I had a lot of fun earlier this spring playing with sardines. It was for the cause of a good story (Our Little Local Fish) in the spring issue of Edible San Francisco). After lots of research and some experimentation, this is the curing method recipe I liked best – easy, delicious, and rather fun.
Curing softens the flavor of sardines, makes the texture of the fish more dense and a bit silky. Use them as you would any smoked or cured fish – on crostini, in salads, or on bagels with cream cheese. These sardines are particularly lovely topped with a mixture of grated hard-cooked egg, capers, and a squirt of lemon. Cured sardines can be stored, covered with oil (a decent but not too fancy olive oil works great), for up to a week in the fridge. This recipe scales up (or down) very easily.
12 Pacific sardines
1/2 cup sea salt
Use a sharp knife to cut off the heads just past where their gills are. Cut a slit down their bellies almost to the tail (you can also simply lay them flat on one side and cut off a thin edge down the length of their belly-side), open them up, and (I like to do this part under running water) sweep out their guts with your finger.
You can, of course, ask the fishmonger to do the beheading and gutting for you and leave the guts out of your kitchen. Sardine guts are, however, about as innocuous as fish guts get, so if you know how to clean fish or want to give it a try, this is a good place to start.
Rinse the fish clean and pat them dry (do this when you get them home even if you have the fishmonger clean them).
Lay the fish in a baking pan or similar vessel (you can put them on a rack in the pan to encourage even curing, but it isn’t necessary). I like to put mine in a neat row because they look like little soldiers ready for duty, but you can arrange them as you see fit. Sprinkle them with about half the salt; turn them over and sprinkle with the remaining salt. There’s no need to open the fish up and salt the flesh directly on the inside. They will cure nicely through the skin, and this method will help them from becoming too salty in the end.
Cover the pan with a layer (or two or even three) of plastic wrap and tuck it away in the fridge for two days.
After two days (in the realm of 36 to 48 hours), uncover the pan and rinse off all the sardines under cool running water. Open up a sardine and – this part is really amazing – use your fingers to work the two filets (one on each side of the fish) away from the skin. In most cases, the filets quite easily pull away from the skin. Some bits of skin may remain on the fish, but they are perfectly edible and you don’t need to worry about them.
What you have now are lox-esque versions of sardines. Give them a taste. If yours are quite salty, soak them in cool water for about an hour to leech out some of the salt. They are totally and completely and deliciously edible. They become even silkier and milder if you let them sit covered in olive oil for a few days.
Then, if you want, you can make…
Marinated Home-Cured Sardines
This is but one way to use home-cured sardines. Feel free to play around with this marinade, adding aromatics and herbs as you see fit. Marinated home-cured sardines are delicious served with a warm potato salad, on a mash of root vegetables, or – my favorite – on top of a bed of lacinato kale gently cooked until quite soft. Leftovers – if you’re lucky enough to have such a thing – are delicious alongside scrambled eggs for breakfast.
12 home-cured sardines (24 filets)
¾ cup olive oil, divided
1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
¼ to ½ teaspoon red chile flakes (optional)
⅓ cup agrodulce (or white wine vinegar plus 1 teaspoon sugar, stirred to dissolve)
Lay sardine filets in a casserole dish or wide, shallow bowl.
Warm ¼ cup of the olive oil over medium heat in a large frying pan. Add red onion and cook, stirring, until onion is soft, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and chile flakes and cook, stirring, until the garlic is also soft, about another 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add remaining ½ cup olive oil and agrodulce or vinegar.
Pour still-warm mixture over sardines. Let sit at least 30 minutes and up to two days. For overnight marinating, cover and chill, but bring to room temperature before serving.