Iridescent, tiny and flavorful, sardines are actually several different types of small fish — not a species, as some people think.
Sardines swim in huge schools near the water's surface and are easily caught by net, mainly at night. The fish feed by straining plankton from seawater as they swim, ranking them low on the aquatic food chain — and low in heavy metal contaminants, such as mercury. Although typically just a few inches long, sardines can grow longer than a foot.
Found in oceans around the world, sardines are a culinary mainstay in many European countries. They are fish that rapidly reproduce, but due to overfishing, ineffective regulations and environmental impact, Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program has labeled Atlantic sardines from the Mediterranean region as "Avoid." As of April, most sardine fishing off the U.S. West Coast also is banned for the second year in a row due to plunging sardine populations. The good news is canned sardines packed before the bans are available.
Cooking with Sardines
While fresh sardines are occasionally available during summer months at some markets, they’re more commonly found canned, either whole or as fillets, with or without skin and bones. Both the skin and bones are edible, but can be removed based on preference. The canning procedure involves washing sardines, removing the heads, cooking, drying and then packing them in water, oil or sauces such as tomato, chili or mustard. Sardines are sometimes smoked or salted, too.
With a full, rich flavor, sardines are considered by many to be the ultimate convenience food. Their appeal spans the socioeconomic ladder, enticing thrifty shoppers and food connoisseurs alike. In fact, there are vintage sardine collectors — similar to wine collectors — who have opinions on the best brands, years and maturity periods of tinned sardines.
Enjoy canned sardines plain, straight from the tin, or mashed with mustard and onions as a spread on crackers or toast for a light lunch. Add sardines to salads and sauces or sauté them with herbs to top pasta.
Nutritional Qualities of Sardines
Sardines are one of the new "it" fish, thanks to their impressive nutrition profile and status as a low-mercury option. Depending on their size, there are typically one to two sardines in a one-ounce serving of canned sardines. They’re a good source of protein and vitamin D. Thanks to their soft, edible bones, canned Atlantic sardines are a good source of calcium, too (Pacific sardines, on a per-ounce basis, fall a bit short at 68 milligrams).
Their sodium content varies depending on the liquid used in canning. The American Heart Association recommends sardines in its list of fish rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which research shows may decrease the risk of heart arrhythmias and triglyceride levels and may slightly lower blood pressure.
Using Sardines in Foodservice
In the U.S., restaurant menus may feature grilled, broiled or deep-fried sardines during their short summer season. In Europe, the small fish hold a special place in cultures, particularly along coastal regions, and freshly grilled sardines are standard summer fare. Fresh sardines may be tough to find and are quite perishable. Frozen sardines are available in 20- or 50-pound boxes from select seafood purveyors.
Canned sardines are not typically found on menus in restaurants or foodservice establishments; if anything, they may be used in appetizers. Large quantities of canned sardines are available in tins that range from two to 15 ounces and are packed by the case. Once opened, tins of sardines can be refrigerated for three to four days.
Kerry Neville, MS, RD, is principal of MIX, a food and nutrition communications firm based in Seattle.
Sardine-Stuffed Grape Leaves
- [10 grams] 1 tablespoon dried currants
- [35 grams] ¼ cup yellow onion, finely diced
- [25 grams] 1½ tablespoons (22 milliliters) olive oil, divided
- [30 grams] ¼ cup walnuts, chopped
- [70 grams] ⅓ cup brown rice, dry
- [1 gram] ¼ teaspoon salt
- [<1 gram] ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- [240 grams] 1 cup (240 milliliters) water
- [15 grams] ¼ cup fresh dill, chopped
- [8 grams] 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
- [6 grams] 2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
- [50 grams] 10 large preserved grape leaves
- [250 grams] 20 small fresh sardines, heads and spines removed, then cleaned
- [110 grams] 1 large lemon, cut into wedges
- Line baking tray with parchment paper or aluminum foil.
- Place currants in a small bowl and cover with ½ cup warm water to rehydrate for about 5 minutes, then drain.
- In a small, nonstick saucepan over medium-low heat, sauté onion in ½ tablespoon olive oil until soft.
- Add walnuts and brown rice, and cook for 1 minute. Mix in salt, pepper, drained currants and 1 cup water. Bring to a simmer, cover with lid and cook over low heat until rice is cooked, about 25 minutes.
- Remove from heat and stir in dill, parsley and mint. Set rice aside while preparing grape leaves.
- Remove grape leaves from jar, place in a large bowl and submerge in cold water to help unwrap and flatten them. Drain water, then cover leaves with almost-boiling hot water to remove some saltiness. Allow to sit in hot water for 1 minute, then drain. Remove stems and slice in half symmetrically down the center. Cut extra in case some rip.
- Place one grape leaf half on a flat work surface, and place sardine fillet at the wider end of the leaf. Stuff sardine with a small spoonful of rice mixture, then fold fish over the rice to enclose it. Roll fish tightly into the grape leaf. Place each rolled grape leaf onto the lined baking tray, allowing at least a finger-width distance between the pieces. Repeat until all fish is used.
- Turn broiler to low. Brush the tops of the grape leaves lightly with remaining tablespoon of olive oil and place under the broiler for 8 minutes until the grape leaves are darkened but not charred. Remove and use tongs to carefully turn grape leaves. Return to broiler for an additional 8 minutes. Check for doneness by cutting through the center of a roll to ensure fish is white and flaky.
- Serve hot with fresh lemon wedges to squeeze over the top. Serves 4.
- If fresh sardines are not available, use canned sardines and omit salt from recipe.
SERVING SIZE: 5 pieces (80 grams)
CALORIES 327; TOTAL FAT 19g; SAT. FAT 3g; CHOL. 52mg; SODIUM 587mg; CARB. 22g; FIBER 4g; SUGARS 4g; PROTEIN 19g; POTASSIUM 509mg; PHOSPHORUS 299mg