How to Fillet Sardines

  • 01 of 06

    Fresh Sardines

    A pile of fresh sardines
    Brian Macdonald / Getty Images

    Sardines are an affordable, popular fish in Morocco, where they're often enjoyed in simplest form by grilling whole fish with little or no seasoning, or by baking sardines on a bed of rock salt.

    Some of the most popular sardine recipes, however, call for boneless sardine fillets. While we usually have a fishmonger debone and butterfly the sardines for us, there are times when the job of filleting sardines must be done at home. Fortunately, it's a relatively simple task; the following slides will walk you through the process.

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  • 02 of 06

    Selecting Fresh Sardines

    A single fresh whole sardine
    Roger Dixon / Getty Images

    Start, of course, by selecting fresh sardines. The skin should be glossy and have a sheen; the eyes should be bright, and the fish should feel firm. Your nose can help you judge as well—fresh sardines should not have a pungently fishy odor.

    Keep in mind that approximately half the purchased weight will be discarded. So, if a recipe calls for one pound of sardine fillets, you'll want to buy two pounds of whole sardines.

    Once you bring the fish home, it's time to clean and fillet.

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  • 03 of 06

    Remove the Head

    A hand bending a sardine head's back
    Christine Benlafquih

    Set out a bowl for collecting the trash and another bowl filled with fresh water; you'll use the water for cleaning your fingers, the knife and the fish as necessary while you work.

    Then, first things first—start by removing the head. We're doing it here by simply bending the head back as shown; it will easily pull off. If that disturbs you, you can use a sharp knife to cut it off instead.

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  • 04 of 06

    Remove the Innards

    cleaning a fresh sardine
    Gut the sardine. Christine Benlafquih

    Once the head is removed, it's time to remove the innards.

    Hold the sardine in one hand, belly side up, or hold it on a cutting board in the same position. With a small sharp knife, cut the sardine by slicing the entire length of its underside. Hold the cavity open a bit so that you can remove and discard the innards.

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  • 05 of 06

    Open the Sardine and Remove the Bones

    Removing bones from sardine fillet
    Christine Benlafquih

    Use your fingers to gently pry open the sardine's cavity to fan or "butterfly" the fish until completely open and flat. The fish bones should now be exposed.

    Run your fingers or your knife along the fish's backbone to loosen it from the meat. Starting from the head and working towards the tail, gently lift out the backbone and ribs.

    The tail should pull off with the bones. If it doesn't, cut it off or pull it off separately.

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  • 06 of 06

    Butterflied Sardine Fillet Ready to Cook

    A butterflied sardine fillet
    Christine Benlafquih

    The butterflied sardine fillet should now look like this. Inspect the fillet for any stray bones and remove them. Dip the fillet in water, rubbing the skin to remove any scales. Once cleaned to your satisfaction, set it aside until ready to cook. The entire fillet with skin is edible. Soaking them in vinegar is a classic recipe.

    Repeat with the remaining sardines. Once you've done several, the job will become easier, and you'll be able to work quickly.