A beginner’s guide to sardines


What are sardines?

They’re an oily fish – like mackerel, anchovies and salmon. They’re a kind of herring and belong to the Clupeidae family. Sardines are a forage fish (food for larger fish) and they’re epipelagic which means they live in the ocean’s 4000m-deep pelagic zone, in the 200m-deep illuminated part close to the surface. They’re fished purse-seine or by net, mostly during the night when they come to the surface to feed on plankton. 


Why are sardines good for me?

Oily fish like sardines contain omega-3 fatty acid. Our bodies don’t produce this so we need to get it from food. Omega-3 fatty acid is a polyunsaturated fat - a good fat that helps lower cholesterol and blood pressure and protect against heart disease. Oily fish might also help combat anxiety and depression, they may be good for joint and eye health too and prevent hardening of the arteries. They’re probably miraculous.


Sardines in water VS oil: which one is better?

Sardines in olive oil taste better - arguably. Sardines in water have roughly half as much fat, but the amount of saturated fat isn’t a lot higher in olive oil-packed sardines. In other words sardines in olive oil have more fat, but it’s the good stuff.

How much oily fish can I eat each week?

A healthy diet should include two portions (a portion is around 140g or a tin and a half) of fish each week and one of them should be oily, the NHS says. There is different advice for different groups – but this applies to everyone. 

The best way to eat tinned sardines?

Tinned sardines mashed on toast with black pepper and chopped herbs is a fail-safe. Drained if it’s sardines in olive oil or with the tomato and other sauces. Or sardines with scrambled eggs and chopped tomatoes (on toast again). They’re protein-heavy and carb-light so pairing them with carbs makes for a more balanced dish. Thinly sliced shallot, red onion (or white for more oomph) all work well with sardines or toast, and a chopped herb garnish for freshness and colour.

Our recommended way to cook tinned sardines

Tinned sardines are already cooked so all that’s required to cook with them is to heat them through towards the end of the cooking time. They’re great cold in a green salad, and also a win when added to a traybake of roasted vegetables (10 minutes before they come out of the oven) – their skins crisp up but the sardines don’t dry out. With rice is also great; if you heap them onto just-boiled rice the steam heats the sardines through. The same goes for pasta. Check out our recipe page for more ideas. In colder months, in a piperade, a Basque dish, is great. Piper means pepper in Basque. A piperade is typically green pepper, onion, tomatoes and garlic sautéed in olive oil.   

However you have them, some kind of acid, like lemon juice or white wine vinegar, will cut through the sardine’s fattiness and work well. 


Are sardines the same as pilchards?

They’re the same. Pilchards are larger, older, adult sardines. 


In what ways are sardines sustainable?

Sardines are caught purse seine (where a large net is lowered into the water and closed around the fish) so there is no damage to the sea bed as with bottom trawling, and the smaller sardines can swim through the net and replenish ocean stocks. As with all tinned fish, there’s no waste either - you can eat everything that’s in the can, bones and all. And there’s no rush to eat the fish which also means less waste. They’re caught at their best and all the goodness is preserved in the tin - they just get tastier with time in the tin.


Why are they called sardines?

The name (possibly) comes from Sardinia, the island around which they were once abundant.


How do tinned sardines differ from each other? 

There are regular-sized sardines where there are three to four in a tin from Pinhais, Berthe, Cocagne, La Gondola and some Luças tins. Then - descending in size - there are Pepus sardinillas and Luças and Cântara petingas (small sardines in Spanish and Portuguese respectively). There are 10/12 in these tins of sardines. Smaller again are the Ramón Peña sardinillas where you have 15/20 or 20/25, and the smallest are Espinaler’s premium line which have 30/40 sardinillas or baby sardines in the tin. We have boneless sardines - or fillets - too, by Berthe and La Gondola too. Then there are the different sauces. If you’re a chilli fan buy sardines with piri piri by Luças or with chilli-spiked olive oil by Pinhais. Or for Portuguese sardines canned with lemon or escabeche explore the Cântara range (If mackerel or sardines is your thing, Cântara mackerel with mustard or Berthe’s are recommended stopping off points too.) Or try Nuri classic sardines in tomato. For sardine gifts that take in all this variety that’s out there, the Sardinero box or the sardine subscription is a good place to start.