Here’s the perfect recipe for the sardine-shy: Take fresh, boneless sardine fillets. Coat with a bold Italian breadcrumb crust flavoured with lemon, garlic, herbs, capers and pecorino cheese. Now quickly kiss them with a hot pan until crispy. It’s an explosion of flavour and texture that’s cooked in 2 1/2 minutes flat, making it one of the fastest fish recipes around!
Sardines are one of the most underrated fish around. They are rich in flavour, cheap and good for you (they’re packed with heart-healthy omega 3’s). They’re also a fast-breeding and sustainably fished species.
Many cultures revere the humble sardine, especially when pulled sparkling fresh from the sea. In Sicily, Italians love to roll up sardines stuffed with breadcrumbs, garlic, herbs and a little tangy hard cheese, then bake them or throw them on a hot barbecue.
It’s this southern Italian take on sardines that we’re drawing inspiration from today. The flavours of Sicily – lemon, pine nuts, chilli, garlic, herbs, pecorino and olive oil – are a winning match for the robust flavour of sardines!
This recipe is an excellent one for the sardine-wary or first-timers because:
There’s no bones to worry about. We’re using pre-filleted sardines today. However for the record, sardine bones are so small and soft you can actually eat them!
The intense crust flavours stand up to the stronger flavour of sardines; and
It’s really quick and easy.
This is a really quick sardine recipe with big Italian flavours that’s great for sardine first-timers.
Sardines for this recipe
As mentioned above, we’re using fresh, pre filleted sardines in this recipe. The guts and bones are removed, and the sardines come butterflied, as shown below.
They can be purchased from fish mongers fresh and sometimes packaged at fresh produce stores such as Harris Farm in Sydney (packet below).
Filleting your own is not particularly difficult but it’s a little fiddly to do well. So I will be mighty impressed if you do! Leave a comment below to brag! 😂
If they come vacuum-packed (as pictured below), they can have a shelf life of a couple of weeks. Fresh sardines that aren’t packaged however have a short shelf life, like all oily fish. Use preferably the same day you buy them or at the latest the next day.
Whole fresh sardines
This recipe is specifically designed for filleted sardines but can easily be amended for whole sardines. To do so, just sprinkle the whole sardines with the tasty crumb onto the sardines on a tray, drizzle with olive oil then bake in a hot oven. Directions are in Note 1 on the recipe card.
Though this recipe is not designed for canned sardines, to incorporate that tasty crumb into a dish using canned sardines, I would split them in half horizontally as best I can (they will break, that’s ok) then line them up so they’re are touching. Cover completely with crumb, drizzle with olive oil, then grill/broil until the crumb is crunchy and the sardines are warmed through. Scoop up with spatula, pile onto toast. Devour! (Directions in Note 1)
Other fish that can be used
This recipe works beautifully with both oily and non-oily fish. The fillets just need to be fairly small and thin with a flat flesh surface. This makes it suitable for the crust to adhere and for the fish to cook through before the crust burns. Other fish that can be used for this recipe as written include:
Use your judgement for quantity – enough for 2 people. Also the cook time will need to be adjusted slightly for the thickness of the fillet you use.
Ingredients for the Italian Crust and Topping
Here’s what you need for the flavour-loaded crust! There’s quite a few substitution options, so don’t be concerned if you don’t have everything.
Anchovies – We’re using this as the seasoning (salt) in the crust mixture. “But, will it be too fishy??” I hear you you wondering. NO! Finely minced, once it’s mixed up withe everything else then cooked, you’re just left with brilliant savoury flavour and no trace of anchovy flavour.
Anchovies are a secret ingredient and umami-booster in many classic recipes. Think Italian Puttanesca pasta, French Cafe de Paris (steak butter!), tapenade and everybody’s favourite Caesar Salad Dressing. Chefs know even roast lamb benefits from a few cheeky fillets stuffed or mashed into the flesh.
Finely chopping anchovy fillets is best but for convenience, paste can be used. If you’re immovable on the question of anchovies (but … why??!), leave it out and add more pecorino instead.
Pecorino (or parmesan) – Another savoury flavour-booster in this crumb, and also helps make the crumb extra crispy when fried up!
Panko breadcrumbs – A Japanese breadcrumb favoured for the extra-crispy coating it gives crumbed foods. You can buy it at most big supermarkets (Coles, Woolworths) in the Asian foods section and Asian stores. Substitute with regular breadcrumbs if you can’t find it.
Garlic – Hard to find an Italian recipe without!
Lemon – We use zest here to bring a beautiful perfume of fresh lemon flavour to the crust. Really, don’t skip this!
Capers – Briny goodness to balance out the big savoury flavours going on in this crust. Don’t have capers? Substitute with finely chopped gherkins or even green olives, for a similar flavour effect.
Pine nuts – A classic Sicilian ingredient! The creamy nuttiness works brilliantly with sardines. Substitute with: almonds, macadamias or pecans.
Parsley, chilli, onion topping – For a fresh touch and sprinkle of colour, and some theatrics as they sizzle dramatically when you douse with the hot oil!
Spiciness – The chilli we’re using here are large chillis which are barely spicy. The rule of thumb is: the larger the chilli, the less spicy they are! But if you’re concerned, leave them out and use more parsley instead.
How to make Italian Crusted Sardines
There’s a bit of mincing and grating to get the crunchy crumb coating prepared (but boy is it worth it!). The actual assembling and cooking part is super quick: 2 1/2 minutes on the stove!
Crumb mixture – Mix the ingredients together in a bowl then spread on a small plate.
Prepare sardines – Pat the sardines dry with a paper towel, and sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper. Then sprinkle just the skin side with a little paprika. This gives the skin side and oil a lovely blush, and a hint of earthy flavour.
Press flesh side into the crumb mixture. You won’t get a full, thick breadcrumb coverage because we’re not using the usual egg-flour dredge. The amount that sticks naturally is exactly what we want. Sardine fillets are small and thin, so we don’t want to overdo the crumb. This is also the reason why we only coat one side.
Don’t worry, it will adhere quite firmly once cooked, thanks to the pecorino cheese (cheese = second best food glue after egg!)
Repeat with remaining sardines then put fish aside on a plate, breadcrumb side up.
Pan fry – Cook the sardines for 60 seconds skin side down initially. Then turn carefully – I use a small spatula and a butter knife for extra control – and cook the crust side for 90 seconds or until golden and crispy.
A tip is to place the sardines in the skillet in a set sequence so you then can turn them in the same order. This is important for even cooking in recipes like this where the food is on the stove for such a short period of time.
Crispy! This is what you are looking for before removing from the skillet – golden and crispy. We want that crisp! Err, and the golden too for that matter. 😂
Topping – Remove the sardines to a serving plate, crust side up. Then sprinkle with the Topping (onion, chilli, parsley).
The dramatic sizzle! The oil we used to pan fry the sardines is infused with flavour, so we will not be wasting it! It will also have a lovely red tinge to it, thanks to the paprika.
We pour this delicious, hot oil over the sardines. The topping fries instantly, their aromas and flavours released in a dramatic sizzle! In fact, why not do this at the table, to impress? 😇
What to serve with Italian Sardines
To make this into an instant meal serve on toast or for even better crunch factor, crostini. I like to use thin baguettes and slice on a heavy bias to make long crostini. See here for directions for how to make crostini.
Go for a brightly-dressed, juicy salad to cut through the richness of the fish and oil dressing. A big, fat, juicy Greek Salad would be absolutely on theme here, as would an Italian Panzanella or a Tomato Salad with Olive Tapenade. Here are a few more suggestions:
And if you’re ever feeling indecisive, you know you always have our ultimate fall back – The Great Garden Salad! – Nagi x
Watch how to make it
Italian Crusted Sardines
- 8 butterflied sardines (20g each = 160g total, Note 1)
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/8 tsp pepper
- 1/4 tsp smoked paprika (sub normal or sweet)
- 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs (Note 2)
- 1 garlic clove , finely minced
- 2 tsp toasted pinenuts , finely chopped (Note 3)
- 2 anchovies fillets , finely minced (sub 3/4 tsp paste, Note 4)
- 1 tsp baby capers , drained, finely chopped (Note 5)
- 1 tsp lemon zest
- 4 tbsp pecorino cheese , finely grated (or parmesan)
- 2 tsp fresh oregano , chopped (sub 1/2 tsp dried)
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 4 tsp red onion, finely chopped (~1/4 small onion)
- 1 tsp large red chilli, finely chopped , deseeded
- 2 tsp parsley , finely chopped
- Mix Crust: Mix the Italian Crust ingredients in a bowl. Spread on a small plate.
- Mix Topping: Mix the Topping together in another small bowl.
- Prepare sardines: Pat sardines dry with paper towel. Sprinkle both sides of each sardine with the salt and pepper. Sprinkle the skin side only with the paprika.
- Crust flesh side: Press flesh side only firmly into the breadcrumbs – it won't completely cover, that's what we want (Note 6). Place on plate, breadcrumb side up. Repeat with remaining sardines.
- Pan fry sardines: Heat oil in a large non stick skillet over medium high heat. Place sardines in, skin side down. Cook for 60 seconds, then carefully turn. Cook the crust side for 90 seconds or until golden and crispy.
- Topping & oil drizzle: Remove sardines onto plate, crust side up. Sprinkle with Topping. Pour remaining hot oil over sardines – enjoy the sizzle!
- Serve immediately! Ideal served with crostini for the ultimate sardines on toast. See in post for side salad pairings.
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