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Canned Tuna in Water

Published December 2019

How we tested

In the test kitchen, we use cans of solid white tuna packed in water to make classic tuna salad, where its firm texture is perfectly complemented by crisp minced celery and creamy mayonnaise, and tuna-noodle casserole, in which its mild flavor pairs well with egg noodles and a rich roux. To find the best, we bought eight top-selling nationally available supermarket solid white tunas—what the industry calls “white” tuna is always albacore—priced from about $0.20 to about $1.10 per ounce. Six tunas were packed in water, while two were packed without additional liquid. Panels of 21 editors and test cooks sampled the tunas plain and in tuna salad in two blind tastings, rating their flavor, texture, and overall appeal. 

Tuna Shouldn’t Be Dry—or Soggy

In both the plain and tuna salad tastings, one tuna stood out as superior; tasters found it “light and fresh,” “moist,” and “seasoned well,” with “lots of flavor” but “not too fishy.” As we examined the ratings, we discovered that many otherwise acceptable tunas lost points for being too dry. “The flavor is good, but it feels wrung out,” wrote one disappointed taster. Products that tried to mask the fish’s dryness with vegetable broth or water were described as “mushy,” “watery,” or “soggy.” Tasters gave the lowest scores to tunas that were too “fishy” and had off-flavors. 

So what made some tunas so dry? It helps to know how most tuna is processed for canning. After the fish is caught, it’s quickly frozen on the boat. At the cannery, it’s thawed and cooked, which makes it easier for workers to separate the meat from the bones. The meat goes in cans, and then some manufacturers add more ingredients such as salt, vegetable broth, water, and pyrophosphates (which help prevent mineral crystals from forming—something albacore is particularly prone to). Finally, the can is sealed and sterilized at a high temperature. Manufacturers that follow this process are cooking the delicate fish twice; you’d never do this at home and still expect moist, tender fish. Adding water or broth doesn’t really help restore moisture, since these liquids can’t penetrate the tightly bound proteins—and our tasters noticed.

By contrast, two of the three higher-ranked tunas are cooked just once during processing, at the sterilization step. It’s a more time-consuming way to process tuna, but to our tasters, the results were worth it, with more flavorful, tender, naturally moist tuna. In addition, neither of these tunas contains added water or other liquid, so you get more tuna per can and don’t need to drain it as you normally would with water-packed tuna. These two products, which came in first and third place, are also pole caught using individual fishing lines. Some experts say that pole-caught tuna is less stressed and therefore tastes better than tuna caught by more common commercial fishing methods, which trap and confine many more tuna—along with unwanted fish—in nets.   

Our second-place tuna, by StarKist, which is currently the top-selling tuna brand in the United States according to Chicago-based market research company IRI, is traditionally processed. It may have won its ranking partially on its familiarity: Tasters wrote comments such as, “This one tastes like the tuna of my childhood.” It broke down into small shreds rather than chunks and was very moist (verging on “soggy” to some tasters). This tuna was appealingly “mild” and “sweet”-tasting and made “soft” (some said “mushy”), smooth scoops of tuna salad.  

The Best Water-Packed Solid White Tuna: American Tuna Pole Caught Wild Albacore

Our tasters’ overall favorite was American Tuna Pole Caught Wild Albacore, a tuna that is cooked only once, in the can, so it retains more of its natural moisture. No water is added; the small amount of liquid, which comes from the fish during cooking, should be stirred back in before you use it in recipes, no draining necessary. With the most sodium of the lineup, this tuna also struck tasters as “well seasoned.” While it’s the most expensive tuna we tasted, we think its flavor and texture are worth it.


Methodology

  • Eight solid white albacore tuna products, packed in water or without added liquid, priced from about $0.20 to about $1.10 per ounce, selected from best-selling nationally available supermarket brands 

  • Products were purchased at local supermarkets and online

  • Taste plain

  • Taste in simple tuna salad with celery, red onion, and mayonnaise

  • For comparison, sodium content is standardized and based on a 2-ounce (56-gram) serving

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*