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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.


Published June 22, 2022.

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What You Need To Know

Anchovies can transform a dish. And I’m not just talking about the salty-savory magic that happens when you scatter a few fillets over a pizza. Like soy sauce, miso, and other umami-rich ingredients, cured anchovies are powerful supporting players. In addition to bumping up the salt level of a dish, they add complexity and unique, concentrated savoriness. We call for cured anchovies in many recipes, including pizza sauce, turkey meatballs, and whole roasted cauliflower.

Given the big role these little fish play in our recipes, we decided to give them a closer look. We purchased 11 products in a variety of styles—including anchovies packed in oil, anchovies packed in salt, and anchovy paste—and sampled them plain and in Caesar dressing. Then, we compared the three top scorers in each category in puttanesca. 

How Are Anchovies Cured and Packaged? 

Most anchovies are harvested from the Mediterranean Sea and the waters off the coasts of Argentina and Peru. The method for cleaning and curing them goes back centuries and is still done mostly by hand. The fish are beheaded and gutted and then carefully layered in barrels or drums with lots of salt. After weights are placed on top of the containers, the fish are cured for anywhere from three to 12 months. The salt draws moisture from the fish, creating a brine; the salt also helps break down the fish and preserve them. The cured fish are then rinsed and dried to remove excess salt and water.

The timing of each step is important. Anchovies are high in fat, so they can quickly oxidize and spoil if they’re not cleaned and cured shortly after they’re caught. A representative from Musco Foods, which imports anchovies for the Merro brand, explained that the size of the anchovies and the temperature of the curing room determine how long the fish need to cure. In general, shorter curing times are preferable because the fish doesn’t break down too much and stays pleasantly plump.

When the curing process is complete, some anchovies are then packed in containers with fresh salt. Others are filleted first and then packed in containers with oil. Still others are pureed into a paste and sold in tubes.

The Science Behind Anchovies’ Flavor 

Although the anchovy curing process is fairly straightforward, a lot happens inside those barrels and drums. Enzymes from different parts of the fish generate flavor components and, as the food science writer Harold McGee explains in On Food and Cooking (1984), the warm environment encourages the creation of aromatic molecules. The result is “remarkably full flavor” that McGee describes as including “fruity, fatty, fried, cucumbery, floral, sweet, bu...

Everything We Tested

*All products reviewed by America’s Test Kitchen are independently chosen, researched, and reviewed by our editors. We buy products for testing at retail locations and do not accept unsolicited samples for testing. We list suggested sources for recommended products as a convenience to our readers but do not endorse specific retailers. When you choose to purchase our editorial recommendations from the links we provide, we may earn an affiliate commission. Prices are subject to change.

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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.

Kate Shannon

Kate is a deputy editor for ATK Reviews. She's a culinary school graduate and former line cook and cheesemonger.