6 Delicious Ways to Use Inexpensive, Heart-Healthy Canned Fish

Healthy Lemon Sardine Pasta
Image credit: The Recipe Critic

Published on November 29, 2021

By Shannon Llewellyn

If you have childhood memories of an older relative who insisted on eating anchovies or sardines straight from the can while all the kids squirmed in disgust, you’re not alone. But your great-uncle from the old country might have been onto something. Tinned fish has become extremely popular lately, and adds depth of flavor to a wide variety of dishes including dips, dressings, sauces, and soups.

Loaded with heart-healthy omega-3s, calcium, and vitamin D, sardines and anchovies are among the healthiest and most economical fish choices out there. And unlike larger fish including tuna, sardines and anchovies have little-to-no traces of mercury, which makes them doubly appealing. 

The skinny on sardines

Packed in oil, water, or a bit of tomato juice, sardines come in a variety of styles. They can also be packed with or without the head, gills, and scales. The two most popular methods of packing sardines are the Norwegian method and the Mediterranean method.

The Norwegian method involves cleaning and smoking the sardines whole, and then removing their heads before packing them in oil. In the Mediterranean method, the fish are gutted and the heads are removed before being packed in oil. Both methods involve cooking the sardines so they are ready to eat fresh from the can or to use in a recipe. Cooking them also helps soften the bones, which makes them easier to eat and use.

Sardines don’t taste particularly fishy and should have a light, bright seawater aroma. Straight from the can, they taste great served with crackers, a dollop of Dijon mustard, and Tabasco sauce. If you’re using sardines in a recipe, you’ll generally want to drain the oil and gently blot them dry with a paper towel. Below are a few ways to use these healthy flavor bombs in some memorably delicious recipes. 

1. Smoked Sardine Bruschetta with Fennel and Pine Nuts

Smoked Sardine Bruschetta with Fennel and Pine Nuts

Image credit: Delicious.com.au

This elegant appetizer contrasts the bright, acidic flavor of tomatoes and orange segments against the mild, creamy flavor of white beans and pine nuts, all while the fresh sardines provide a big umami hit. In a pinch for time? Substitute your favorite brand of hummus for the white bean puree, and sub a frisée mix for the fennel and sorrel. Pro tip: Lightly toast the pine nuts in a dry sauté pan. This burns off the oil, intensifies their flavor, and keeps them extra crunchy!

2. Coconut Quinoa Sardine Bowl

Coconut Quinoa Sardine Bowl

Image credit: Dishing Up Balance

This quinoa bowl recipe requires only four ingredients and takes just 15 minutes: what’s not to love? Making quinoa with coconut milk instead of water has to be one of the smartest, easiest ways to upgrade the flavor of this whole grain. We’d recommend throwing in some lime juice and cilantro for added flavor if you have them on hand, too. 

3. Healthy Lemon Sardine Pasta

Healthy Lemon Sardine Pasta

Image credit: The Recipe Critic

Seafood is often accented with lemon juice and capers, and this pasta recipe is no exception. Here, sardines are taken fresh from the tin and tossed with pasta and parmesan cheese. The panko crumb topping is optional, or could be easily switched out with toasted sesame seeds for a healthier version. For a meal with fewer processed grains, we’d also recommend utilizing a chickpea pasta — or, simply toss the sardines and sauce with some steamed or roasted vegetables in lieu of pasta altogether. 

Add flavor with anchovies

Anchovies are quite different from sardines, even though they’re both small fish that are often sold in oblong cans. Because they are an oily fish, anchovies are quickly beheaded, gutted, and the boneless filets are packed in drums of salt and left to cure for up to 12 months. The salt draws out the moisture, preserving them before they are packed in little tins of olive oil. Their flavor is decidedly different, as well. While you might associate anchovies as only a pizza topping, they have a very distinct, umami flavor that adds depth to many recipes. In recipes using anchovies — like the tasty ones below — make sure to always rinse them first to remove the excess salt they’ve been packed in.

1. Bagna Cauda

Bagna Cauda

Image credit: Inside the Rustic Kitchen

The ultimate anchovy recipe, “bagna cauda” means “hot bath” in Italian. Similar in texture to a fondue, bagna cauda is a heady mix of garlic, anchovies, and olive oil and it makes a distinctive (and delicious) dip, sauce, or a complement to a hearty soup or stew. Fragrant, and with a bracing flavor, bagna cauda is an unforgettable recipe with multiple uses. Use it as a heart-healthy dip for vegetables like radishes, try adding a tablespoonful or two to a chili or soup, or follow Serious Eats’s advice to spoon over hanger steak.  

2. Brussels Sprouts Salad with Warm Anchovy Vinaigrette

Brussels Sprouts Salad with Warm Anchovy Vinaigrette

Image credit: Ahead of Thyme

This impressive salad is a low-carb, high-protein offering that works well alongside any main dish, but could also stand on its own (especially with the addition of a poached egg on top). Heating the anchovy filets into a warm dressing over the cool, thinly-sliced Brussels sprouts makes for a great contrast, but you could also roast the Brussels — or replace with shredded kale.

3. Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

Spaghetti alla Puttenesca

This richly-flavored marinara is made by melting anchovies into the sauce, which develop into a deep, umami flavor that’s highlighted by tart capers, olives, and fresh basil and oregano. For a healthy upgrade, swap pasta for zucchini noodles or spaghetti squash, or use this sauce in your baked eggplant parmesan.

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Good food brings people together.
So do good emails.

Good food brings people together.
So do good emails.