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A Closer Look at Anchovies
Many people vow that they do not like anchovies as too many bad memories of smelly little fish on pizza have poisoned the experience for some. However, often when someone is raving about a delicious Italian meal they can't quite figure out what created that magnificent flavor. More often than not the mysterious ingredient that made the meal so memorable was in fact anchovies. They might be small but these fish pack a huge punch in flavor that acts as a backbone to many Italian recipes. Anchovies cannot be ignored for long if you desire authentic Italian flavor, it is time they deserve a second look.
What are Anchovies?
Anchovies are small saltwater fish; about 3 inches long and are related to Herring. There are about six distinct species of the fish worldwide and are all are harvested for consumption. They can be cooked 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 as a paste in tubes. The anchovies that supply the Italian as well as the export market depend upon the time of year with Spanish anchovies from the Atlantic ocean being popular for its larger size and rich flavor. However from April to September the Sicilian anchovy season harvests the smaller and lighter tasting fish that inhabit the Mediterranean.
Anchovies Packed in Salt
Regardless of the type used, preserving anchovies in salt uses a time-honored technique to deliver that distinctive flavor. 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. The fish are then layered into large round tins according to fish 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 the tins are sealed and prepared for shipping.
Anchovies packed in Olive Oil
Below: In this case is a French market in Europe to sell anchovies in oil
The other popular way to enjoy anchovies is to have them packed
in olive oil. Just like their salted cured counterparts, these fish must be fresh caught in order to ensure flavor. The fish are 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 fillets per tiny fish. These fillets are now ready to be jarred or put into tins with olive oil.
Anchovies packed in other liquids
Besides salt or oil, fillets of Anchovies are also prepared in other ways. In Sicily there is a product known as white anchovies, which are filleted and then marinated in white vinegar to produce what one manufacturer calls "Sicilian sushi".
Anchovy paste is ground 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 other anchovies. 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 the usually the least desirable of anchovy products.
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 the bottom rung of the anchovy ladder and is more salt than anchovy flavor. However there are sauces, spreads and other recipes that benefit from the use of anchovy paste. If you thought that you don't like anchovies it is time to give them a second chance, they just may be the flavor you were looking for.
By Justin Demetri