Okay, canned food is a mixed bag. The vast majority of canned vegetables are far better frozen, more on that later, and I would avoid canned meats altogether (Spam is actually pretty rad though). All things considered, there are some really useful canned goods to have in your pantry and I’m going to say them at you now.
TOMATOES: Tomatoes are the great success story of canning technology. Like potatoes, a relative newcomer to Eurasian cuisine, they were brought back after the discovery of the Americas. Cultivated in Mediterranean climates, tomatoes became an instant staple of the region but completely unavailable outside of summer, until canning. Canned tomatoes are an excellent thing to keep on hand. With the exception of fresh applications, most recipes that need tomatoes will need you to prep them in a number of different ways. Cans are easier, pre-prepped, prepared even. When buying canned tomatoes keep in mind their limitations and buy them whole or diced because you can always puree them later but unless you’re some kind of food wizard (Fight me.) you can’t reconstruct them. It’s worth noting that a lot of canned tomatoes come pre-seasoned with various herbs, which is awfully presumptuous, make sure to get the unseasoned cans.
BEANS: Now, beans, you can keep dried beans around, but any time you want to use them they have to soak for hours and hours, just buy the cans. The kind of beans you keep on hand is largely going to depend on the kinds of cuisine you favor. For example, coming from Southern California I have a special place in my heart for black beans and pinto beans. There are so many kinds of beans and using the wrong kind in a recipe can have weird results. The upside to this situation is that beans are cheap, so maybe just by a single can of a few different varieties until you know what you like. Also, like tomatoes a lot of canned beans come pre-seasoned so be aware of that and check the ingredients before you buy them to make sure that it’s mostly beans and salt water.
FRUIT: Canned fruit is entirely optional but highly recommended. When buying canned fruit there is a rule I always follow: Never buy fruit in heavy syrup (light syrup is acceptable on a case by case basis). Fruit packed in water or juice is fine but the syrupy stuff is pretty useless for anything other than a diabeetus safari. Canned pears are usually very pleasant and can save you a lot of time and energy throwing together a desert. Canned mandarins can be useful for salads and yogurt parfaits. Canned apples are great for some spur of the moment fancy oatmeal, or a nice accompaniment to short bread and/or vanilla ice cream when caramelized in a pan. My point is canned fruit is handy to have around, it will last until the apocalypse, just don’t buy syrupy trash.
SWEETENED CONDENSED MILK: Sweetened condensed milk is so good for baking, and is hands down the easiest way to make caramel and fudge. Trust me you make somebody fresh fudge and you’re in. Sweetened condensed milk can also be used to take your coffee and tea game to the next level, especially iced. Do you have any idea how easy it is to make a key lime pie? I’ll give you a hint, sweetened condensed milk is one third of the filling, the rest is eggs and lime juice. Have you ever heard of Dulce de Leche? It’s just sweetened condensed milk caramelized in a pan. Buy two or three 14 Oz cans, when you need it there is no substitute.
COCONUT MILK: Coconut milk is a food product made by grating the flesh of a brown coconut, it’s thick, creamy and perfect for a whole lot of things. You can use coconut milk for deserts, sauces, soups, and marinades. Let me tell you, leaving cubed beef in a ziploc bag full of coconut milk and curry powder in the fridge overnight will trick anyone into believing you know how to cook, provided of course that you then cook the beef instead of just having people over to look at a bag in your fridge. When it comes to types of coconut milk I find it is best to by the thick milk in its unsweetened form because you easily thin it out or sweeten it, but you cannot remove the sugar from, or thicken the other varieties.
Fun fact: the can opener was invented forty-eight years after the can. History. Am I right?