Small fish like anchovies and sardines are sustainable, healthy, tasty, and last forever in the pantry.
Advertisement

Small fish have long been dismissed as good only for bait. They've also had to face down an unappealing reputation, as that oily, pungent, overly salty stuff inside a can. Yet the tide has been rising in favor of small bait for many years now, and for multiple, excellent reasons.

The first is sustainability. Since they're pretty low on the food chain, finger-sized fish require little in the way of resources. And since they've (yet) to be overfished like popular catches such as tuna and salmon, they're still readily available in the wild; sidestepping farming practices that contribute to pollution, exhaust valuable resources, and often run havoc with the ecosystem. And they're not all dependent on the same optimal ocean temperatures — some teensy fish flourish in warm weather, and others in cold — meaning small species don't experience population fluctuations all at once.

The second upside of diminutive fish is health benefits. That assertive oiliness that was once considered a detriment? Consumers are realizing that it translates to an abundance of nutrients — in fact, anchovies and sardines are as rich in omega-3s as it gets. And that's not all. Their teeny-weeny bodies are pretty much powerhouses of vitamins, minerals, proteins and amino acids, while the tender, edible bones are an excellent source of calcium.

The third (and most recent) advantage credited to small bait, are the very tins that people once turned their noses up at. Now that everyone is hoarding cans, they can appreciate the value of preserved protein. And whether contained in oil or water, little fish don't sacrifice any of their nutritional content by being packaged.

And of course, the fourth score for small fish is that they're absolutely delicious! Enjoyed straight up, or prepared in a variety of ways, they deliver full-throttled flavor in a tiny package.

So read on for our showcase of the most available and versatile miniature fish, along with recipes and ideas on what to do with them.

Sardines
Sardines | Photo by Meredith

Anchovies

No longer a maligned pizza topping, these sought after swimmers are finally receiving accolades for culinary excellence. Cured in salt, they're fabulously fatty and deeply savory, but not as off-puttingly "fishy" as one might think. And they practically dissolve when they hit the heat, meaning you'll hardly know they're there, save for the nutty, cheesy quality they contribute. When enjoyed whole, anchovies are great on buttered bread, especially the white, Spanish variety known as boquerones. They're a must in Caesar Salad or Salad Nicoise, a vital addition to the Italian dip known as Bagna Cauda, and the perfect playmate for pasta. Think Puttanesca, Sicilian Spaghetti, Garlic Anchovy Linguine, and Bucatini Pasta with Shrimp.

Check Out Our Favorite Anchovy Recipes.

Salad Nicoise
Salad Nicoise | Photo by LynnInHK

Sardines

Often sold with heads and tails intact, you'll get to consume 100% of the nutrients from small and mighty sardines. Since they're sturdy, they're terrific grilled, pickled, smoked or fried. And as with anchovies, they're excellent in pasta; try the appropriately-named Pasta Con Sarde. You can also go on a real round-the-world gastronomic tour with sardines. We're talking Quick Sardine Curry, Japanese Country-Style Miso and Tofu, and Island-Style Sardines and Rice.

Check Out Our Favorite Sardine Recipes.

a plate of sardines topped with capers, sun dried tomato strips, and lemon slices
Sardines with Sun-Dried Tomato and Capers | Photo by iloveoliveoil
| Credit: iloveoliveoil

Mackerel

This saltwater fish counts tuna and bonito as relatives, which is why it's a favorite in Japan, and a usual suspect on sushi menus. It helps that mackerel is especially attractive, with rosy flesh and a shimmering, silvery belly. What are some tasty ways to use this omega 3-packed flavor bomb? Try Mackerel Dip, Mackerel Cakes, Tomato Mackerel Salad, African Cabbage Stew (featuring canned mackerel) and Fried Tulingan (a Filipino speciality slicked with tamarind sauce).

Check Out Our Favorite Mackerel Recipes.

Godeungeo Jorim (Korean Braised Mackerel with Radish)
Godeungeo Jorim (Korean Braised Mackerel with Radish) | Photo by mykoreaneats

Herring

Nordic and Eastern European countries have an ingrained appreciation of herring. Flaky and mild, it's often pickled or fermented, and frequently coated in cream sauce. Want to experiment with herring yourself? Check out our recipes for Pickled Herring and Cucumber Salad, Avocado and Pilchard Pate, Russian Beet Salad with Herring, and Polish Sledzie w Jogurcie (herring in yogurt).

Sledzie w Jogurcie (Herring in Yogurt Dressing)
Sledzie w Jogurcie (Herring in Yogurt Dressing) | Photo by Olenka

Related: