The favourite canned ingredients of Australian chefs

Tinned sardines can provide maximum flavour for minimum effort
Tinned sardines can provide maximum flavour for minimum effort Photo: iStock

When the federal government released its plans to lead Australia out of coronavirus lockdown in May, retail giant Coles made an important announcement regarding restriction lifting too: customers could return to buying as many tinned tomato cans for the pantry as they liked.

This was welcome news. A pantry isn't a pantry without at least three tins of peeled and sealed tomatoes, ready to bolster Tuesday night puttanesca or Sunday minestrone. Other canned cupboard staples include tinned pineapple that no recipe published after 1992 has called for, condensed milk destined for caramel greatness, and Stagg Chilli for the End of Days.  

Professional cooks don't mind a tin or two either, especially after a long night on the pans when sardines can provide maximum flavour for minimum effort. Good Food asked a selection of Australia's top chefs to name the canned food they always keep in the home kitchen – global pandemic or not. (Jarred food was also permitted. Essentially anything that could outlast religion if left unopened.)

Ortiz anchovies served on the side with pizza at Bella Brutta, Newtown.

Ortiz anchovies served on the side with pizza at Bella Brutta, Newtown. Photo: James Brickwood

Anchovies

Praised by chefs worldwide, the anchovy is the undisputed King of the Tin. 

"They're just a big flavour bomb, whether you eat one whole or pop them into the base of a dish," says MoVida chef Frank Camorra. "My favourite anchovy depends on how much I want to spend. I find the best brand is Conservas Emilia [caught in the Bay of Biscay] but for top quality and at great price, Cuca anchovies are hard to beat."

For O Tama Carey of East Sydney's Lankan Filling Station, Conservas Angelachu is the number one name in tiny fish. "They're a winner either on Jatz or Vita-Weats," she says, noting the Vita-Weat serving suggestion will need butter. One suburb over in Woolloomooloo, Old Fitzroy Hotel chef Nicholas Hill nominates Angelachu as his favourite brand too, but says Ortiz anchovies "also bang". 

In Melbourne, Napier Quarter chef Eileen Horsnell says Olasagasti anchovies are incredible. "We use them in the restaurant on our anchovy toast, and now we're selling [the brand] through our providore and wine store. I prefer to use them at home in butter melted over a lamb roast or just eat them straight from the tin."

Sydney chef Jordan Toft (Mimi's, Bert's) also loves Olasagasti's Basque anchovies for their "savoury smooth tones" and sweet finish.

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Branston Pickle

No other cauliflower, carrot and onion-starring chutney packs a sweet-savoury punch like this British pickle. Now available in the international section of major supermarkets, Branston's apple and vinegar base is perfect for cutting through toasted cheese sandwiches or sharpening a ploughman's lunch.

Irish chef and My Kitchen Rules judge Colin Fassnidge is a big fan of Branston with cheddar, while Nicholas Hill says he consumes the chutney as the result of his British upbringing more than anything else.  

"As a confessed hoarder of condiments, my fridge at home is a graveyard of jars, jams, pickles and preserves. Branston Pickle was force fed to me as a kid and now it's more of a habit."

Escabeche Mussels

"Coming from a Spanish background, lunch was the biggest meal of the day when I was a kid, which meant dinners were lighter suppers," says Frank Camorra. "I was brought up on the idea that you can eat a meal straight from a can, and it can actually be delicious and nutritious and not just a second rate product."

To that end, Camorra says one of his favourite meals is potato chips and vermouth served with mussels canned in escabeche, that vibrant vinegary Mediterranean marinade. "It's a strange one but it's an amazing thing to eat at the end of the day. The Spanish love the combination."

Camorra's preferred vermouth for the mussel-chip combo is Catalonia's Casa Mariol. "It's quite sweet and happy." 

Lao Gan Ma

China's Lao Gan Ma (or "Old Godmother") is the invention of Guizhou province lady Tao Huabi and there are few foods the MSG-forward chilli sauce can't enhance. It is quite possibly the ultimate condiment. 

Avocado toast with Lao Gan Ma is a cracker, but see also: instant noodles, steamed greens, scrambled eggs, prawn dumplings, grilled steak, fried chicken, steamed fish, omelettes and three-cheese jaffles.

Chef Mitch Orr (CicciaBella, Bondi) nominated the condiment as his favourite pantry ingredient. "Mama Liu's sent me their version [of Lao Gan Ma] too, which is pretty great and made in Sydney," he says.

Orr has also been cooking a lot of Korean food during isolation, and recommends red chilli paste gochujang to all home cooks. "Marinades, dressings, stir fries, fried chicken – it can't be beat."

Massel Stock Powder

For around $3 at tin, Massel stock powders might provide the biggest flavour bang for buck on this list. Adelaide-based Africola chef Duncan Welgemoed gives two thumbs up to Massel's "chicken style" stock dust.

"I've been buying lots of produce farmers haven't been able to sell, and making soups, vegetable stews and braises for the freezer at home," he says. "My go-to COVID ingredient is Massel's chicken stock powder – a few teaspoons in cabbage soup really gives it depth of flavour, especially if you're not using chicken stock as the base. The great thing about it is that it's vegan as well!"

Milo

"In all honesty, the only things I always have in good supply at home are Milo and coconut water," says Mitch Orr. "I don't drink them together, don't worry." Phew, OK then, carry on.

Sardine escabeche at Bella Brutta.

Sardine escabeche at Bella Brutta. Photo: James Brickwood

Sardines

"I love sardines and their ability to cover the entire morning-to-night meal spectrum," says chef Amy Hamilton from Bar Liberte in Albany, Western Australia.  

"They're great smashed on toasted sourdough in the morning, an enriching addition to panzanella salad at lunch, and a fail-proof dinner classic in my household. I often saute them with garlic, olive oil and chilli flakes, toss everything through spaghetti, season, and add a handful of chopped parsley and the zest and juice of a lemon. Each serve is then topped with a generous sprinkle of poor man's parmesan, also known as [Italian breadcrumb mixture] pangrattato."

Hamilton says she has been particularly enjoying Albany sardines with pepperberry leaf canned by Mendolia Seafoods. For Canberra chef Sean McConnell (Rebel Rebel), it's all about Ortiz. 

"Ortiz has always been my go to for anchovies, but a couple of years ago they started doing sardines," he says. "It was a total game changer for tinned fish."

McConnell is another advocate for sardines with pasta. "Saute crushed garlic and chilli in a little olive oil and butter, throw some capers in and a few whole cherry tomatoes. Pop a lid on and turn the heat down. Add a whole tin of sardines and break them up in the pan with a fork. Then parsley, more butter, heaps of pepper. Toss the mixture through orecchiette, strozzapreti, rigatoni or whatever pasta you like."

Sydney's taco king Toby Wilson (The George Hotel, Ghostboy Cantina) is also pro-Ortiz and the chef likes to smoosh the Spanish sardines on rye bread with butter, salt and soft herbs. 

"I've also been having them as a bit of a Japanese breakfast with rice, seaweed, kimchi, miso and a soft egg," he says. "It'll wake up the face before the rest of the body."

Suckling Pig (Cochinillo)

For anyone hoping to make an impression at their first backyard barbie post-pandemic, a half suckling pig in a tin should do the trick. Imported by Sydney's Nomad Distribution from Segovia, Spain, the piglets are ethically raised in big stable boxes and fed only their mother's milk. 

"It's a very good quality Spanish pig you can roast over a wood fire with potatoes, garlic and rosemary," says Federica Andrisani, who co-owns and operates Hobart restaurant Fico with her partner Oskar Rossi. "It's delicious. We gifted one to Oskar's godfather and he was very happy."

The cochinillo is canned confit in duck fat and if a wood fire isn't handy, the half pig only needs 20 minutes in the oven to become crisp and golden brown. Available online though Nomad.

Tinned tomatoes are almost always better whole-peeled than chopped.

Tinned tomatoes are almost always better whole-peeled than chopped. Photo: Getty Images

Tomatoes

There are almost as many tinned tomato brands in the world as there are uses for plump pomodori. Mutti brand San Marzano tomatoes were the choice of most Australian chefs surveyed, however Annalisa tomatoes received a few nods too. It should be noted that whole-peeled tomatoes are almost always better than chopped, due to their ability to retain more sweetness and flavour.