How to Cook with Sardines

Forget their bad reputation. Sardines are nutritional powerhouses that can be quite tasty once you learn how to cook them.

July 6, 2010

Sardines are a great source of protein, healthy fats, calcium, and vitamin D.

RODALE, NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Summer seems to call out for fresh fish. Light and tasty, it pairs well with the season's fresh fruits and vegetables and—a godsend on hot, sweltering days—you can usually cook fish in under 10 minutes and not spend too much time over a hot stove. But with concerns over mercury contamination and other environmental pollutants that build up in some fish, and with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill driving up prices on some species, you may not be enjoying fish this summer as much as you normally would be.


Time to try sardines! Despite their reputation for being oily and unappetizing, sardines are actually quite tasty and are one of the safest fish to eat, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Super Green fish list: high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids (which help to regulate and lower cholesterol levels) and low in carbohydrates and environmental contaminants. A can of sardines contains a whopping 37 grams of protein, and they're also high in iron, vitamin D, and calcium.

Find Them Fresh

Fresh sardines are a seasonal delicacy, usually available from your local fishmonger during the summer months. Easy to sauté, bake, and grill, fresh sardines can substitute for salmon or tuna in most recipes, or serve as an elegant appetizer or Spanish "tapas." Because of their distinctive flavor and oily composition, sardines pair well with sharply flavored ingredients, such as tomato sauce, mustard dressings, and lemon.

If this is your first time cooking sardines, a simple way to start is to cook them whole, removing the bones first then breading them lightly before baking them or sautéing them in olive oil. To prepare fish cutlets, flavor breadcrumbs with chopped tarragon and some zest from an orange rind. Brush the filets with Dijon mustard and then dip them in breadcrumbs. Place your fish on a baking sheet brushed with olive oil and bake in the oven until golden. Serve with lemon wedges.

You can also infuse flavors into sardines by marinating them before or after cooking. For a fresh marinade, chop one tablespoon each of fresh rosemary and parsley leaves, lemon juice, and olive oil. Pour over fish filets and let marinate for one hour. Sauté or grill for two minutes on each side. Finish with a sprinkling of sea salt and serve with a peppery watercress salad.

Escabeche, a Spanish-style brine that is poured over cooked fish is an ideal preparation for sardines. Dissolve a few tablespoons of honey or sugar in red wine vinegar with sliced onion, bay leaf, and coriander. Pour over cooked sardines and let marinate overnight. Serve with a chopped vegetable salad.

Canned Sardines

When fresh sardines are not available, opt for canned, which can be prepared using the recipes above, and they're good pureed into a tasty sandwich spread, blended into a salad dressing, or chopped into your favorite pasta sauce. Canned sardines are most often packed in oil or water, the latter of which tends to mellow the fishy taste. A good quality olive oil is preferable to soy oil, which adds additional calories and fat. As mentioned above, sardines pair well with sharply flavored ingredients like tomato sauce, mustard dressings, and lemon, so canned preparations often marinate the fish with these ingredients as alternatives to the basic oil or water varieties.

For an easy lunch, blend a handful of capers, olives, or cornichons and canned sardines into a basic mustard vinaigrette or low-calorie mayonnaise to create a mashed sardines sandwich spread. Or, thin out the spread by adding more vinegar and olive oil and emulsify into a high-protein salad dressing. For a quick dinner, chop up some canned sardines and add them to an eggplant caponata for a quick pasta sauce, or let them lend protein and flavor to a marinara sauce.

A quick note about cans: Food cans are often lined with an epoxy resin that contains the hormone disruptor bisphenol A. However, Vital Choice brand seafood uses BPA-free cans for its sardines, and Wild Planet brand is in the process of converting all its sardine cans to a BPA-free alternative.

Diane Forley is chef and owner of Flourish Baking Company, a vegetable-inspired bakeshop that offers savory pies, artisanal breads, and fruit confections.