The best way to open a can of sardines

There is not enough space on the internet for all that needs to be said about how to open a simple can of sardines. Like any advanced cooking skill, it’s a task that has as many nuances as it has perils. Oil, metal, and desperate hunger can be a dangerous combination, One false move and you could end up at the center of a sardine-themed catastrophe that will have your family wondering.

I was once like you, daunted by the thought of opening every can I saw. But by practicing daily for more than a decade, I finally arrived at a solution that works for everybody: It gets you to your food, it keeps the kitchen clean, it respects the needs of others you might live with, and most important of all, it protects the condition of the sardines inside. With time, I learned that opening cans of sardines was less of a skill, and more of an art form. So without further ado, here is the process I swear by, that will end this violent controversy once and for all.

This method is used to open sardines that are packed in olive oil, and it assumes that you don’t want to keep the oil to eat with the sardines or to burn in your homemade olive oil lamp.

sardine can

Step 1: Obtain a can of sardines

The first step of the process is to take possession of a can of sardines that has not yet been opened. If you already have a can of sardines nearby, you can skip this step. But if you don’t have a can of sardines, I hate to say it, but you aren’t going to have much luck opening anything. To open a can of sardines you need to have a can of sardines. You can’t lift weights without weights to lift.

sardine can grip

Step 2: Grip the sardines

There are different theories about the grip. For example, some people use “the vise,” positioning their thumb and third or fourth finger at each end of the can and securing it in place that way, as depicted in the image above.

For me, the most natural is the “Eastern forehand grip.” Imagine the sardine can on its side, floating in the air. Now, with your non-dominant hand, reach out and shake hands with the imaginary floating sardine can like this:

Eastern forehand sardine grip

Your thumb should be pointing down the long end of the floating can with your fingers curled around the other side, but not so far that they block the lid. That’s the position you want your hand to be in. Now let go of the imaginary floating sardine can and give it a try with the physical sardine can that you have obtained in reality. Don’t let go–hold onto the sardines in that position and prepare to move onto the next step.

eastern forehand sardine grip

Just take care that the lid and pop-tab that you will pull to open the can are facing away from the palm of your hand. If your hand is blocking the lid, the lid will not open properly, and you will need to start the entire process over again with a can facing the other way. To fix the problem, just imagine that the can has spun 180-degrees while floating in the air and grab the actual sardine can from that new angle. You may now proceed.

sardine corner open

Step 3: Pre-open the sardines

With your hand in the correct, tennis-style position, you are now ready to commence the pre-opening process. Inspect the lid of the can and locate the opening mechanism. Usually, this is a pop-tab similar to the type found on popular carbonated beverages. With the wrong sequence of manipulations, that tab will apply leverage to the lid of the can and lead to a uncontrolled chain reaction that eventually leads to large-scale sardine eruption. We can do better.

Delicately pry the pop-tab away from the lid, causing it to apply downward pressure to the lid and cut a small opening. (If your sardine can has a foil lid and tab such as that shown above, the prying process will only lift the tab and not cut an opening.) Continue to pry the tab until it reaches a proud 90-degree angle to the surface of the lid or goes a little bit beyond that point. Now stop. This moment is exciting, but you will regret it if you rush or cut any corners. Except for the corner of the can, which has just been cut in a literal sense.

Use your thumb and forefingers to pinch the tab and exert a perpendicular pulling force in order to release the lid slightly–only slightly–from the rest of the can. I’m talking about a fraction, maybe half of an inch. The opening should not be more than 0.6750 inches (1.7145 centimeters).

Step 4: Drain the sardines

Now it is time to drain the sardines. Pouring any oil down the drain can lead to plumbing problems, so catch the oil with a small bowl or other receptacle to dispose of or compost separately. Take the can in both hands now and position it at right angles to the earth, as if you were going to pour its contents out of the small hole you’ve opened and into the grease-rescue receptacle. Which is exactly what you are going to do.

The oil will run out slowly at first. To speed up this process, gently squeeze the lid toward the back of the can. Squeezing will force out more of the oil. Squeezing repetitively will force out more of the oil repetitively. And before you know it, after continuing this process for 5-10 seconds, there will be no more oil to squeeze.

Step 5: Open the lid the rest of the way

Did you ever go to a movie and sit through some previews, and one of the previews was exceedingly long and involved, so much so that after viewing it you felt like you didn’t need to even see the movie because the preview had shown you the whole thing? Step 4 is kind of like that. The heading sort of says it all.

Step 6: Remove the sardines and soap the can

For sardine extraction, the most reliable method is a fork. Delicately pry out each of the sardines individually to minimize the impact on the sardines. Or, if you are in a rush, work the tines toward the back of the tin and lever the sardines out as a group. Often this will leave some meat trapped around the edges of the can, which can be successfully removed with a quick sweeping action.

Now that the can is empty, adding a drop or two of dish soap will facilitate clean-up.

Step 7: Rinse that devoid-of-sardines can

Putting an unrinsed sardine can into the trash or recycling is risky. You risk arousing suspicion and being falsely accused of crimes that were actually committed by tuna-eaters. Stay on the straight and narrow path. Take advantage of the soap in the can and give it a nice sudsy rinse. Your sardine-fearing roommates or family members will never know what happened and the real criminals will get their comeuppance.

sardine freedom

Step 8: Plate and eat your sardines

Congratulations! If you’re reached this step it means that you’re getting close to enjoying the fruits of your sardine-opening labor. And do not be surprised if a new thought occurs. You may come to appreciate that the sardines were not the reason after all. You will eat the sardines, of course, but perhaps they were only an excuse for a marvelous journey from the outside to the inside of the can.


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