Oily fish are loaded with heart-healthy omega 3 fats –but that’s not all they offer. While we typically think of salmon as the more common oily fish, this category also includes herrings, sardines, anchovies, and mackerel.
They’re also one of the few naturally occurring sources of dietary vitamin D and are also a good source of protein, iodine, B vitamins, and selenium. Sardines are a great source of calcium because they are usually served with their smaller, edible bones still intact.
Historically, small fishes like herring, sardines, and anchovies were dietary staples, and salmon was the food of kings. These days, the roles have reversed. Salmon is farmed and has become a staple, while the other fishes have fallen in popularity, and except for aficionados, are disappearing from our tables. This is particularly here in the U.S., though the Baltic and Scandinavian countries still savor herring, and sardines and anchovies are still enjoyed all around the Mediterranean.
For a good diet and overall health, these little fish are a pantry must-have. They are among the most nutritious fish we can eat, and because they are small and lower down the marine food chain, they have less mercury and other contaminants than their larger counterparts.
The potential challenges to eating these smaller, oily fish are their small bones, and stronger flavor and aroma.
Here are some of our favorite ways to incorporate these delicious fish into your diet.
- Fresh herring. If you buy them already cleaned – meaning, insides have been removed – cut them along the belly and open them up like a book. You can pull out the spine and all the main bones this way. They cook in a minute under a broiler and they are great when grilled.
- Canned and prepared herring: Deboned herring fillets in the form of vinegary rollmops and herring in sour cream are a fact of deli life for some. Since these also come jarred and canned, they are a great introduction to eating herring. If you’re in Ikea, go by the food store and try the herring in mustard sauce. They are very good. Plain canned herring make a great salad tossed with boiled potatoes and veggies. Here are some of our favorite herring recipes.
- Kippers and Arbroath smokies. These are lightly smoked herring and a Scottish specialty, though they are mostly imported from Canada here in the U.S. Kippers are meaty and delicate. They can be eaten grilled or poached, with a smear of sweet butter. They are great flaked into scrambled eggs for a weekend breakfast, or in rice for kedgeree.
These fish need to be eaten very fresh. Their skin should be shiny with clear markings. If they look at all dull, don’t buy them. The easiest way to enjoy them is simply broiled, as in this Bluefish recipe, which can be substituted for mackerel.
- Fresh sardines: these are great if you can get them, as they need to be really fresh to be good. When they are cleaned, they are delicious when grilled and eaten whole with a squeeze of lemon. A perfect summertime BBQ dish.
- Canned Sardines: These come packed in olive oil or spring water and are a fabulous pantry standby for a quick and healthy meal or snack. Eat them mashed onto a piece of whole wheat or 7-grain toast, broiled with a little squeeze of lemon, or as a meal in this Sicilian Style Pasta
Love them or hate them, they are really good for you. The Mediterranean countries use them as condiments. They are chopped into a paste with oil and garlic and used instead of salt to flavor vegetables and pasta. Anchovy-based sauces like bagna cauda, make a fabulous dip for veggies. And of course, the fillets find their way onto pizzas and salads all over. They come several ways:
- Oil packed fillets: the most common form – in cans or jars.
- Salt packed fillets: these are the most prized ones. The fillets need to be soaked before eating.
- Alici: still anchovies, these marinated white fillets are less tangy than regular anchovies.
- Creamed, in a tube. Very convenient, this form of anchovy is good for flavoring dressings and sauces instead of salt. Although many don’t think the quality is as good compared to the oil or salt-packed anchovies. They need to be refrigerated after opening.
- Fish sauce. Many cuisines around the world have a form of fish sauce – colatura in Italy, nuoc mam in Vietnam, and Thai fish sauce in, well, Thailand. These are all extracted by gradually pressing barrels of salted anchovies to extract an umami-rich, golden-brown liquid. All forms of fish sauce tend to have a stronger aroma, add saltiness, and pack a heavy umami punch.
To learn more about how to purchase fish that is raised sustainably, visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.