Cookies from Southern Italy
Feb 232010

This is the third week in a row that I have found fresh sardines at Monterey Fish Market in Berkeley so I decided it was time to write about them. Every time I put fresh sardines on the menu for my cooking classes not many people sign up! If you’re like these students, then I hope that this post will change your mind.

Fresh sardines

I grew up eating fresh sardines and fresh anchovies. These small fish, caught in the early morning around Scalea, were small enough to transport to my inland town of Verbicaro. We had them often when they were in season and prepared them in many different ways.

Sardines, anchovies and mackerel belong to the pesci azzurri family, literally translated as “blue fish” because of the blue tone to their skin. Fresh sardines in particular are very good for you.  Not only are they high in omega-3 fatty acids, but they are also a good source of vitamin D, calcium, B12, and protein. They are also very inexpensive. Here in California I usually pay $1.99 a pound for them. They are sustainable, cheap, and delicious, so what is keeping you away from trying them?

You’ll want to buy fresh sardines ideally the same day they are caught; they spoil very quickly because of their high omega-3 fat level. For that reason you’ll also want to clean them immediately, unless you have a fishmonger that will do it for you. Look for sardines that are fresh looking and not smelly, with shiny silver skin, and are whole. They should look like they just jumped out of water. Avoid them if they are bruised or look dark in color. Don’t buy them frozen! Sardines do not freeze well; the oils in them turn rancid even in a freezer, and the flesh becomes a mushy mess when thawed.

In Calabria people cook fresh sardines in many different ways. One of the easiest preparations is sarde ripiene, stuffed and baked. I’ve given you the recipe at the end of the post;  it was in the manuscript of my forthcoming book, but because it was removed (I had too many sardine and anchovie recipes because I like them so much) you’re in luck.

If I buy very small sardines I will prepare them whole the same way I do with fresh anchovies, just coated with flour and fried in olive oil, known as sarde fritte. Here are some more of the many ways we prepare fresh sardines in Calabria:

Polpette di sarde (sardine “meatballs”, with the fish taking the place of meat)

Cotolette di sarde (breaded like a cutlet and fried)

Sarde al pomodoro (braised whole with tomatoes and onions)

Sarde alla griglia (grilled with just olive oil, lemon juice and parsley)

And I can’t forget my other two favorite ways of cooking fresh sardines, from my husband’s hometown of Palermo:  sarde a beccafico, stuffed and rolled up, then baked with fresh oranges slices, and pasta con sarde, pasta with wild fennel, fresh sardines, pine nuts, raisins, and saffron, which I plan to make as soon  as the wild fennel is ready to be picked.

To clean fresh sardines:

Hold the fish under cold running water and rub off the scales with your thumbnail. By hand, snap off the head and pull down; most of the innards will come out with the head. Use your thumbnail or a small paring knife to slit the belly down to the tail. Remove any remaining innards and rinse the interior.

I spared you the pictures and will show you what they need to look like when they are clean:

Cleaned fresh sardines

Once cleaned you will need to butterfly the sardines for this recipe.  To remove the backbone from each sardine grasp the end of the backbone closer to the head and lift it out. It usually pulls away cleanly from the flesh, although sometimes it clings. If it does cling, gently work the backbone free with your fingers, damaging the flesh as little as possible. Keep the tail intact.

butterflied fresh sardines

Sprinkle the sardines on both sides with salt.  Spread about a tablespoon or so of filling on each half butterflied.

Sardines with filling

Top it with another butterflied sardine.   Drizzle with olive oil and bake.

Sardines stuffed before baking

Ready to eat!  Yummy!

Baked stuffed sardines

Sarde Ripiene


Stuffed Baked Sardines

1 dozen fresh sardines, about 1-1/2 pounds

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt


1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs

1/4 cup freshly grated pecorino cheese

2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon finely minced capers

1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for serving

Lemon wedges

Preheat the oven to 400ºF .

Remove the backbone from each sardine by grasping the end of the backbone closer to the head and lifting it out. It usually pulls away cleanly from the flesh, although sometimes it clings. If it does cling, gently work the backbone free with your fingers, damaging the flesh as little as possible. Keep the tail intact.  Lay the boneless sardines open “butterfly” style.  Remove as many of the other fine white bones as you can. Season the fish on both sides with the salt.

For the filling:  In a small bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, cheese, parsley, capers, lemon zest, garlic, and olive oil. Mix with your fingers until well blended.

Using 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, generously oil a baking dish large enough to hold six of the butterflied sardines. Arrange six of the sardines in the dish, skin side down. Top with the filling, dividing it evenly and pressing it into an even layer. Top each sardine with another sardine, skin side up. Drizzle with remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil.

Bake until the fish are sizzling hot and the flesh is white and flakes easily when prodded with a fork, 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes before serving. The dish is best warm, not hot. Divide the sardines among serving plates, drizzle each portion with a little extra virgin olive oil, and accompany with lemon wedges.

Serves 6

  19 Responses to “Cooking fresh sardines”


    Lucky you, fresh sardines. What recommendations can you make as far as recipes for those of us who can only get them preserved in salt?



    I have never used sardines under salt. I am assuming that they are similar to anchovies under salt. If they are, then they would be very different from fresh sardines. I would probably use them in recipes as I would use salted anchovies but not as a replacement for fresh sardines.
    Ask your fishmonger for fresh sardines, if we all keep on asking for them maybe they will start showing up at the fish markets across the country.


    Lucky you… About an hour northeast of Philadelphia is Doylestown, PA., I have a great local Fish Monger but my cost is $6.50 a pound…. Still inexpensive compared to the other fish I buy.



    I love the butterfly technique (my mother, from Bagnara Calabra, Pellegrina) makes them in the above fashion, I’m a bit lazy and I tend to simply flour them and do a quick fry, here’s my recipe and photos:




    I fry them too when I find small sardines …. but personally I prefer fresh anchovies to fry whole but they are hard to come by. Sardines are being sold fresh on a regular basis here in the Bay Area, anytime they are available I buy them. As you can see from the post I cook fresh sardines in many different ways.


    I’ve been wanting to do a fish stock but the only fresh, whole, wild caught fish in our area came up as the sardine – but the more I read it seems it’s too oily to make fish stock with this type of fish. Is that correct – or do you know? I honestly am not too sure I can do what you just described above – if I can’t do the fish stock with them I’ll give one of the recipes above my best shot.


    I wouldn’t recommend fresh sardines for fish stock. They are wonderful to eat fresh. If they are small you can coat them with flour and fry them, you can grill them, you can cook them in a simple tomato sauce, or you can try the recipe that I have in my blog. They are great with pasta too. Be adventurous, they are very good for you.


    Hi, I also grow up in the mediterranean seashore and love sardines but I leave in Pennsylvania and I can never find them. Do you know someone outthere in California that will ship them in dry ice or any other way, I will bless you for any help you can give me. Your friend in sardines lovers. Adoracion



    Try calling Monterey Fish Market which is where I buy my sardines and other seafood. They ship overnight so they might be able to ship the sardines once they start running here in California. Here is their website:

    Good luck,


    Adoracoin, I don’t know where you might be in PA, or if you ever get to DC, but the Waterfront fish market here has fresh sardines. That’s how I ended up on this page – I was hunting for recipes so I could buy some next time I’m there.


    Last Saturday, my whole family went fishing at Balboa Pier in California during high tide. We catch more than a hundred of fresh sardines. I used to fry them fresh but this time throw most of them into freezer after cutting the head & cleaning. I read that freezing is not good. Does it mean I have to cook those fish immediately? Is there another way to preserve fresh catch sardines. Will appreciate any suggestions.


    You can freeze the sardines, they are just not as good as fresh sardines.


    [...] Sardine Fritte radicchio & endive salad, raisins, pine nuts [...]


    [...] Baked Stuffed Sardines [...]


    [...] Baked Stuffed Sardines [...]


    I will coat and fry them for lunch today. I’ll post back my findings.


    Thanks for this nice post on sardines! You are right, they are best fresh, but people should not be put off from eating them frozen if that is the only way to get them. They don’t freeze as well as some fish, but they aren’t all bad either… We need to eat more sardines and develop the market for them so more fishmongers will carry them.


    Made your baked stuffed sardine recipe tonight and it was beyond delicious. Your taste buds are genius. The fish monger at the farmers market had sardines today and they looked good. When I got home I googled fresh sardine recipes and found your website. Having never cleaned a fish before, I appreciated your detailed instructions. The sardines were quite large, but tearing the heads of and pulling downward made quick work of the cleaning. Thanks for the tip.


    I filet my fresh sardines and eat them like one would sashimi. Wonderful, I make my own dipping sauce, mostly eat without because they taste so rich and flavorful.

 Leave a Reply



You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>