By now it’s become conventional wisdom that eating low on the food chain is more sustainable. In the case of fish, that means sardines, anchovies, sand-dabs, and other small, short-lived fish.

Despite recent news that our small forage fish need to be better managed to avoid future problems, if you’re going to eat fish at all, it’s still best to stick with the small fry.

Pacific sardines are a particularly good choice because they are high in omega-3s, low in environmental pollutants, economically priced, and delicious. Cleaning them, however, might be a hurdle. For some it’s the ick factor while others might just lack confidence. I can’t help you with the ick, but I can give you easy, step-by-step instructions for getting the job done.

Here’s how:

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Off with their heads: Holding the fish firmly in one hand, grasp the head and pull it toward the back of the fish. If you’re lucky, most of the guts will come out with the head. Discard the head and guts.


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Grasp the top dorsal fin firmly and pull it toward the back of the fish. The bone along the top should come out with it.


Place the fish on a firm work surface or hold it in one hand, belly side up. Run an index finger gently down the belly beginning at the opening where the head was and open the fish all the way up flat.

opening sardine

Rinse well under running water.


Gently grasp the backbone at the top and carefully lift it up, while sliding a finger underneath to make sure the bone comes free of the flesh, leaving it intact.

bone removal

Once the bone is mostly separated, with only the bottom still attached to the tail end of the fish, grasp the fish firmly in one hand and pull the backbone sharply to remove it and the tail.

bone removal

You should now have two attached, clean filets. I like to trim the edges for a neater look and to remove some of the tiny bones.


To avoid waste, I like to feed the heads to my dog (she loves them).


The fish can now be seasoned or marinated and then grilled, sautéed, or broiled.

Here are a few recipes to get you started: