myself. It dominates anything that you are getting from your local supermarket in terms of texture and flavour. 

I challenged Dan and from the Little Tin Co. to produce some different recipes using this DIY technique. They came back with some great insights as to how the same principles apply to their tins.

Getting started, what you will need

Fresh fish:

Processing the fish needs to be done with the utmost care. This means bleeding and using a slurry. Avoid contact with fresh water. Any blood or water that enters the flesh can increase bacterial growth.

An interesting fish to try would be leftover live bait from a fishing session such as slimy mackerel. The bones will soften in the sterilisation process and the flavours should reflect those from the Mediterranean. Yes please.

Other good species to try are pelagics such as all species of tuna, yes ALL. 

Empty jars 

Use jars that are ideal for the amount of fish that you want to eat per serve. The jars need to have been sterilised in boiling water and allowed to air dry. Drying with a cloth can introduce foreign bodies, so simply air dry. Ideally, new lids for the jars are a safer option. Another option is to buy a set of preserving tins, they are relatively cheap and are highly effective. This is by far the safest and most efficient option. 

Good quality olive oil

Olive oil has been used in preservation techniques dating back to ancient civilisations. Olive oil will act as a barrier between the air and the fish, preventing oxygen and moisture from creating a bacterial-friendly environment. It also has a low acidity that is inhospitable to microorganisms, mould and bacteria that could degrade the fish. Brine is another example of a liquid that will do the job. There are plenty of simple brine examples to try online.

Flavouring ingredients

Here are some basic ingredients to get you started fresh herbs, bay leaves, peppercorns, lemon, chilli (can increase in heat the longer it is left in storage)

Each fish has its unique flavour. They deserve to be treated differently in terms of the accoutrements. But if you want to get creative with the experimentation of flavours there are plenty of recipes that can highlight the qualities of that particular species. Using a tested and reliable home canning recipe specifically designed for each fish species facilitates the combination of acidity, salt, and processing time. Tins can last between 6 and 12 months if preservation principles are adhered to. For the products produced by the Litlle Tin Co., there was extensive trial and error with minor tweaks in each process until they found the perfect balance.

The canning process

If you have a pressure cooker you will save yourself some time. A pressure cooker will boil water in a sealed environment creating temperatures of around 120 degrees Celsius. A pot of boiling water will also do the job. 

Skin and bone the fish. This does not apply to all species such as most bait fish like sardines (pilchards) or slimys. 

Portion the fish to fit into the jars. Any portions of fish containing bloodline or impurities should not be used for canning. You do not want any air pockets when packing the jars. So there is no need to pack them in too tight. 

Add the flavouring ingredients. A great way to experiment is to do big batches of jars simultaneously. Label each jar once complete with the flavour profile so that you can keep track of what combinations worked best.

Time for the olive oil. The olive oil needs to cover all of the fish and also leave enough space between the lid to allow for expansion during the sterilisation process. 

Depending on the outcome that you are after you can also cook the fish before it goes into the jars or you can leave them to cook in the jars. There are plenty of successful examples of both out there. You can treat your fish differently depending on the outcome you wish to achieve. For example, boiling is a fairly simple way to sterilise the fish. If you want to get super gourmet like Little Tin Co. other techniques such as smoking or a freshwater brine can add a layer of texture and complexity.

In a pressure cooker, it generally takes about 100 minutes. Double the time in a boiling water bath. The lids on the jars would have sucked down and become airtight if the process has been successful.

Always be very careful handling the jars, it is best to use some sort of tongs and gloves to keep safe. 

Dan and Rachel both agreed that this process was not too tedious. If the haul of fish allows for a bunch of cans to be prepared it could be a fun afternoon with friends and family all chipping in and coming out with a bunch of delicious snacks to see you through those weeks where the fishing isn’t firing. Chuck a little bow and tag around the jar and they become great gifts.

Looking into the future…

If anglers start doing this more frequently there would be less wastage. The angler will have control over the quantities and processing that are realistically consumed. Less pressure on over-purchasing and overfishing. Sections of the fish that are often discarded can be utilised for preservation. Less risk of spoilage because the fillets have been left in the fridge too long. 

A variety of species can be implemented in the canning process as opposed to a select few that we see on supermarket shelves. This promotes biodiversity reducing pressure on those yellowfin and skipjack tuna that are currently decimated by major corporations employing commercial fishing vessels for global canning companies. 

The reputation of a species of fish can hold so much weight in terms of their valued edibility. Gourmet sardines from the Mediterranean are what the Little Tin Co. bases one of its products on. Sounds appetising, right? How about if I called them gourmet pilchards or Blue Bait? New flash, if you didn’t already know, they are all the same species. In Australia as so eloquently put by Dan himself “Pilchards are considered something you stick a few gang hooks into bottom bash” not the exotic imports that have been involved in the age-old debate whether they serve a purpose on pizza. I tell you right now, the percentages of people saying yes to sardines over pilchards on their pizza would be a lot higher. 

Little Tin Co. have gone with the smart move of calling their little fish sardines because they are just not accepted in Australia outside of a servo frozen bait packet. In the future, they hope to be able to change the conversation around some of the less desirable species through their cans. Their research shows that whilst Mediterranean Sardines are under extreme fishing pressure. The local stocks are thriving of pilchards and the quotas are expanding as a result. Being on the pulse of situational changes and research allows us to make informed decisions on what is a more considerate purchase. Supply and demand oils the machine.

If you are going to be purchasing your fish to can, or for any reason. Take a leaf out of  Little Tin Co.’s book. Look locally. Get to know where the catch comes from. Local produce reduces the carbon footprint incurred through transportation (next time double-check how far your can of fish has travelled to land on your lunch salad). Does your local fishmonger ethically source their produce? Is the fish dispatched and processed using techniques that reduce the risk of bacterial contamination and cellular degradation of the fish? Asking these questions shows people in the industry that you care and are seeking the best product you can get your hands on.

Happy canning.

More info about Little Tin Co. here

Disclaimer: The information provided here is general and provided only as education and entertainment. Fishing World, On The Sauce and Little Tin Co. recommends users exercise caution and use their own skill and care with respect to practices carried out on this website and podcast. This website and podcast is not a substitute for independent and professional food handling practice and advice. Users should obtain their own professional advice.   

Fishing World, On the Sauce and Little Tin Co. is not liable for any injury, loss or death resulting from information provided here.

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