What Are Sardines?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

sardines

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Sardines are among Mother Nature's great gifts. These small, oily fish are plentiful on both coasts, inexpensive, loaded with nutrients and are absolutely delicious. Cultures all over the world have found ways to enjoy this tiny fish, which can be purchased in small tins in just about any grocery store around.

What Are Sardines? 

Sardines are a small schooling fish that roam the open oceans from Japan to California to Chili, eating plankton and small crustaceans. In turn, sardines get eaten by just about everything, including people. Actually, a lot of people all over the world enjoy sardines and have traditional dishes that feature this fish. In the United Kingdom there's stargazy pie, which features sardines, potatoes and eggs baked under a crust; in the Philippines cooks make ginisang sardinas, a dish of sardines cooked in spicy tomato sauce; and in Japan try tatami-iwashi, a dish consisting of dried sardines made into thin sheets that get toasted and eaten as a snack.

This fish is part of the Clupeidae family, which includes other small and oily fish like herring and anchovies. The name sardine hales from the Island of Sardinia, an Italian island off the Mediterranean Sea where once the creatures where harvested in abundance. Sardines from different oceans have unique traits and subtle flavor differences, though once prepped, preserved in oil and canned, those nuances get lost. Also, before getting packaged, sardines are smoked or cooked by frying or boiling, so when the can is cracked the fish can be eaten right away if desired and all taste similar depending on how it was cooked prior. 

illustration that shows the three best ways to cook sardines
Illustration: Melissa Ling. © The Spruce, 2019

How To Cook Sardines

One of the best ways to cook fresh sardines is to grill them. Especially if the fish gets wrapped in grape or fig leaves and grilled over charcoal with olive oil and lemon. Baked sardines also taste great and goes well with full-flavored sauces, especially tomato sauces and spicy, citrusy salsas. Before preparing either of these dishes make sure to split or butterfly the fish so it's mostly bone-free. This way, any remaining bones will be so fine they meld with the flesh of cooked sardines. 

Try raw sardines too by filleting the fish and marinating it in salt, olive oil and lemon juice to make a Mediterranean version of ceviche. This is a common way to serve sardines in Mediterranean countries where the ingredient is abundant at fish markets and on the waterfronts.

Canned and jarred sardines also have a place at the table, and though these don't really need to be cooked, they do add a flare to a lot of sauces and dishes. For appetizers, pick out the small fillets and set on a cracker with a dollop of mustard or thinly-sliced red onion. Fry them up and sprinkle on a salad or serve as a crunchy, fishy snack. Like anchovies, sardines can top pizza as well. As for pasta sauce additions, classically sardines get melted into a Sicilian tomato sauce, chopped up and added to a creamy lemon sauce, and mixed with olive oil and capers for a Mediterranean-style sauce. All these methods give the dish an umami bump, and even if the sardines aren't noticeable as a flavor on their own, the ingredient gives a lot to the overall meal.

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What Do Sardines Taste Like?

There's a salty, fishy taste to the miniscule sardines, and notes of smoke can sometimes be had if the fish was smoked before canning. Fresh sardines have a firm texture and meaty backbone that's not expected based on the size. Overall, sardines are one of the more hardy fish that taste like fish and ocean and whatever sauce is poured on top. 

Sardines Vs. Anchovy

Though these two fish come from the same Clupeidae family, an educated connoisseur would say they are worlds different. A lot of this flavor separation is due to how anchovies and sardines get treated when preserving. Anchovies, known for a pungent flavor some get turned off from, are cleaned and cured in salt for months before getting packaged in oil. Sardines on the other hand get smoked or cooked before the drying process, after which the fish gets canned. 

Sardines taste fishy, but the flavor isn't as strong as the anchovy. Anchovies also tend to be a little smaller than sardines, and the flesh is more of a reddish-gray and darker than the sardines' white hue. In many cases it's okay to swap the ingredients, though in some recipes the umami-rich addition of anchovy is what makes the dish sing.

Sardines Recipes 

Sure, popping cured sardines in your mouth straight from the can is a great way to eat this food, but there are other ways to enjoy the fish. Try baking a fresh sardine, learning to smoke the fish or even arranging onto a plate to make an artful appetizer. 

Where to Buy Sardines

Look for fresh sardines at a specialty fish shop and buy ones that are clean-smelling and whole. Try to avoid bruised fish, and definitely avoid any fish with "belly burn," a condition where the belly is broken and the guts are starting to come out. This is a sign of an old fish, suitable only for salting down.

Canned and jarred sardines are easier to find and most supermarkets will carry at least one variety. Find the preserved fish in the same aisle as canned tuna and anchovies. Look for cute little cans and slender jars, and for more variety or gourmet sardines visit a specialty grocer or online shops featuring high-end nibbles. 

Storing Sardines 

Because sardines rot faster than almost any other fish due to all those omega-3s, if bought fresh they need to be eaten that day. They can also be frozen, though it's not common to find the fish this way. Most sardines come jarred or canned, so storing them is as simple as putting them in the pantry until ready to use. If there are leftovers from an open can it's best to empty the contents into a glass or plastic container and dispose of the tin. If the fish are completely covered in oil they will remain shelf stable, but otherwise store the sardines in the refrigerator. 

Nutrition and Benefits 

Like most fish, sardines are good for you. Yes, they contain the signature omega-3 fatty acids found in just about any fish, but so much more as well. In fact, a single 3.75-ounce can of sardines contains four times the amount of vitamin B12 one needs in a day, and two-thirds the amount of phosphorus. Sardines also pack in potassium, iron, calcium, vitamins B6, D and A, as well as zinc. Not bad for such a tiny creature that's easy to find canned at most grocery stores and usually at low prices. 

Varieties 

Though sardines are fished all over the world, the varieties found in the shops don't often showcase this fact. Once the fish get cured and preserved in oil many of the nuances get lost, making sardines an overall word for these small fish. Occasionally herring are packaged as sardines, and though the herring is a slightly larger fish, the younger ones look and taste similar.