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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.
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...
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