Monday, June 22, 2020

Eating fish whole: Sardines

Different parts of a fish have different types of nutrients that are important for our health; this includes bones and organs. Therefore it makes sense to consume the fish whole, not just filets made from it. This is easier to do with small than big fish.

Small fish have the added advantage that they have very low concentrations of metals, compared to large fish. The reason for this is that small fish are usually low in the food chain, typically feeding mostly on plankton, especially algae. Large carnivorous fish tend to accumulate metals in their body, and their consumption over time may lead to the accumulation of toxic levels of metals in our bodies.

One of my favorite types of small fish is the sardine. The photo below is of a dish of sardines and vegetables that I prepared recently. Another small fish favorite is the smelt (see this post). I buy wild-caught sardines regularly at the supermarket.

Sardines are very affordable, and typically available throughout the year. In fact, sardines usually sell for the lowest price among all fish in my supermarket; lower even than tilapia and catfish. I generally avoid tilapia and catfish because they are often farmed (tilapia, almost always), and have a poor omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. Sardines are rich in omega-3, which they obtain from algae. They have approximately 14 times more omega-3 than omega-6 fatty acids. This is an excellent ratio, enough to make up for the poorer ratio of some other foods consumed on a day.

This link gives a nutritional breakdown of canned sardines; possibly wild, since they are listed as Pacific sardines. (Fish listed as Atlantic are often farm-raised.) The wild sardines that I buy and eat probably have a higher vitamin and mineral content that the ones the link refers to, including higher calcium content, because they are not canned or processed in any way. Two sardines should amount to a little more than 100 g; of which about 1.6 g will be the omega-3 content. This is a pretty good amount of omega-3, second only to a few other fish, like wild-caught salmon.

Below is a simple recipe. I used it to prepare the sardines shown on the photo above.

- Steam cook the sardines for 1 hour.
- Spread the steam cooked sardines on a sheet pan covered with aluminum foil; use light olive oil to prevent the sardines from sticking to the foil.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Season the steam cooked sardines to taste; I suggest using a small amount of salt, and some chili powder, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, and herbs.
- Bake the sardines for 30 minutes, turn the oven off, and leave them there for 1 hour.

The veggies on the plate are a mix of the following: sweet potato, carrot, celery, zucchini, asparagus, cabbage, and onion. I usually add spinach but I had none around today. They were cooked in a covered frying pan, with olive oil and a little bit of water, in low heat. The cabbage and onion pieces were added to the mix last, so that in the end they had the same consistency as the other veggies.

I do not clean, or gut, my sardines. Normally I just wash them in water, as they come from the supermarket, and immediately start cooking them. Also, I eat them whole, including the head and tail. Since they feed primarily on plant matter, and have a very small digestive tract, there is not much to be “cleaned” off of them anyway. In this sense, they are like smelts and other small fish.

For many years now I have been eating them like that; and so have my family and some friends. Other than some initial ew’s, nobody has ever had even a hint of a digestive problem as a result of eating the sardines like I do. This is very likely the way most of our hominid ancestors ate small fish.

If you prepare the sardines as above, they will be ready to store, or eat somewhat cold. There are several variations of this recipe. For example, you can bake the sardines for 40 minutes, and then serve them hot.

You can also add the stored sardines later to a soup, lightly steam them in a frying pan (with a small amount of water), or sauté them for a meal. For the latter I would recommend using coconut oil and low heat. Butter can also be used, which will give the sardines a slightly different taste.


Erik said...

I've been buying fresh (well, previously frozen) sardines from Whole Foods. Delicious, affordable little fish, but I can't seem to stomach the stomach. I've been gutting the fish and giving the innards to my dog. I do suck the eyeballs out and munch on the brain/head/bones, but am I really missing out by not eating the organs? I eat plenty of pastured beef heart and liver, but the sardine innards just taste incredibly foul.

Might this be an indication of poor diet? These are wild caught sardines.

Perhaps I'll try several at once baked whole. Maybe I just got a bad sardine.

Ned Kock said...


They actually taste better now that I eat them whole. Still, leaving the organs out but still eating them is better than not eating them at all. Sardines are a good source of omega-3 FAs, even without the organs.

Erik said...

I found another source for my sardines: a Japanese market. They get them fresh, rather than previously frozen, and the fish are much smaller than the ones I was buying before. I'm now able to enjoy them whole after a quick trip through the oven. Thanks again.

My cats and dog are big fans, too.

Anonymous said...

I disageee with your take on Tilapia. Why would you care for its fatty acid profile when there is no significant amount of any fat in it to start with. Just add plenty of butter to a pan, fry Tilapia in that butter and pour leftover fat on top.

The good things about Tilpaia is that is is a very fast growing fish and does not accumulate metals in its flesh either.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Anonymous.

I am generally weary of farmed seafood, and usually avoid them. But I may be wrong in doing so. Recently I tried wild mussels, and they tasted like nothing. The farmed ones taste much better.

What you said about tilapia is definitely true for the wild form, but I am not sure about the farm-raised variety.

In the wild form, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is pretty decent if compared with beef (even grass fed).

But it doesn't even get close to the ratio, and the amount of omega-3, you find in sardines.

Andrew said...

I'd have no concerns whatsoever about eating farmed mussels, because they are grown simply by hanging them in mesh bags in clean water,
filter feeding on whatever algae floats by, exactly as wild mussels.
Completely different from farmed finfish grown on commercial feed.

Anonymous said...

The reason why farm raised Tilapia have such a terrible omega oil balance is because they are fed corn. This makes them as bad as corn raised beef for humans to eat. See:

josh said...

EPA and DHA are very sensitive to heat, is it possible that the oils are ruined when heating for a long time or heated to high?

These oils would then be oxidized and could turn into a bad thing for health.

semiotically said...

Aren't all sardines wild-caught?

caroline said...

when you cook the sardines like that can you eat the bones then?

dangph said...

caroline, you can (and should) eat the bones and head no matter how you cook them. I cook them in a pan, and because they are so thin, they cook very quickly.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arthur Adeva said...

Hi. I pickle sardines with vinegar, lots of chopped garlic, a dash of olive oil and salt to atleast 5 hours on a very slow fire.

Very delicious, my kids loves it because it tastes like the one in cans that everything can be eaten including the bones and head..

You can also cook it in a pressure cooker on shorter cooking time than on slow cooking pot.

Anonymous said...

On a Joe Rogan podcast he talked about one time feeling ill. He went to his doctor, who performed tests and found that his mercury levels were high. Joe Rogan said he had been eating lots of fresh sardines and that had caused the high mercury levels. Joe sort of just mentioned this in passing and I was wondering if anyone else had had this problem eating fresh (not canned) sardines.

fourteenthococt said...

Do you thaw them before you steam them?

SImon A R Long said...

you'd get some K2 by eating the guts,
I ate a whole raw one and it was incredibly bitter, (previously frozen for killing parasites)
it seems strange to cook them for so long, most fish I low temp poach for maybe 10 mins, 1/4 cup of water, not swimming

Putsie Tucson said...

Hello: I had been searching out sardine recipes when I came across yours. I'm curious about the amount of time you cook your sardines (one hour to steam, 30 minutes to bake). Everything else I've seen has far lower cooking times - maybe 20 minutes total.

What is the reasoning for such long cooking times? Better taste? Softer bones?

Ned Kock said...

This post is a revised version of a previous post. The original comments are preserved here. More comments welcome, but no spam please!

SImon A R Long said...

To the person who mentioned mercury, sardines would be the safest of fish, short food chain plant from phyto plankton, the bigger the fish, the more the mercury is concentrated.

You take selenium every day, 200 or 400 mcg, and it prevents you from accumulating mercury,
and will slowly displace it over time, and if you already have too much mercury, take a short course of DMSA, First day I took it it was like I was chewing on batteries, constant strong metallic taste in my mouth.
I took another dose in a weeks time, milder response, 3rd week, no response.

Ned Kock said...

This post is a revised version of a previous post. The original comments are preserved here. More comments welcome, but no spam please!