Grilled Whole Sardines

SERVES 4 to 6 (FAST):  Coating sardines with a mix of honey and mayonnaise helps them to brown
more quickly and release from the hot grill.

WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS Grilled sardines are a popular outdoor tradition all along the Mediterranean, where these fish are fresh and plentiful. In the simplest preparation, whole sardines are oiled, quickly charred on a hot grill, and served with regional accompaniments. We found variations that included skewering to hold the delicate fish together, marinating the fish for more flavor, and even filleting and sandwiching the fish together before grilling in an attempt to further insulate the flesh. But we found that the sardines were prone to breaking off the skewers, the oily fish had plenty of innate flavor without a marinade, and, if cooked correctly, they were unlikely to overcook. So we went back to basics and set out to perfect the grilling method for whole fish. We found that when just oiled, even on a very hot grill, some of our sardines stuck, and the skin tore when we flipped them. We applied a technique we had developed for grilled mackerel to address just this problem: We used a mixture of honey and mayonnaise on their exteriors, allowing the sardines to achieve beautiful browning quickly, and when their skin was charred and crisp, they naturally released from the grill. The trick, we found, was being patient; if we didn’t move the sardines until they offered no resistance, we were able to get perfectly intact skin. If fresh sardines aren’t available, you can substitute frozen, though you will likely need to clean them yourself. We enjoy these sardines paired simply with lemon wedges or with our Tomato and Almond Pesto or Green Olive and Orange Pesto.

  • 12 (2- to 3-ounce) whole sardines, scaled, gutted, fins snipped off with scissors
  • Pepper
  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • ½ teaspoon honey
  • Lemon wedges
  1. Rinse each sardine under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels inside and out. Open cavity of each sardine and season flesh with pepper. Combine mayonnaise and honey, then brush mixture evenly on exterior of each fish.
    2A. FOR A CHARCOAL GRILL Open bottom vent completely. Light large chimney starter filled with charcoal briquettes (6 quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour evenly over grill. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent completely. Heat grill until hot, about 5 minutes.
    2B. FOR A GAS GRILL Turn all burners to high, cover, and heat grill until hot, about 15 minutes. Leave all burners on high.
  2. Clean cooking grate, then repeatedly brush grate with well-oiled paper towels until grate is black and glossy, 5 to 10 times. Place sardines on grill and cook (covered if using gas) until skin is browned and beginning to blister, 2 to 4 minutes. Gently flip sardines using spatula and continue to cook until second side is browned and beginning to blister, 2 to 4 minutes. Serve with lemon wedges.