Cans: Your Cheap, Ever-Reliable Pantry Staples

January 21, 2015

Cooking on the cheap shouldn't mean minute rice and buttered pasta every night. With a little creativity and a little planning, Catherine Lamb shows us how to make the most of a tight budget -- without sacrificing flavor or variety. 

Today: We're opening up a can of whoop-ass on dinnertime boredom. 

Slivered Celery Salad with Walnuts and Anchovy Vinaigrette

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Grab your can opener! Open your pantry! Reach back into its dark depths -- past the spider webs and forgotten Halloween candy -- and pull out whatever cans have been hiding back there, quietly biding their time. Because tonight's dinner -- and every dinner from now until you feel like taking off your slippers and doing things like small talk again -- is brought to you by our old standby...the pantry players we turn to again and again...your kitchen's version of Old Faithful...cans!

In this time of winter stagnation, when you should be eating all those leafy green vegetables at the farmers market and practicing your downward dog, but all you want to do is eat spaghetti and meatballs with a glass of wine and an episode (or twelve) of Friends, cans are your greatest enabler. They'll help you make a meal you can feel good about without having to go through the ordeal of a grocery store. They'll help you become a hermit -- but a healthy hermit, one that eats balanced meals. Here are a few of my go-to canned goods -- some are old hat, others, I think, might surprise you -- and my favorite ways to use them.  




Yes, you probably already know and love canned beans. They're your back-burner lover -- there for you when you need them, content to sit quietly in their protein-packed cans when you don't. If only real life were so easy. If you're a canned bean beginner, start out with these 13 meals. Once you're ready to take your relationship to the next level, try making your own hummus (no, you don't have to confine yourself to chickpeas!), adding beans to soups, salads, and pastas for bulk and protein, or puréeing your legumes with flavor powerhouses like roasted garlic or harissa and spreading them on toast or tortillas. Just make sure to drain and rinse your beans first to get rid of their starchiness.



Tomato Soup Without a Recipe

No matter the season, no matter how frazzled or busy I am, I always, always have a few cans of tomatoes in my pantry. Because even on my worst days, I can turn to that can of whole plum tomatoes, scrounge up a nubbin of butter and a neglected onion, and make this sauce. Marcella Hazan was most likely not thinking of young, broke people when she wrote this recipe, but man is it tailor-made for us. I also like to have a can of puréed tomatoes on hand for shakshuka, and diced tomatoes work like a dream in braises, like this one. Where there's a can of tomatoes, there's dinner.

More: Here's how to chop a can of whole tomatoes, without getting a drop on your white pants -- or flannel onesie.   



Tuna Pasta

Canned fish can sometimes be off-putting (dare I say fishy?). But if you buy high-quality brands, which are mere cents more expensive than their cheaper counterparts and 100% worth the investment, you have nothing to be wary of. Beyond the obviously delicious tuna melt, try adding canned tuna to your pasta, or mixing it into your miscellaneous grain bowls. I have only recently discovered my passionate love for anchovies, and now I'm never looking back. They add a deep, funky savoriness to every dish they're in; I recommend putting them in salad dressings, melting them into olive oil before making a pasta sauce, or spreading them onto a baguette along with caramelized onions and butter.

More: If you want a full, comprehensive guide to buying canned fish, look no further.   



Winter Squash Soup

You probably already know how to put canned pumpkin to use in your sweets, from cake to cinnamon rolls to cookies to muffins. That's all well and good; I won't tell if you continue to enjoy these things past PSL season. However, that same can of pumpkin can transition over to the savory side, as well. Use it to make a spiced, warming soup, or stir a bit into curry right before serving. It's like you're eating a squash, but you don't have to go through the ordeal of trying to chop a butternut in half without amputating a finger.   



Chicken with Artichokes

There's no way around it: Prepping artichokes is kind of a pain in the ass. Plus, they're only in season for a limited time and they're pricey as heck. On the other hand, you are most likely craving spinach and artichoke dip right now. (I certainly am.) So what's a person to do? There's no shame in turning to canned artichokes to make it happen. Use the money you saved to buy beer and tortilla chips. If you're looking for healthier options, try using canned artichokes to make this chicken dish, or add them to that kale salad you've been meaning to make all week.  


Other Milks (And on to dessert...)

No Churn Ice Cream

Even when you're pinching pennies, you're still going to want dessert. Because you are a human and the wintertime makes us want comforting and sometimes unreasonable things, like ice cream during a blizzard or buttery, delicious French toast during any sort of weather phenomenon at all. Plus, there are those dinner parties you want to host, and people expect dessert at dinner parties! Once again, turn to your pantry. Evaporated milk can easily turn into sweet potato pie. Condensed milk can become ice cream (even without an ice cream maker!) or a decadent tres leches cake. It can also become dulce de leche, which, when eaten with a spoon and a gleeful grin, might just be the ultimate winter dessert. 

If you had to be a canned good, which can would you be? Tell us in the comments!

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • The "Z"
    The "Z"
  • Kathy Norton
    Kathy Norton
  • Stephanie Carter
    Stephanie Carter
  • Jax Tomlinson
    Jax Tomlinson
  • Catherine Lamb
    Catherine Lamb
A kitchen scientist and dog-lover. Someday I want to have you over for dinner.


The ". November 17, 2015
I thank my farm gal Grandma for teaching me basic forms of recipes, cooking methods and then how to take what you have in season or in the pantry to make a meal. I never measure anything including baking because I go by how it feels and tastes.

So my small budget thanks me!!! Recipes are for ideas; but nothing is really in writing when it comes to cooking. Go with your heart, likes, desires, health needs and it will come out okay more than likely. Okay, burning pasta might not be so good; from experience I still am reminded of the experience.

One valued advice from my Grandma was pastry: always chill everything including mixing bowl. Then add basics. Have fun with pumpkin spice, cinnamon, even savory spice to mix. Just form flat disks and put into fridge then roll out. Glasses make great dough cutters. Just chill glass and put a little cooking spray/butter on the rim.

Basically, use what you have in pantry and foundation cooking methods/recipes. Who knows you might just hit on a family tradition.

Imagination is the main staple; well okay, and the wallet.
The "Z"
Kathy N. July 2, 2015
I have not been able to find canned coconut milk that does not contain preservatives. I get migraines from both sodium benzoate and potassium metabisulfate which seems to be the preservative of choice. I always have canned milk, canned tomatoes, canned pumpkin, canned beans and tuna on hand and also beets. (cooking my own beets is not worth the expense as I am the only one that likes them.)
Stephanie C. April 5, 2015
No! Not a good thing to eat from canned foods..find glass jars. I never like the taste of the can yuck! Plus it's's fresh or frozen that's the only way..Too many toxins out there, they don't care, it's about the money. I was raised on a farm and know how to cook and save, but not in a can.
Jax T. April 5, 2015
Not canned, but a jar of capers will keep for a while once opened, and just a small amount will add lots of flavour to a pasta sauce or salad. Likewise cans or jars of sliced olives, much cheaper than buying fresh. Lastly, I love canned sweetcorn, just on its own, but also if you have onion, potato and milk in the house you have the makings of a corn chowder type soup, or you can whip up some sweetcorn fritters!
Catherine L. January 23, 2015
I'm so with y'all on the coconut milk front! I always have some on hand for easy curries and lentil soups. I didn't cover it since Gabriella did such an awesome job in this previous My Broke Kitchen article:
Sarah J. January 22, 2015
I want to find canned plums! I have a cake recipe I want to test that calls for canned plums, but apparently, they're not so easy to find anymore.
Aliwaks January 23, 2015
Sarah, I bet you can find them in one of the Russian Supermarkets in Brighton Beach, if not canned proably jarred.
Allison B. January 22, 2015
i also think that having canned chilis is a good idea.
Allison B. January 22, 2015
i second the coconut milk - we go meatless a couple days a week, and it's always great to enhance a curry or vegetable stew or lentils with the coconut milk.
Paul H. January 22, 2015
I suggest coconut milk as well.
Allyn January 21, 2015
I would be coconut milk, without a doubt. My husband is allergic to dairy and we make a ton of asian dishes, so it's extremely rare that a grocery list doesn't include at least one can.