Sardines well may be one of the most underappreciated foods of the ocean. But perhaps it’s time to shed their humble reputation.
They’re not served with drawn butter nor are they often rolled for sushi. Sardines are generally the forgotten fish, with salmon, seabass and tuna usually basking in the aquatic glow. But these small silvery fish with swimmingly delicious meat represent the true flavor of the sea. Mostly found in cans, they can also be enjoyed straight off the grill, from the oven or out of the frying pan.
There are plenty of fish in the sea, but few pack as much nutritional punch as the sardine. In fact, one 3-ounce serving of these little swimmers has 1,950 mg of omega-3 fats—that’s more than similar serving sizes of seafood giants like salmon, tuna and mackerel. Omega-3s are good for heart health, as they reduce high triglyceride levels, and they help curb joint pain and stiffness. They’re good for the brain too—omega-3s boost memory and other cognitive functions and can reduce the risk of dementia. A serving of sardines has only 190 calories, is loaded with protein (23 grams) and delivers other healthy goodies like a punch of vitamin B12—a whopping 150 percent of the daily recommended amount of it. What sardines lack are contaminants. Those concerned about their fish containing metals such as mercury need not worry: Unlike predatory fish like tuna and swordfish, sardines do not contain many toxins
Sardines are widely sold in cans alongside tuna, salmon and anchovies on grocery store shelves. They’re typically packed tight in a variety of liquids, from oil to tomato sauce, water or lemon juice. At room temperature, a can of unopened sardines has a shelf life of about five years. Once open, they can be eaten straight from the tin, used as a salad topping or mixed with condiments like mayo, mustard or hot sauce. (Just refrigerate anything that’s uneaten.) As for that bone in the middle? It contains calcium and is fully edible—whether you eat it or not is your preference. Fresh sardines are less common than the canned variety,but both are inexpensive and have similar nutritional values. Of course, you’ll have to clean the fish yourself (or ask your fishmonger to do it) if you buy them fresh. Like many fish, sardines will go bad quickly—so they should be prepared the same day they’re purchased or kept refrigerated in a plastic bag with ice until cooked. Whether fried, baked or grilled, keep your recipe simple (olive oil and lemon) and allow the flavor of the fish to shine.
Did you know?
Bumble Bee Foods operated the last full-time sardine cannery in the United States before it closed in 2010. The plant, located in Maine, was the last of several dozen canneries that opened during the sardine industry boom, which began in the 1870s and reached its peak in the 1950s. Federal regulations limiting the number of fish pulled from the sea stifled business from coast to coast, and canneries had been in decline ever since. Today, only a handful of small canneries in California still process sardines. —Darius Amos
Fast Fact- The story of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row revolves around the people on Ocean View Avenue, a street in Monterey, Calif., that is home to now-defunct sardine canning factories. The novel inspired a 1980s film of the same name.