Be Portuguese with Grilled Sardines!

July 25, 2014

It’s the peak of summer and the weather is fantastic, so that can only mean one thing; it’s barbecue time (really, it’s always barbecue time, but bear with me). If you’re anything like me, there is no greater enjoyment than spending an evening with friends, cocktails, and a searing hot grill. I think most people associate this time with sausage, burgers, chicken or steak as the grill is generally reserved for the land and sky animals. I’m a huge fan of the sea though, always have been, so I’m always trying to work some fish into the mix as well. When I noticed a Portuguese neighbour preparing these, I was intrigued.

If you’ve never heard of grilled sardines you’re probably not Portuguese. I’m not either but sometimes I pretend to be. Sardines play an important role in Portuguese culture: On June 13th, Saint Anthony’s Day, people all over Portugal take to the streets to celebrate. Grills, as depicted in the picture below, are fired up and everyone eats a bunch of sardines – sounds like a pretty great holiday to me.


So, if you happen to be 5,400km away from Lisbon, how do you prepare delicious grilled sardines? Let me tell you.

What to Buy

The first thing you need to do is secure yourself some sardines. The big question: fresh or frozen? Fresh is generally better, however, if you live away from the coast, it’s unlikely that you will get any half-decent fresh sardines. These little fish tend to deteriorate fairly quickly so be careful and inspect thoroughly when you’re looking to buy.

The next best option is frozen. Almost any foodie will frown at the idea of using a frozen product but trust me, sardines are one of the exceptions. Like most shrimp, sardines are flash frozen on the fishing boats, meaning they were frozen at peak freshness. To be honest, I almost prefer to work with the frozen variety – at least that way there’s no clock running down on the viability of the fish. When using the fresh variety, you really need to make sure you are buying and grilling on the same day, as you don’t want these lying in your refrigerator.

How to Prepare the Sardines

The second big decision is whether or not you want to gut the sardines beforehand or cook them in their entire splendor and work around the guts after. Don’t worry; neither approach is as gross as it sounds. Standard practice in Portugal is to cook the whole fish and avoid eating the guts. It’s not a hard thing to do as all of the ugly stuff is encased in the rib bones. If that idea just completely freaks you out, take a small knife, slit the underbelly and remove the guts. I’m sure that’s a much more appetizing thought.

Hit the SPOILER button below if you want to see a somewhat graphic GIF of me showing you how to gut the sardine (just press back when you’re done):






Now that we have that out of the way, we can move on to cooking the sardines. First run the fish under cold water to clean then pat dry with a towel. It’s imperative to remove as much moisture as possible so that we can get a good sear on the grill. Once they are dry, throw them onto a sheet pan and rub with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Leave to rest for a few minutes.

The Sauce

In the meantime, let’s prepare our “finishing” sauce. You can be pretty creative here. I’ll let you know how I usually dress them but I think generally any combination of…

Herb + Garlic + Acid + Oil + Spice

…will get the job done. I’m a fan of cilantro and garlic so I like to use:

¼ cup of finely chopped cilantro
¼ cup of finely chopped parsley
2 big cloves of garlic
1 tsp dried chili flakes
1 shallot
¼ cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon

You’re basically making very herbaceous vinaigrette. You could go in a million directions! If you want to be really fancy, you could throw this all into a saucepan and heat to meld the flavours together.

Grill Them

We are ready to put fire to fish. Start by preheating your grill to medium-high heat. I recommend that you apply some vegetable oil (or any other type of oil with a high burning point, ie. NOT extra virgin olive oil) to the grill to avoid any sticking. Fish sticking to the grill can be a real disaster! Place your fish on the grill and leave them alone. Seriously, don’t fuss with the sardines, let them do their thing.

Aside: One of the biggest mistakes people make when grilling is touching. Put whatever you are cooking down on the grill and walk away. The reason you aren’t getting grill marks and flavor from a maillard reaction is that you keep moving your food around. Fussing over your food is also more likely to get your food stuck to the grill. If you leave it there until it’s done a crust will form and it will come off easily.


Second Aside: The Maillard reaction is the chemical reaction that makes seared or toasted food delicious. Yes, searing something is visually appealing, but more importantly, you are creating a bunch of flavor. Think: boiled steak or grilled steak? Maillard is the reason we reach for the grilled steak.

Anyways, cook the sardines, undisturbed, until they are golden on one side (2-3 minutes). Flip them over and leave them for another 2-3 minutes. Once they are done, pull them off and lightly (or heavily, whatever you feel like) brush them with the sauce. You now have yourself a true Portuguese feast. I like to pile them up high and garnish with capers and herbs.

Eat Them!

To eat, carefully pull away the flesh from each side. Once you get the hang of it, you will have no problem avoiding the bones. The taste is oily and fishy but in a good way! The sauce adds the required acid and some fragrance.

This is a great item to prepare if you have a large group coming over. There is a spectacle involved in cooking the fish whole on the grill. Some may be put off by the thought of eating around the head and tail but they quickly forget about that once they get a taste of some of that delicious flesh. If that’s not enough, remind them how healthy sardines are. Everyone wants to be healthy, right? So be healthy and eat a bunch of sardines this weekend.

Photos by ADV Photography

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  • Reply Anne meliambro July 25, 2014 at 11:14 pm

    Looks absolutely delicious! Thank you my son. I’ve heard it’s quite a task to ” work through the bones”…. Perhaps Ava would be a good candidate to taste test this recipe!

  • Reply Anne meliambro July 25, 2014 at 11:30 pm

    Eating sardines may slow the brain’s aging and protect against Alzheimer’s disease.

    Eating oily fish such as mackerel and sardines may ward off Alzheimer’s disease and can delay elderly people’s brains’ aging by two years.

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