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Anchovies vs. Sardines: What’s the Difference? Ask Paul

Salty anchovies and silvery sardines are both sold in cans, but that’s where their similarities end.

Published Feb. 15, 2023.

In the canned fish aisle, theyre found side by side, but anchovies and sardines are different fish, are processed differently, and are eaten in different ways. But they do have one thing in common: Neither is a particular species of fish but rather a collection of species sold under those names. Here’s a closer look at what’s in those cans.

What Are Sardines?

The FDA maintains a long list of seafood known as the Seafood List. The list includes all species of seafood that are officially approved for sale in the U.S., giving the Latin name, common name, and “acceptable market name” of each.

There are currently 16 different species listed with the acceptable market name of “sardine,” meaning that fish from any of those species may be sold as sardines. They’re all somewhat related to each othersmall oily fish in the herring familybut from several different genera and very different regions of the world. A few popular species include Sardinops sagax, Sardina pilchardus, and Harengula clupeola.

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Cans labeled “brisling sardines” aren’t sardines at all. They’re sprats, a small, delicious fish of the species Sprattus sprattus.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the authority is not the Seafood List but the FAO Codex Alimentarius, which currently permits 21 sardine species.

All these sardines are commonly canned in oil or water, with their heads and occasionally their silvery skins removed. In general, they have a mild, briny flavor thats not overly fishy.

Outside of cans, sardines can be found fresh at the fish marketand make magnificent grilling materialas well as dried, for simmering into dashi or toasting as a snack.

What Are Anchovies?

Anchovies, like sardines, are oily bait fish, eaten by other fish in large quantities, and also by us. 

Twenty-six species are in the Seafood List, but there are a few that are by far the most popular: Engraulis mordax, Engraulis encrasicolus—which is the European type usually sold jarred in salt and labeled “Product of Morocco”—and Engraulis ringens, the Peruvian anchoveta, of which millions of tons are caught every year, making it the most fished fish in history.

Anchovies are typically gutted, filleted, and cured in brine before canning, which turns their flesh red-brown and velvety and gives them the particular savory, ultrasalty taste they’re famous for.

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We love these little flavor powerhouses. Read on to learn why we call for them in hundreds of recipes—and which anchovies you should buy.
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What Are White Anchovies?

White anchovies, or boquerones, are often seen on tapas menus. They are the exact same fish species, but theyre gently pickled in vinegar or canned without brining, which keeps their meat white, hence the name. They’re not particularly salty, and their flesh is firm and toothsome, making these anchovies a dish in their own right.

Anchovies and Sardines Have Different Uses

Salty brined canned anchovies are typically eaten not as a dish but as an ingredient—sometimes a secret ingredient. Theyre called for in hundreds of our recipes, giving depth and umami to all manner of otherwise non-fish-adjacent dishes. Chicken soup? Quinoa taco salad? You know it. 

Canned sardines, on the other hand, are rarely a seasoning ingredient and more often a star, or at least co-star, in sardine sandwiches (an embarrassing elementary-school-lunch favorite of mine), in pasta, or straight from the can. Connoisseurs know that canned sardines improve with aging, sometimes for years. Don’t scoff till you try them.

Ask Paul Adams, senior science research editor, about culinary ambiguities, terms of art, and useful distinctions:


Sarde a Beccafico (Stuffed Sardines)

Sarde a beccafico is a popular Sardinian appetizer that is made by rolling fresh sardines around a flavorful bread-crumb stuffing.
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