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A Closer Look at Anchovies

Many maintain not to like anchovies because they associate this delicious fish only and exclusively with the salty, cured variety usually found on pizza. Almost as often, however, people rave about how amazingly delicious a particular Italian meal is, without being able to pinpoint exactly what ingredient gives to the dish such a magnificent flavor. Very often, in fact, that mysterious ingredient is anchovies. They might be small, but these fish pack a huge punch in flavor, and often provide a solid, flavorsome base to many Italian recipes. If you really want to learn how to cook Italian, it’s time to take a closer look at anchovies and, if you’re among those who associate them with bad pizza experiences, it may be just about time to give them a second chance in your kitchen.

Fresh Anchovies

What are Anchovies?

Anchovies are small, sea water fish, about 3 inches in length and closely related to herrings. There are about six distinct species of the fish worldwide, all of which can be eaten. They can be consumed fresh in areas close to their natural habitat, such as coastal Italy, but are usually sold packed in salt, tinned or jarred in oil, or even as a paste in tubes. The anchovies that supply the Italian as well as international market are sourced in different areas, depending on the time of year.  Spanish anchovies from the Atlantic ocean, popular for their larger size and rich flavor, are more easily found during the winter, whereas Sicilian anchovies, more delicate in flavor and smaller in size, are  fished from April to September in the Mediterranean.

A dish of anchovies with oil and parsley

Salt cured and preserved anchovies

Preserving anchovies in salt uses a time-honored technique which delivers a distinctively pungent flavor to the fish. Time is critical for the preservation of the flavor and so processing must begin shortly after the fish are caught. Anchovies are cleaned and washed in salt brine, then allowed to dry. They are then layered into large, round tins according to their size, with each layer receiving a specific amount of sea salt. These tins are then piled high into what are called seasoning towers to allow the anchovies to cure for up to two months. These towers are topped with weights, compressing the fish and removing excess fluids and fat. Once the specified curing time is over, tins are sealed and prepared for shipping.

Close-up of fresh anchovies

Olive oil preserved anchovies

Another popular way to enjoy anchovies is to preserve them in olive oil.

Close-up of anchovies

Just like their salt-cured counterparts, processing must start straight after the fish is caught, in order to keep its flavor fully. Anchovies are then immersed in salt brine to clean them, and then packed into very large drums with salt and strong brine. After curing for two months, the fish are then cleaned of their fins and any left over hard pieces before undergoing repeated rinsing in salt water to remove scales and skin. Each anchovy is then filleted by hand, removing the bones and leaving two tiny fillets per fish. These fillets are now ready to be jarred or put into tins with olive oil.

Marinated anchovies

Besides salt or oil, fillets of anchovies are also prepared in other ways. In Sicily there is a product known as white anchovies, or “Sicilian Sushi” as one manufacturer once said, which consists of anchovies marinated in white vinegar. A similar product hails from Liguria, where anchovies are filletted and placed to marinate under lemon juice and olive oil. The result is similar, although lemon gives to the fish a more delicate flavor than vinegar.

Anchovy Paste

Anchovy paste is quite simply anchovy fillets ground to a paste. The paste is combined with salt and sometimes sugar to reduce the fishy flavor. Paste comes in tubes and is a much more pungent, salty and fishy product than the anchovies themselves. It is used in a traditional Sicilian pizza known as Sfincione but really only adds a salty flavor when combined with the other ingredients. Otherwise, this is usually the least desirable of all anchovy products.

Lasagna with tomato and anchovy sauce

Buying anchovies

Salted anchovies begin to lose quality as soon as the tin is opened. It may be better to buy only as many anchovies as you need from your local fishmonger. Make sure to rinse off the extra salt off the fish before using since they are much too salty to eat out of the can. If you don’t use them all within a few days, wash the salt off, place in a jar of olive oil, seal with a lid and refrigerate. The fish will keep for about 5 days. Do not keep the fish in the can, as it will give them a metallic taste once the can has been exposed to air.

For a less intense salt flavor buy fish packed in oil or another liquid and, as above, only buy as much as you plan to use. In all cases try to use either of these two anchovy versions in your cooking and try to avoid anchovy paste. The paste is really the bottom step of the anchovy ladder, and has very little flavor compared to its fresher and less processed counterparts. However there are sauces, spreads and other recipes that benefit from the use of anchovy paste.

If you thought you didn’t like anchovies, time may have arrived to give them a second chance: who knows, they may just be that perfectly special flavor you have been trying to identify for so long!

Anchovies Main Course
Anchovies Main Course

By Justin Demetri

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