The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Eating Sardines

Ready to try sardines and don’t know where to start? Welcome home.

Tinned fish is now all the rage, but not everyone grows up loving sardines, or even having the chance to ever try them. Foodies and health articles are always mentioning how great sardines are, but they give barely any tips on how to get started. Your friends are no use either, because if they were going to peer-pressure you into sardines they would have done that already. So the goal of this post is to give you a short and simple roadmap to your first sardine-eating experience: where to buy them, what kinds to avoid, and how to get going with ingredients you already keep in the house. But first a few words about taking this big step into the world of tinned fish.

No turning back

Let’s face it–you’re a little hesitant to take the leap. You’ve made it this far without eating sardines, so why start now? Some little voice in your head has been telling you all these years that sardines are wrong to eat, and it still might be telling you that. So the first step in this new adventure is to make up your mind to try something new for a reason that’s important to you. In other words, get your mind right.

To do that you’re going to have to change your beliefs about sardines ahead of time. First, realize that if you’ve never tried sardines before in your life, you have no real reason not to like them. So why are you persuading yourself not to even try them? And even if you’ve had a bad sardine experience in the past, that was probably only because you hadn’t consulted this guide.

Second, of course you’re here because you’ve probably read that sardines will improve your diet in all sorts of ways, that sardines have close to no mercury, and that they are a sustainable catch. So by trying sardines, you’re making good on your commitment to responsible eating. Sardines are also cheap, convenient, versatile, and delicious as you’ll see from the many recipes to come on this blog.

Third, once you’ve got your reasons, mention it to a friend or two. Psychological studies show that you’re much more likely to follow through on a decision if you’ve announced it to others. Of course, they might try to talk you out of it–and now you get to prove them wrong.

Finally, know that we’ll get you through it. This post covers the most basic basics that too often get glossed over, just to make trying sardines as simple and tasty as possible.

You’re going to have a good experience because you’ve already gotten past the hard part, which is setting aside the radical anti-sardine beliefs society has forced upon you. Let’s walk through the easy part: just a few user-friendly approaches for the sardine neophyte to try sardines for the first time, live to tell about it, and even like it.

Choosing your first sardines

So many sardines, so little time.

When you actually get to the supermarket, the choices can seem overwhelming. With bones, without bones, tomato sauce, water, oil, Moroccan, Pacific…to say nothing of the many different brands. There are generally many more different types of canned sardines to choose from than any other canned meat in that supermarket aisle. Which itself is solid proof that sardine-eaters are more interesting and diverse than the anti-sardine population. Here is an easy approach to get you started on your quest.

If you’ve never even tried sardines before, don’t just pick a can at random. The safer bet is to start with something that will seem very familiar, the canned sardines that are most similar to tuna. Typically, these are boneless and skinless sardines packed in olive oil. The reason being that these are mildest in flavor, less smelly than tuna, and have a delicate but satisfying texture.

Spend the money for a good quality can. You’re looking for something in the range of $2-3 per can. Go lower than that for boneless and skinless and you’re likely to find lower quality fish with a rougher flavor. Crown Prince is a quality brand sold by many grocers. I also like the Season Brand sardines sold by Costco, which run a little cheaper but are still very approachable.

A basic sardine taste test

Sardines on a plate.

Now that you’ve got your sardines, you’ve got to figure out what to do with them.

If your goal is to clean up your diet (or keep it clean), you have many solid options. On the low-carb side, you could try eating them plain, but why short yourself on your first time out? For years I’ve been satisfied with some of the most basic ways of preparing sardines that only take a matter of seconds.

Sardines are well-known as a good fish to mix with mustard or mayo. Mayonnaisers: Proceed as though you were preparing the meat for a tuna fish sandwich, and then go without the bread. Dip celery or whatever no-carb option you prefer.

When it comes to mustard, I know lots of you will want to try dijon but don’t overthink this–there is no need to get too fancy right away. Fish calls out for vinegar, and the tangy vinegar in yellow mustard pairs great with the sardines as a dip for cucumber chips or just by itself. Just drain the sardines, combine with mustard in a bowl, and mash it up until you have a spreadable topping.

Adding carbs, if you’re into that

Forget tuna and make this sardine sandwich.

Carb-eaters: You’re in for a treat. Try out a pure and simple sardine sandwich, or better yet, make it a melt. Make the same sandwich, add shredded or sliced cheddar, and throw it onto a buttered skillet or panini press for about 5-minutes a side, until the bread is golden brown and the cheese has started to melt convincingly out from the sides. Now cut it in half, take a bite, and see if it isn’t better than a tuna melt.

Then there is a rampant subculture of people who swear by sardines on toast. Toast up your favorite bread, scoop the sardines out of the can onto the toast, and then drizzle with the remaining olive oil from the can. It’s a classic that will leave you wondering why toast even exists, on its own.

Of course, there are many other ways to dress up your sardines that we will cover in later posts–dozens of great mix-ins, sandwiches, fish cakes, soups, pastas, and regional specialties that use sardines in much the same way as other fish that you eat all the time. So stay, explore, and enjoy your new life as one of the initiated.

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