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Can You Eat Sardines?

Sardines are probably one of the most popular fishes around – at least when it comes to canning. You’ll see cans of sardines piled up like hockey pucks on supermarket shelves almost as often as tuna, the ultimate canned fish king.

But while tuna is almost universally acknowledged to be a safe choice for consumption (unless you somehow manage to go overboard, which is no good for any kind of product, not just fish), sardines seem to inspire more doubt in people. Not in the least because they’re often canned with skin and bones intact. This is fair – after all, most of us have been taught as kids that fish bones are a choking hazard and we should be very careful of them.

But is it true? Let’s break it down.

Sardines Are Perfectly Edible

First things first – yes, sardines are perfectly edible. Even the sorts that are canned with bones and all.

You can, of course, buy sardines raw and have them cleaned (or clean them yourself), but it’s going to be hard unless you live in the Mediterranean, and there’s next to no point to it, aside from your peace of mind, if you’re afraid of choking on a bone. Not to mention, a raw and cleaned sardine may cost you ostensibly more than a regular ol’ canned variety.

That said, if you’re ready to pay some extra money to be able to enjoy the sardines – the fresh ones generally tend to have a weaker smell and less pronounced taste than the canned ones, which are known for strong odor and pronounced fishy taste.

Sardine Characteristics

Sardines are tiny, oily fish that are jam-packed with nutrients down to their bones.

Literally. Sardine bones are actually really soft and easily chewable, which is why they’re not often deboned when canned (though if you look hard enough you’ll find several canned varieties that do come without the bones). Sardine bones are a great source of calcium.

Aside from calcium, the whole sardines are a fantastic source of healthy Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins B-12 and D (though do keep in mind, that sunlight is still the primary source of vitamin D and sardines – or any other food – will not be able to act as an independent source by themselves; they’re more of a supplement than the main product).

And if that weren’t enough, sardines also provide a healthy dose of multiple minerals. The abovementioned calcium, niacin, and iron, first and foremost, but also magnesium, zinc, potassium, and phosphorus – so those who suffer from electrolyte deficiency should definitely think about adding a few serving of sardines a week to their diets.

In fact, many people who don’t even enjoy their taste have mentioned consuming them as a sort of medicine, to increase their healthy fat and vitamin intake.

Additionally, sardines are a low-mercury fish, which makes them an optimal choice for people who should be careful of their mercury intake – such as pregnant women, for example. While they’re usually advised to steer clear of high-mercury fishes like tuna during their pregnancy, dietitians have also made it pretty clear that including a more optimal choice of fish in their diets will be not just beneficial, but could actually help avoid multiple problems related to vitamin and mineral deficiency pregnancy is often accompanied by. Sardines, along with anchovies, tilapia, and cod, have been mentioned among the most beneficial options due to their low mercury levels.

The Best Ways of Eating Sardines 

Many people suffer from pre-conceived notions about sardines: mostly that they stink and are overtly greasy.

Which – hey – can be true. But the way sardines are canned will often influence their odor and taste profiles. If sardines are packed in cheap oil then yes, it will augment their fishy taste and smell (though some do find it tasty still).

High-quality olive oil, some kind of a sauce (typically tomato-based), or just water instead of oil, on the other hand, result in a weaker smell and less punchy taste.

If you are one of the people suffering from pre-conceived notions about sardines, or simply can’t take the fishy smell all too well, then it would make sense to go for fresh sardines first – or, at the very least, the ones packed in plain water. Move onto the sauces and oil next.

Grilled Sardines

The easiest and tastiest way to cook up fresh sardines is to grill them. Fresh sardines have a distinct but less “punchy” taste and they don’t require a lot of work. Just season with some coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, and squeeze a lemon wedge over it when done – this recipe won’t steer you wrong.

On Toast

In post-Soviet countries, where sardines canned in oil or tomato sauce are pretty common (and often referred to as “shproti”, alongside other varieties of canned small fish), enjoying them on a toast is a classic.

You can mash them (like you would tuna), or simply put them whole on a well-toasted piece of bread. Rye bread is the traditional choice, but you can enjoy it on a piece of a good whole-wheat or sourdough bread as well.

If white bread is your favorite, you can enjoy them on top of it as well – but I’d advise against it. Canned sardines have a strong taste, after all, so it’s preferable for the bread to also have a strong flavor profile to complement the sardines and not to “get lost”.

On a Pizza

Sounds weird? Well, it works! Anchovies on a pizza have long been a popular topping (no matter what certain people say) and sardines work just as well.

The tomato sauce and cheese are both strong in flavor by themselves, so they mitigate the sardines’ strong flavor, sort of “bringing it down” and making it palatable for people who are suspicious of its distinct fishy taste. Just make sure that you’re generous with the cheese.

(Add fresh arugula and a squeeze of lemon juice on top for maximum effect!).