I absolutely love sardines. I grew up eating them as a child raised in the Philippines. It was probably the food I ate the most, unlike American kids and their mac and cheese!
Problem: BPA & Chemicals
It’s nearly impossible to find grocery-bought sardines not found in cans, and you want to avoid cans as much as possible because of the BPA. Even if the can is labeled “BPA-free,” there’s probably some other chemical alternative used as a preservative.
Solution: Glass Jar | Problem: Toxic/Cheap Oils & Ingredients
A good solution is to buy sardines jarred in glass. You will find jarred sardines at your Asian grocery stores, but almost all of them have other junk in them like corn oil. Not Paleo, not Bulletproof™, and definitely not healthy. Almost all corn (about 85-90%) is GMO and always a huge source of mold toxins. That’s why it’s so cheap. You will find that many products, including sardines, advertised as having “olive oil” on the front, almost always have another cheap oil mixed in. The brand San Sebastian advertises that they use olive oil, but their sardines are cooked in corn oil. The most commonly used cheap and unhealthy oils are soy/soya, canola, corn, sunflower, peanut, and cottonseed. All of these are highly processed and can hurt your body even in little amounts.
The better solution? Make your own! You can choose the oil (olive is best for storing and coconut for cooking), the salt (Himalayan), and the other low-toxin ingredients. The best solution of course is to catch the sardines yourself before they end up in frozen plastic packages at the store. For now, we will work on the easy side of the “better” solution and jar our own sardines that come in frozen packages. You can get frozen sardines at your local Asian grocery store.
Sardines are technically just small fish, so you can work with different kinds. Small fish are pretty safe as far as Mercury goes and they’re almost always wild caught. My favorite small fish is herring. In Asian tradition, these fish are preserved naturally with sea salt then kept frozen. Herring is called tunsoy and dried herring is tuyo in Filipino. Tuyo is used in this recipe.
To really make sardines, with edible bones, you will need a pressure cooker. Not everyone has one, so we will make a more tedious compromise by removing the bones as much as possible. Not fun, but adding vinegar is the trick to help soften the bones!
- At least one frozen package of small fish. I used dried herring (tunsoy/tuyo), about 7-9 fish; 3 packages total, where 1 package only cost me $3.99!
- 1/2 cup organic extra virgin olive oil
- Organic coconut oil and/or organic palm oil
- 1/2 cup organic apple cider vinegar
- Spring water
- Pink himalayan salt
- Optional: organic coconut aminos
- 1-2 glass jars with lid (depending on how much you want to make and can fit)
- Pressure cooker or frying pan (pressure cooker if you are not used to removing fish bones or don’t like eating occasional prickly bones)
- Spatula, fork, big mixing bowl
- Turn on the vents and open some windows! This will be one stinky operation. You might want to wait until your roommates are not in the house, or warn them. Don’t wear anything you can’t easily throw in the laundry. After I cleaned up from cooking though, Rob didn’t even notice that I cooked fish at all, and I smelled fine after eating it… kissable even. If you stick with the procedure below, you will be fine!
- No need to defrost the package(s) of herring. And you don’t have to separate each of the fish which have frozen together either. Just open the package(s) and place the group of fish on your cutting board. Cut off the heads and the tails. They usually come aligned, so it should be easy to do this.
- Before you decide on whether to use a pressure cooker or not: Use a pressure cooker if you are not used to removing fish bones or don’t like eating occasional prickly bones. I am Filipino, so I am used to that! Pressure cooker cooks faster and results in softer sardines, too (just like the ones you get in the cans). Although I like most sardines soft, I like my dried herring in particular to be stiff and chewy. This results in like the beef jerky of sardines, but stored in oil. If you are familiar with Filipino tuyo, you might want to just do the frying pan to get this same stiff effect. If you’ve never had tuyo in your life, you might not like your sardines this way.
- If you decide on a pressure cooker, great! If not, skip step 4. Dump the sardines in with a bit of water, just enough to cover all the sardines. You can add a tbsp of coconut and/or palm oil to it. Cook on low heat for 3-5 minutes. Go towards 5 if you have 10 or more sardines.
- If you don’t have a pressure cooker or decide not to use it, use the frying pan. This is what I used, as you can see above in the photos. Put in 2 tbsp or more of coconut and/or palm oil and cover the entire pan. I used both oils. Place the sardines in the pan and cook on low-medium heat. You might need more than one pan, so that you don’t crowd the sardines and prevent them from cooking evenly. Flip from time to time. They are done when the scales start to come off and are golden in color. Cover the pan between flips so the cooking is faster, so you won’t get oil splatters (OUCH!), and so the smell doesn’t get everywhere.
- Turn off the heat and set aside. Transfer the sardines to a bowl. Let them cool until it’s comfortable for you to start peeling. Don’t wait too long. Colder fish is tougher to peel.
- While the sardines are cooling, mix 1 part olive oil and 1 part apple cider vinegar with 1 tbsp Himalayan salt (to add the minerals naturally found in sea salt, in case your package used table salt to preserve), and whatever else you want for flavoring. If you want garlic, you might want to fry in a pan first or just use it raw. You can also add some spice with fresh chili or cayenne. We try not to use dried spices as much as possible due to the mold/mycotoxin content in them. Use fresh herbs as much as possible. I used a generous amount of coconut aminos for this recipe. That’s about it. Taste to see if the mixture is to your liking. This varies from person to person. The flavor will be enhanced by the sardines. Add some spring water to tame the flavor. Mix well. As a variation, you may want to only have tomato sauce and chili in the jar or in another jar.
- Go back to your cooled bowl of fish. If you pressure cooked, you can choose to remove the scales if you want or leave them on. You can use a fork or your hands to remove the scales. If you didn’t pressure cook, split the sardines in half as carefully as possible and remove the spine and most of the bones. This is the hardest part. You don’t have to be perfect, because we will add the vinegar later to help soften the bones.
- Place the sardine pieces (you’ll end up with either really tiny pieces or longer pieces the better you get at this) in your jar(s). You can stack them up and fill the jar(s). I used one 8oz jar for 3 packages of tuyo (24 count). You will see that the mixture will keep rising as you add more fish. You might want to leave about an inch of mixture from the lid. Less is fine, too, but no more (to prevent spilling).
- You can eat the sardines right away or wait a couple of days for them to marinate in the fridge. The vinegar in the mixture will soften the bones the longer you marinate, especially if you cooked with a frying pan. The acidity will also help break down possible toxins found in the fish or in your ingredients. This is why it’s essential to marinate pork. Marinating will also intensify the flavor. Enjoy with a small amount of warm organic white rice in the evening for the Bulletproof™ folks! Having it with fried garlic rice is the traditional way to eat tuyo or sardines. No need to reheat the sardines unless you really want to. I find that having everything else on my plate warm makes up for the cold sardines. I even enjoy it straight from the jar!
- You can store them in the fridge. It’s okay to leave them out but away from heat sources, because it’s fully cooked and soaked in brine and should preserve well. This mixture should last you months. If you’re like me, though, this jar will be done in a few days!