Food /
Italian Recipes

Sardines Sour


Every Venetian I have met loves sardines prepared like this – in saor means literally ‘in a sour sauce’. 

They make a great snack if you have a crowd to feed – not only because you can easily make many batches, but because they keep so well in the fridge & improve with flavour. If making more batches you will need to wipe out the pan so the excess flour on the bottom doesn’t burn.

If you like, you can add in – as many Venetians do – a handful of pine nuts & raisins to the onions. I use smallish sardines – you can leave the tails on or off as you prefer. 



  • about 125 ml(4 fl oz / 1/2 cup) olive oil
  • 400 g (14 oz) white onions, halved & thinly sliced
  • a few whole peppercorns, gently squashed
  • 2 bay leaves 
  • 125 ml (4 fl oz / 1/2 cup) white wine vinegar
  • 15-18 whole sardines, about 500 g (1 lb 2oz)
  • flour, for dusting
  • light olive oil, for frying



  1. Heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan with a lid, add the onions & cook over medium heat. After a few minutes, add the peppercorns, bay leaves & some salt & pepper. Put the lid on, lower the heat & simmer for 20-25 minutes. The onions must not brown, but be well softened & nicely cooked, so check from time to time that not all the liquid has been absorbed. If the onions are browning too much, add a few drops of water & carry on simmering. Once they are soft & cooked down, add the vinegar & simmer without the lid for another 5-10 minutes until reduced a little, leaving the onions covered in a lovely sauce, but don’t let them dry out.    
  2. Meanwhile, to fillet the sardines, cut off the heads, then make a slit down the undersides of each & remove the guts. Open out the sardines like a book so that they are still hinged together, & place, skin side up on a chopping board. Press each sardine lightly, yet firmly, to open out. Turn each over & pull out the backbone (or leave in the bone & just clean them while you are eating them). Rinse & pat dry. Pat well in the flour to coat on both sides.
  3. Pour enough oil into a large non-stick frying pan to cover the bottom abundantly. When the oil is hot add the sardines, turning them only when they are crisp on the bottom. If the flour is falling off & sticking to the bottom, you may need to reduce the heat a touch. When both sides are golden & quite crisp, remove to a plate lined with kitchen paper to absorb the excess oil. Sprinkle with fine salt. 
  4. Layer the sardines & onions in a compact bowl. A layer of sardines, a layer of onions & the peppercorns, a sprinkle of pepper here & there – & so on. Add a little more olive oil if it looks like it needs it & an extra sprinkle of salt.  
  5. Cover & either leave at room temperature if you will be eating them in the next few hours, or put in the fridge where they will keep for a few days, soaking up the flavours more. Each time you eat a sardine, rotate a few of them so they are all covered & not just the underneath ones.