Fresh sardines are tasty, healthy, affordable and plentiful. So why don't we eat more of them? With sardine season underway off the coast of California, now is a good time to remember that "sardine" isn't synonymous with "from a can" or "product of Estonia." Pacific sardines are a delicacy from close to home that cost a fraction of the price of most other fresh seafood. But preparing fresh sardines can be trickier than with big fish, due largely to their high oil content, which helps create a fishy smell. The golden rule of sardine cookery is they should be tasted, not smelled.
Wild-caught seafood is in high demand, but many wild fish stocks are dwindling while prices, understandably, are climbing. Certain fishing methods damage underwater ecosystems and create bycatch, whereby the wrong fish are caught, killed and too often wasted. Another problem with wild-caught fish at the top of the food chain, like tuna and swordfish, is they are known to accumulate dangerous levels of heavy metals and other dangerous chemicals in their fat.
As plankton eaters, sardines contain few of the toxins found in predator fish. That same diet also helps make sardines rich in omega-3 oils, HDL (aka "good") cholesterol, selenium and, if you eat the soft bones, calcium. I've seen fresh sardines sold for as little as $2 a pound, making them one of the best fish values around.
Pacific sardines are also, according to Seafood Watch, a "Best Choice" among seafood options, a reflection of efforts to reduce bycatch and the health of the Pacific sardine fishery, which is currently in a boom phase of the population's decades-long boom-and-bust cycle.
But sardines' fishiness is the reason some people will pay 10 times more for mercury-tainted swordfish. We don't want fish to smell or taste fishy. We like fresh, clean fish that doesn't smell like anything, and tastes like whatever kind of fish it is. Old fish will smell fishy, which only nostrils more finely tuned than the average American's can distinguish from the smell of rotten fish.
Sardines are inherently fishy—even good, fresh, clean specimens. And in a rare disconnect between smell and taste that's also characteristic of fine stinky cheeses, the fishiest of sardines can still taste fabulous, provided you follow the golden rule.
The delectability of sardines is not completely overlooked, as they are America's second most popular canned fish after tuna. And we can look to those cans for guidance on how best to manage sardines' fishiness while enjoying their flavor. Submerging sardines in oil or water contains the smell, even after the can is opened. That's a clue.
Herring, a big brother to the sardine, is often pickled, which balances the fish's inherent oiliness and also submerges the smell. Anchovies, the sardine's little brothers, are the smelliest of all. They are often salted for storage, and it turns out that rubbing sardines with salt before you clean them will dissolve the fishy slime that coats the body. Then rinse with your choice of culinary acid (water, lime, white wine, vinegar) followed by water. This is worth doing to all fresh sardines, regardless of the recipe you intend to follow.
How sardines are cooked influences the extent to which the aroma will roam. Days after I once marinated and pan-fried a pound of sardines, visitors were still asking: fish for dinner? Marinated sardines are best cooked outside, on the grill, where the fat can drip and the fishy steam can disperse. Avoid long-simmering sardine soups.Perhaps the most popular way to cook sardines is to bread and fry them. The breading seals in the fishiness, allowing you to eat without smelling.
Fried sardines are common in many Mediterranean countries, and can be used as ingredients in other dishes. Fried fish simmered in rich, acidic sauce is called escabeche in Brazil and Portugal. Fried sardines can also be pickled.
If you can find sardines for sale, look for bright, sturdy specimens with clear eyes. If they haven't been scaled, do so gently with a knife. Then rub with salt and rinse with water and/or culinary acid. Clean out the guts, removing the head and/or bones if desired. You can also pull their heads off, gently, toward the belly, so that the bones and guts come out with the head attached. This trick yields two boneless filets held together by the skin.
Rinse again. Air or pat dry, then sprinkle your cleaned sardines with salt and pepper and roll them in flour. Heat an inch or so of olive oil on low in a pan, and when a drop of water invokes a splatter, add the fish. Three minutes per side should do it, though you can cook them longer if you want a browner crisp at the expense of moist flesh. Fried sardines are typically served with lemon wedges or a dipping sauce like aioli, and little else. But the alternatives are many, such as cooking fried sardines in a Thai green curry, or stuffing a few into a po-boy sandwich.