A Closer Look at Anchovies

Fresh 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.

 

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, tme 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!

By Justin Demetri

Comments

Tuesday, December 30TH, 2008 by Guest

Thanks Justin.

My first exposure to anchovies was the unpleasant salty pizza topping, just as you said.

Since then, I've been lucky enough to enjoy Vietnamese fish sauce, grilled fresh anchovies sprinkled with sea salt and lemon juice, and countless Italian dishes that add just a touch of the salt-cured variety as seasoning.

Out of morbid curiousity, I recently revisited the good old anchovy pizza. Yeah, still salty. Salty, but good!

Regards,
Craig

Tuesday, June 29TH, 2010 by Guest

My great Aunt, Jessie Garra from NYC and later Red Bank,NJ, used to make my sister and I zeppola when we were kids and would visit that were to my memory the best thing ever. Rather than the sweet powdered sugar fritter that most people seem to think of when i mention zeppola, which ive never tried, she would make a savory, yeasty, peppery dough with an anchovy in the center, Man they were So good. Sometimes she would make them minus the anchovy for us kids on request, but mostly we were ok with the anchovey, kind of a love/hate thing. we would carefully nibble the warm dough keeping a wary eye out and then WOW we would suddenly hit the anchovey and our heads would explode. i also dont remember her letting the dough rise for an hour, it seems to me that she could whip up a batch for us PDQ, it was almost a batter, and she would scoop out a big spoonful of it and stick in the anchovey with her finger and plop it on the oil. Anyone else ever had these wonderful things?

Thursday, September 08TH, 2011 by Guest

Anchovies is actually the habitant of BlackSea in Turkey.

Wednesday, November 30TH, 2011 by Guest

I love anchovies!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Wednesday, November 30TH, 2011 by Guest

NO ANCHOIVES PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!

Monday, January 09TH, 2012 by Guest

This website is about the finest Italian delicacies in the world! This article is spoiling it's credentials! Anchovies, seriously?

Thursday, January 19TH, 2012 by Guest

There're much better on pizza "uncooked" after the pizza is baked!!!

Friday, March 09TH, 2012 by Guest

they are fine on a fresh tomato ,onion,and avachoto sandwich!!! rince them a little first. that with an ice cold beer...man o man!!!

Wednesday, April 18TH, 2012 by Guest

One of my favorite ways of eating anchovies is to open a can and using a fork, eat them.

Tuesday, May 01TH, 2012 by Guest

what is the density of anchovette when measuring Grams to ml's?

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