August 8, 2021

How to Start Cooking with Anchovies

Learn how to start cooking with anchovies when you’re afraid of anchovies.

Did I lose you already? 😬

I used to be afraid of anchovies (and honestly still am a little 😰). And if you watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a kid, you probably have the same fear.

But Michelangelo lied to us! It’s not just the bad guys that eat anchovies.

No, I’m not going to make you put them on pizza. Nor eat them straight of the tin. I don’t even do that.

But I am going to convince you why you should start cooking with anchovies. And then give you some ideas on how to do it.

Why Cook with Anchovies

Even if you don’t like them “raw”, you should still keep anchovies on hand. Why? They’re an umami flavor bomb. 💣

Anchovies are full of glutamates and other flavor-enhancing molecules. These give anchovies their meaty and savory flavor.

And they’re also salty. You can layer salt into a dish by using salty ingredients like anchovies that bring additional flavor with them.You can learn more about layering salt in last week’s newsletter.

Did you know that you can find anchovies in Caesar dressing? Or spaghetti alla puttanesca? Or Worcestershire sauce? Or olive tapenades? The beauty of cooking with anchovies is that you can do so in a way that you don’t even know they’re there.

Think of Anchovies Like a Seasoning

So now we know anchovies add saltiness and savoriness. The next step to cooking with them is changing our mindset. 🤔

Don’t think of anchovies as something you throw on top of a pizza, pasta, or salad—unless you like them on top of those things that is! Think of anchovies like you would a spice or herb. They can subtly bring flavor to a dish or they can be a dominant flavor.

If you are new to cooking with anchovies and a recipe calls for them, start by only adding one or two. This cuts down on their fishiness but you still get a boost of flavor.

Also, we eat with our eyes. So another trick is to make sure you don’t see them.

This is important if those little fishes scare you. 🐟😳

You want anchovies to disappear into whatever you’re cooking. So dice them up finely or break them up as they cook so no one—including yourself—gets a big chunk of fish.

Lucky for us, anchovies tend to disintegrate on their own when you cook with them. All the salt they are stored in (more on that in a bit) breaks down myosin. And myosin is a muscle protein that holds the anchovy together. I think anchovies are just used to people not liking them so they’ve gotten good at hiding. 😉

Buying Anchovies

Just like buying fresh, high-quality spices, buying the right anchovies makes a big difference.

Anchovies typically come in three ways:

  1. As a paste
  2. Packed in salt
  3. Packed in oil

Let’s start with crossing one option off our list.

I Don’t Recommend Anchovy Paste

I will say, it is tempting. Anchovy paste is super convenient, easy to store, and easily disappears into a dish. But it often comes from all the broken parts of the fish at the bottom of the barrel. And many taste tests like this one and this one found paste to be of inferior quality. The flavor tends to be gritty, fishy, and bony.

What About Salt-Packed Anchovies?

Technically all anchovies have been packed in salt. It’s how they are preserved. Months in salt tenderize the anchovies, change their color, and make them shelf-stable.

Anchovy lovers will say that salt-packed typically is more flavorful. And that may be true when eating them whole. But based on the taste tests I’ve seen, it doesn’t seem to make a big difference when you are cooking with anchovies.

And here’s the thing. Salt-packed anchovies still have the scales and bones attached. Which means they take more prep work than oil-packed. So I don’t recommend salt-packed for anchovy newbies like me.

Still interested in using them? Check out this article on salted-packed anchovies.

Go With Oil-Packed Anchovies

Oil-packed anchovies are the best place to start for beginners. They last a while, are generally high-quality and have a more subtle flavor. Plus, they take less work. 🙌

After all, these anchovies were salted previously, washed, and deboned. This means they are much easier to use than salt-packed.

You can find easily high-quality, oil-packed anchovies in your grocery store or online. Want the best of the best? Serious Eats did a taste test if you’re interested in the best type of anchovies to buy.

Ideas for Using Anchovies

Are you considering buying anchovies? Wahoo! You go you!

But now, what do you use them in? I recommend starting small. Sneak a couple of anchovies into different dishes. You won’t even know they are there!

Here are some things to try:

  • Add them to your tomato sauce—cook anchovies with some garlic and olive oil before adding your tomatoes for a tasty pasta sauce
  • Use it in rubs for meat—mash or blend up garlic, an anchovy, rosemary, and lemon zest for an amazing rub for lamb chops or steak
  • Bump up your dressings—a minced anchovy will balance out creamy mayo or egg yolk based salad dressings
  • Season a white bean spread—saute one anchovy in olive oil with garlic then add in a can of drained, white beans. You can blend it all up for an incredible topping for toast.
Where I learned this: a bunch of great articles on anchovies from Serious Eats and an online cooking class from Milk Street.