What are anchovies and how do you cook with them?

What are anchovies? loveFOOD investigates the much-maligned but transformative ingredient

The intensely fishy, salty flavour of anchovies has given them a bad reputation – even among the most adventurous eaters. But disappointing experiences are often due to cheap, overly salted products.

You may be unaware that many popular dishes include anchovies, with as little as an eighth of a teaspoon subtly buoying up a recipe. If there’s a taste you can’t quite place, they may well be the culprit. They add an umami depth and robustness, without overt fishiness. They feature in many store-cupboard staples, from Worcestershire sauce to Vietnamese phú quốc and Thai nam pla (fish sauces made with fermented anchovies).

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Anchovies on a board with lime (Image: al1962/Shutterstock)al1962/Shutterstock

How do you choose good-quality anchovies?

Anchovies are small, slender fish found in the Black Sea, Pacific, Atlantic and Mediterranean. However, when you see them in the supermarket they are more likely to be preserved than fresh.

Salt-cured anchovy fillets packed in sunflower or olive oil are the cheapest and most readily available. They are sold in tall, thin resealable jars which is good if you only plan to use a few. Horizontal ring-pull tins or cans are also available, but make sure you transfer what's left over to a sealed container and the fillets are submerged in oil, as storage in an open can will contaminate the taste.

Anchovies in salt (Image: 826A IA/Shutterstock)826A IA/Shutterstock

Another way you can buy them is packed in salt. Whole salted anchovies are meatier, firmer and sweeter, but expect to spend around half an hour prepping them. They are usually left with their bones and fins intact so need filleting. After scraping off excess salt and rinsing with water, an extra soak in either milk or white wine can help to soften them. Store the anchovies you haven't touched in a glass jar in the fridge for up to six months.

Less common are marinated anchovies – often known by their Spanish name, boquerones – which are eaten as a snack or tapas dish. They are deboned then marinated in vinegar, oil and salt. The pickling process turns them bright white (unlike the grey or pink of the salted ones) and they are much milder. Try on top of toasted bread and butter.

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Marinated anchovies on a board (Image: Lleistock/Shutterstock)Lleistock/Shutterstock

Anchovy recipes

Dust off your blender to make seriously speedy anchovy snack. Tapenade with green or black olives is incredible spread on toast, crostini or crackers.

A simple way to eat anchovies is to use them to pep up pasta dishes. The fillets dissolve into sauce easily, for example in fiery puttanesca or garlic, chilli and olive oil spaghetti.

If you can handle whole anchovies, add them to pizzas or the classic French onion tart, pissaladière.

Salad dressings are also boosted with the umami fish – these Caesar and Niçoise salads wouldn't be the same without them.

Niçoise salad (Image: Matt Russell/Pavilion Books)
Matt Russell/Pavilion Books

What if you’ve got a bit more time?

Anchovies work very well in lamb dishes – they accentuate the meat's flavour without making it fishy. For a quick and satisfying supper have a go at lamb mince skewers with coriander dip, lamb cutlets with anchovy and herb butter or lamb cutlets with tapenade.

If you're looking for a weekend project, try barbecued cumin lamb chops with anchovy butter or roast lamb stuffed with garlic, anchovies and rosemary.

Barbecued lamb chops with anchovy butter (Image: James Murphy/Ebury Press)James Murphy/Ebury Press

Anchovies also go well with other fish, so experiment with a piquant salsa verde for sea bass or a parsley, mint and anchovy sauce for mackerel.

You can even incorporate the high-flavour fish into a side dish. We love creamy roasted broccoli with anchovies, garlic and chilli; anchovy potato gratin; and this hearty Niçoise bake.

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Is anchovy paste worth buying?

If you want to add that extra depth to dishes, anchovy paste is a no-brainer. It comes in toothpaste-like tubes and is stocked near the tomato purée and sauces in most supermarkets. It may be lighter in flavour and saltier than whole anchovies, so take this into account when seasoning.

Lead image: Dream79/Shutterstock

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