What to Do with Fresh Sardines

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I think sardines just don’t get enough credit. Most of us know them as that oily little fish in the can, and if your childhood was anything like mine, “sardines” meant playing a game where you squeezed as many bodies as possible into a claustrophobia–inducing tiny space.

People, I am here to tell you that fresh sardines are delicious. SO delicious. And usually really inexpensive, and easy to prepare. I don’t eat foods out of duty anymore, so I will make this point very brief– sardines are very good for you, as one of the highest sources of essential omega-3 fatty acids on the planet, as well as many beneficial minerals, and they are one of the most sustainable and least-contaminated types of seafood available.

You should totally eat them, not just because they are good for you, but because they are so darned delicious.

Last weekend, we visited the Cadiz Central Market. It was totally my scene– so much fresh, delicious food, good smells, and packed with people who are really interested in good food. Jeff had been mentioning recently that he wants to cook more seafood at home (since we live in a place that is renowned for its great seafood!) and so I asked him to just choose any type of fish he wanted to try cooking. He chose sardines, which are very popular here. We had enjoyed them really wonderfully prepared (grilled and salted really simply) in Portugal recently.

He bought six of them, and then looked up a recipe when got home for enjoying them grilled over a wood fire. The recipe for the sauce to pour over them was so good that I have to share it with you!Fresh Sardines at the Cadiz Market

What to Do With Fresh Sardines

First of all, scale them and clean them. Some fishmongers will do this for you, but with such small fish, some are reluctant. In England, they would scale and clean them, but here in Spain, the answer is no. A lot of times they are cooked with the insides intact.

To scale a fresh sardine, get a paring knife and hold the fish over the sink with one, hand, scraping with the back of the knife from tail to head. Scales should pop off nicely, as you make thins scraping (some would say shaving) movements over the whole fish. Rinse under cold water and run your hands over the skin to make sure you got all of the scales.

To clean a fresh sardine, hold the fish with its bell facing up to you, find the little hole on its underside (which is its anus.) Pointing the knife upward, make an incision from the anus up to the fish’s throat. (You want the sharp side of the knife facing up, so you don’t cut into the guts.) Use your finger to ease the guts out, and then rinse with cold water. You’re done!

As far as cooking fresh sardines goes, my advice to you is to grill them. They are so delicious grilled, and it literally takes five minutes of less.Grilled Fresh SardinesGrilled Sardines with  Charred Lemon & Chile Sauce

This recipe is from Food Republic, posted by Sam Mogannam and Dabney Gough

What You’ll Need

  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, more as needed
  • 3 medium organic lemon, washed
  • 2 red chile peppers
  • 2 tablespoons parsley, fresh, chopped
  • 3 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium shallot, minced
  • coarse sea salt
  • 16 whole sardines, fresh, cleaned
 (about 1.5 pounds)

What to Do:

  1. Prepare a medium-hot grill fire. We used all wood (amazing flavor) so we let the fire burn down completely to hot embers.
  2. Cut 2 of the lemons into 1/4-inch slices and slice the other in half.
  3. Char the lemons by grilling the slices and halves until they have nice grill marks, 2 to 3 minutes per side for the slices and 3 minutes total for the halves. Quickly grill the chiles until lightly charred, about 1 minute– turning them over halfway through, when they begin to blister.
  4. Mince a quarter of the lemon slices and put into a small bowl. Chop up the chiles into small pieces, removing the seeds if you don’t want it too hot. Add the chiles to the bowl, as well as the olive oil, parsley, garlic, shallot, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Whisk it all together with a fork, and set it aside.
  5. Season the sardines with a little salt and drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Grill them, turning once, until the fish are just cooked through– about 2 minutes per side.
  6. Arrange the remaining lemon slices on a platter and arrange the grilled sardines on top. Pour the sauce over and around the sardines, and squeeze the grilled lemon halves over the platter.
  7. Serve the grilled sardines warm or at room temperature.

You can’t go wrong with grilling fresh sardines, and then adding a lively sauce or relish to them. Another take on this idea is Nourished Kitchen’s Grilled Sardines with Preserved Lemon Gremolata. Grilled Sardines with Charred Lemon & Chile Sauce I hope you will give this delicious fish a try!

If you are a veteran sardine-lover, how do you like them prepared?

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9 Responses to What to Do with Fresh Sardines

  1. Aimee August 5, 2015 at 5:08 pm #

    I don’t mean to sound ignorant, but do you eat them whole? Pop them in your mouth by the tail. Do you cut them up? Do you take the meat out with a fish fork?

    • ariana August 5, 2015 at 7:25 pm #

      Aimee, you eat the skin and flesh between the tail and head. There will be some tiny bones in there, but they are very fine and you just chew and swallow those. Leave the spine connected to the head and tail, and when you have eaten all of the meat on one side, flip it over and eat that meat. At the end, it should look like a cartoon fish– head, bones and tail!

  2. Susan July 2, 2017 at 2:51 am #

    Are these the bigger sardines? We really like smelt, but recently bought some frozen small sardines recently when our grocery store was out of smelt. I was a bit dismayed when I got home and found the sardines had heads. I thawed half of them, took off the heads and gutted them, and cooked them. We liked them ok but I haven’t been able to bring myself to thaw and clean/cook the rest. It was just messy and troublesome.

  3. John Burnaby June 20, 2018 at 4:19 am #

    This recipe is fantastic! I found a guy who is a privateer fisherman and asked him for some sardines that are running right now in the Santa Barbara channel. A day later he lets me know that he will have some for me that afternoon. So I meet him and he gives me 3# of sardines that are about 1 hour out of the water. I followed this recipe (ad libs: cilantro for parsley, jalapeno for red pepper, lime for lemons) on a medium oak fire/coals in a Weber w/lid cracked open, fish on for about 3-4 min per side, and then assembled. OMG! The best ever. Allow 4 fish (3/4 lb of whole fish) per person and a few more. Serve with a good, fresh sourdough, and fresh asparagus and your favorite IPA. Unbelievable! *****

  4. Cabell August 5, 2018 at 2:18 pm #

    Sardines contain the AA taurine that is good for dogs. Is there a way to prepare them so that they may be eaten whole?

  5. peter franzen September 3, 2018 at 9:38 pm #

    This is a great recipe but if you don’t have much time just cook them in the microwave for about 2 and a half minutes.

  6. mike trevor October 13, 2018 at 7:23 pm #

    Scale and fillet with sharp knife. cut fillets into in 1 inch pieces mix with coconut cream lime juice green onion, salt pepper and dash of shiracha marinate in ice box serve chilled.


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