A tin of sardines.

A tin of sardines. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

There is an ocean full of canned sardines at local markets, but which ones are really worth buying? Tasting through more than a dozen samples, the range of quality was astonishing. There were sardines that were as bland as beige, and then there were fish that were absolutely magnificent.

To help make sense of the journey, I enlisted Lou Amdur, owner of Lou Provisions & Wine and a sardine lover from way back.

We sampled sardines from a variety of sources: regular supermarkets, high-end markets, Asian markets and specialty markets such as the Harbor City Spanish store La Española Meats. Still, we were just scratching the surface. There are a lot of different sardines out there.

Generally, we focused on nonsmoked sardines that had been packed in olive oil, partly so we could focus on the quality of the fish and partly because that's what you want if you're using sardines as an ingredient rather than a snack. In the interest of science, we also tasted a few sardines packed in spring water and in soy oil. These are not to be recommended. We did it so you wouldn't have to.

Here were our favorite sardines in roughly ascending order, with where we bought them, the size of the package and the price we paid. Many of these are available from multiple sources at varying prices:

Crown Prince Skinless Boneless Sardines (99 Ranch, 106 grams, $2.69): A good, usable sardine for cooking, with a fairly meaty texture and a clean flavor.

Cole's Portuguese Sardines in Olive Oil (Bristol Farms, 125 grams, $4.59): Good meaty texture with a clean, pure fish flavor. A little more salty than some other sardines.

Matiz Gallego Sardines in Olive Oil (Spanish Table website, 120 grams, $3.69): Fairly meaty, strong, clear fish flavor.

Albo Sardines (La Española, 120 grams, $4.98): Striking fish. Large with dark blue skin. Very meaty with good flavor.

Connetable Sardines a l'Ancienne (Bristol Farms, 120 grams, $4.99): A very good, very French sardine, with firm, meaty texture and a subtle flavor. The quality of the olive oil was notable — very clean and delicate.

Les Mouettes D'Arvor "Ville Bleue" Vintage 2011 (Lou Provisions & Wine, 115 grams, $9.50). Yes, there are vintage-dated sardines. Don't laugh — this fish was nothing short of amazing. The flesh was so firm that you could lift the fish by the tail without it falling apart. The flavor unfolds as you taste it — ultra-clean, pure fish flavor with a sweet, nearly fruity finish. Expensive, but unforgettable.