I’m here to make you a believer. I want you to believe in the small silver fish that is essential to such beloved dishes as Caesar salad yet loathed by many: the mighty anchovy. Cheap, widely available and always ready in the back of your pantry, the anchovy can elevate almost anything in your kitchen, from scrambled eggs to pasta sauce.
Don’t let the bad-anchovies-on-pizza experience from years ago scare you from giving them another chance. The first time I added anchovies to a pan of sizzling hot garlic and olive oil was a revelation. Melting into the sauce, anchovies transformed my weeknight dump-all-my-wilted-greens-and-shower-it-with-Parmesan pasta into something much more savory and layered with flavor.
That mouthwatering umami found in dishes that use cured anchovies comes from the glutamate developed in the salting process. During months of lying in salt, the fish are transformed by enzymes and good bacteria into a salty, briny powerhouse, with little to no fishy taste left behind.
Once you’ve decided to give anchovies a shot, figuring out which ones to buy can be almost as confusing as knowing what to do with them. Most commonly, cured anchovies come in three forms: oil-packed, marinated in vinegar or salt-packed. Here’s how to think about them:
Oil-packed: These are your cooking workhorses: salt-cured anchovies that have been cleaned of salt, filleted and preserved in oil, saving you a lot of work and mess. They typically come in rectangular, flat cans or in glass jars from Morocco, Peru, Chile or Spain. A taste test done by Serious Eats found that when anchovies were used for cooking, expensive and cheap ones were virtually indistinguishable – so save the expensive kind for eating straight from the can.
Marinated: These are great for eating, not cooking. Usually coming from Spain or Italy and referred to as white anchovies, they are less salty than their salt-cured counterparts because they are pickled in vinegar. They are a great option for skewering around an olive or marinated artichoke as a party snack, one of the common ways you see them in Spain, where they’re called boquerones.
Salt-packed: These should be your new favorite topping. Salt-packed anchovies are typically the priciest variety, hailing from Spain or Italy, and require a bit of work before they can be eaten. They can hold their own alongside some bread and butter, or be used to top a simple sandwich or salad. To eat them, though, rinse them of excess salt, then soak in water for 15 to 30 minutes until they become plump and flexible. Next, fillet to remove the bones, and serve.
Alison Roman, author of “Dining In” (Clarkson Potter, 2017) is noted for her love and generous use of anchovies. When I spoke to her on the phone, she was making a lamb stew with them. “I use the anchovies as a very secret ingredient that you might not know is there, but is great for imparting a lot of flavor,” she says. “I’ll add them to pasta sauces; I’ll add them to vinaigrettes. They go really well with mustard, tomatoes, bitter greens. I think they’re really nice with meat. I love rubbing them on chicken. I kind of will always find a way to eat them.”
Per Roman’s advice, it’s easy to incorporate them into virtually any savory dish. She recommends throwing a couple minced anchovies into a hot pan of onions and red pepper flakes sauteing in olive oil as the perfect base for tomato sauce.
Straight out of the can, though, good-quality anchovies don’t need much to shine. Peter Pastan, chef of 2 Amys in Washington, has a self-proclaimed OAD: “obsessive anchovy disorder.” He likes to serve them in a salad with diced oranges and hot peppers, or simply on a plate with bread and butter. Pastan prefers the more expensive salt-packed kind, which are perfect as a side to margherita pizza — not on top. “So that the anchovies are cold, and the pizza is hot,” he explains.
Ready to hop on the anchovy bandwagon? If you’re using them raw, start with a couple of fillets and add more to taste. Be more generous when cooking them, as their flavor mellows when they meet heat. Here are some quick ways to get you started:
- Make an easy meat marinade by blending anchovies, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and parsley.
- Upgrade your scrambled eggs by mincing anchovies and sauteing them with butter before adding the whisked eggs.
- For a cheater Caesar dressing, blend a couple of anchovy fillets with mayonnaise, lemon juice, black pepper and Dijon mustard. Thin with water to your liking.
- If you have butter and anchovies, you’re just a speedy blend away from a compound butter that’s great on steak or potatoes. Spread it right on, or transfer to plastic wrap, shape into a log and refrigerate or freeze, then slice at will.
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