How we tested
Even if you’d never put anchovies on a pizza or a salad, a tin of these little fish fillets deserves a spot in your pantry. When they’re minced and stirred into a pasta sauce, stew, or dressing, their distinctly salty, pungent profile mellows, and they add a deeply savory quality that amplifies the flavor of the other ingredients without making the dish taste fishy.
When we last reviewed anchovies, an import from Spain impressed us with its firm texture and balance of salty and meaty flavors. But at more than $6.00 per ounce, it’s expensive. Could we find great anchovies that wouldn’t break the bank?
We limited our lineup to whole fillets sold in grocery stores. (Anchovy paste can be fine in small amounts, but we wanted fillets we could use as a garnish.) Most supermarket anchovies have been cured in salt for several months and then packed in oil; the curing process drives off the moisture in the fish, resulting in firmer fillets and more concentrated flavor. We also included one widely available product that’s not cured at all but instead cooked gently before it’s packed in oil. In all, we had five products (priced from $0.67 to $1.40 per ounce) to pit against our old favorite. A panel of tasters sampled the anchovies plain (gently patted dry before serving) as well as minced and whisked into Caesar dressing, evaluating the samples’ texture, flavor, and overall appeal.
In the plain tasting, most samples were quite good, with a “savory” and “meaty” flavor and a firm texture. Tasters quibbled with a few products that were too salty, had mild off-flavors, or had small, feathery bones. The sixth product—the sole uncured sample—was markedly different. These fish had been trimmed and slit in half but not deboned (which meant that we had to carefully lift out the spines by hand) and were almost as plump and flaky as freshly cooked fish. When they tasted this mild fish plain, most tasters felt that it lacked the intensity we want from anchovies.
Most of our minor issues with flavor or texture disappeared when we minced the anchovies and stirred them into a simple Caesar dressing. The one noticeable exception: The plump, flaky, uncured anchovy practically disintegrated in the dressing. A good Caesar dressing should be a creamy yellow with tiny flecks of anchovies, but this was murky gray and watery. Worse, a “canned tuna” flavor overwhelmed the freshly grated garlic and Parmesan cheese. What makes some anchovies better than others? Each product in our lineup lists the same three ingredients: anchovies, olive oil, and salt. The variety of anchovy wasn’t a factor. Our top-ranked product uses both Peruvian and European anchovies; every other product uses one of those species, and we saw no discernible pattern based on the fish, location, or time of year that it was caught.
It turns out that the length of the cure is what matters. Anchovies are typically layered in barrels with salt and cured for several months. When we contacted the manufacturers, they quoted us curing times ranging from three to 12 months. In general, we preferred products that were cured between three and six months. The reason is simple: As anchovies age, their flavor develops into the complex, umami-rich product that we want. But longer aging isn’t always better: When the flesh breaks down and shrinks too much, the bones that are usually embedded in the flesh become more noticeable. (Our tasters described them as spiny or prickly.) Furthermore, if the fat in anchovies begins to degrade, the fish can develop a slightly bitter flavor. Sure enough, the sample that our panel found “funky” and prickly was aged the longest, nine to 12 months.
There was one noticeable exception to the “less aging is better” rule: that plump, mild, uncured product. These anchovies are trimmed and rinsed, cooked in the can, drained, and then packed with lightly salted olive oil. Because they’re not cured in salt, these anchovies contain much less sodium than traditional tinned anchovies—just 75 milligrams per 15-gram serving compared to 760 to 970 milligrams for the rest of our lineup. In general, recipes rely on anchovies contributing a significant amount of salt; thus, Caesar dressing made with this product tasted lackluster.
Aside from that one outlier, we can recommend the other five products in our lineup. Of those, two hit just the right balance of savory-salty flavors, with a clean finish and a texture that’s tender and firm. The top scorer, an inexpensive canned anchovy, edged out our old favorite. If you like to serve anchovies whole atop pizza, salad, or pastas, we recommend our new winner from King Oscar. At $2.79 for a 2-ounce can, it’s easy to stock up on this pantry staple.
We tasted six nationally available canned and jarred anchovies that are readily available in grocery stores; prices listed were paid in Boston-area supermarkets or online.
Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen test cooks and editors sampled each one plain (gently patted dry) and also minced and whisked into Caesar salad dressing. Information about the curing process and anchovy type was obtained from manufacturers. Nutritional information was taken from the product labels (sodium levels are per 15-gram serving). Results from the tastings were averaged, and products appear in order of preference.