Don't write them off because of their smell. 
Credit: Photo: Jennifer Causey

Sardines can be a strange food to cook with, since they aren’t so “desirable” across the general public. Maybe it’s the smell or the stigma, but most people tend to steer away from this canned fish and opt for other options, like salmon or tuna.

That's a shame, because sardines are high in protein and loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron, and potassium, so they’re really, really good for you. And if cooked correctly, they make for a delicious and nutritious snack or protein-packed meal.

Here are a few simple and healthy ways to enjoy sardines. They may just become your new favorite fish!

Sardines on Toast

Move over avocado toast—there’s a new fancy toast in town. "They are great on a hot piece of toast with some grass-fed ghee butter,” says Fabio Viviani, Executive Chef and Partner of DineAmic Group in Chicago.

Ghee butter is full of fat-soluble vitamins and healthy fatty acids, to complement the good fats in sardines. “I usually sprinkle the sardines with some sea salt and bonito flakes or black garlic slices and boom, you have an easy-to-make and delicious snack," he says.

Bonito flakes are known to improve blood circulation and concentration, he says, and it makes for a killer flavor combination.

As for black garlic, you can find it at your local grocery store, but you’ll need to manually slice it. “Since it usually is soft it can be difficult to slice it, but the best way would be to use a super sharp knife and slice it about the size of a thumbprint,” he says.

As a Pizza Topping

Choose as many sardines you’d like to eat for a serving to then put on your pizza. “Generally, sardines come cooked so to add some additional flavor I like to toss them in lemon juice and olive oil (about a tablespoon each), include about a pinch of thyme and/or tarragon and some fresh black pepper (about a few turns on the pepper mill),” says Viviani.

When making your pizza, add the sardines to it before you cook the pizza so it becomes a complete, well-rounded dish with flavors that work swimmingly. Feel free to add in some veggies too for more fiber, like broccoli or bell peppers.

As a Dressing

Instead of using anchovies for a classic Caesar salad dressing, swap them for sardines, which are just as nutritious and flavorful and offer something different, says Chef Jumoke Jackson.

You’ll need one finely grated clove of garlic, two smoked sardines, a 1/2 cup of mayo, 1 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan, 3 tbsp of fresh lemon juice, 1/4 cup olive oil, and some salt and pepper to taste.

“Combine garlic and sardines in a small bowl and mash until you get a paste. Add the Parm, mayo, lemon juice and a 2 tbsps. of the olive oil.  Mix well. Slowly add more olive oil until you get the consistency you wish,” he says. It’ll give a nice creamy texture to those salad greens.

As a Red Sauce Pasta Dish

Sardines are great in pasta dishes where fish is a complementary flavor, and a great example is linguine with spicy red sauce, sardines, and sautéed vegetables, says Lauren Harris-Pincus MS, RDN, author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.

“While 1/2 box of whole wheat or chickpea linguine or angel hair is cooking, add a few cups of chopped veggies to a saute pan with 1 Tablespoon of olive oil and a pinch of kosher salt. Any veggies work well, especially onions, broccoli, zucchini, cauliflower, peppers and spinach,” she says.

Cook until greens are wilted and veggies are soft. Add 2-3 cups of marinara, fra diavolo, or arrabbiata sauce, and one box of drained sardines. Stir gently until heated through and serve over pasta. If you like a spicier sauce, add red pepper flakes to bring the heat, she says.

As a Pasta Dish With Olive Oil

For a lighter pasta option, “Bucatini con la Sarda,” or spaghetti with sardines that includes a whole bulb of fennel with stems and fronds attached, 1/4 cup pine nuts, 5 pieces of garlic, 1/2 bunch parsley, one teaspoon chili flakes, 4oz. golden raisins, extra virgin olive oil, and lemon, says Chef Christopher Thompson of Coda di Volpe in Chicago.

“Start by draining the sardines then chop. Separate fennel bulb from stem, pick the green fronds (leaves) and finely mince, then set aside. Finely dice the fennel bulb and toast the pine nuts,” he says. Peel garlic cloves thin and cut parsley finely before bringing one quart of water to a boil.

“Pour in raisins so they are completely submerged in water and soak for 30 minutes. Begin cooking bucatini pasta with salted water (roughly 8-10 minutes),” he says.

For the sauce, gently warm extra virgin olive oil over medium heat and add the diced fennel bulb and sauté, stirring frequently until just tender and translucent. Add a large pinch of chili flakes and garlic, then parsley and fennel, followed by sardines.

“Keep stirring then add a small quantity of raisins as well as two tablespoons of their plumping liquid. Now add a squeeze of half of one lemon,” he says. Twirl the pasta from the pan onto your plate and top with toasted pine nuts extra parsley and fennel fronds, as well as extra virgin olive oil, for a final touch.

Grilled Sardines

Simply grilling sardines makes for a flavorful and nutritious meal, and it’s really easy to whip up when you’re short on time. “An easy grilled sardine recipe would be to grill them over an open flame with lemon, garlic and paprika,” says Maggie Michalczyk, MS, RDN.

You’ll need 1 tbsp. garlic, minced, 2 tbsp. olive oil, 2 tbsp. lemon juice, 1 tsp. paprika, 1/2 tsp. black pepper and salt (each), 1/2 lb. fresh sardines, cleaned, scaled, and gutted, and 1 tbsp. of capers, tarragon, and lemon wedge for garnish.

“Marinate the sardines in lemon juice, olive oil, black pepper and paprika in a shallow dish for 30 minutes. Using a fish spatula, place the sardines on the grill and grill on each side for about 2 minutes, flipping in between,” she says. Once lightly charred, remove and top with salt, capers, lemon, and tarragon.