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What The Heck Are Anchovies Anyway?

Are you wondering what are anchovies and want to read more about them? We have a great FAQ here that should help spotlight a few interesting facts about cooking with little salty fish!

For most Americans, the word anchovy brings to mind an image of a pizza covered in tiny fish.

But this little fish is more than a pizza topping for many cuisines across the world. 

We’re going to take an in-depth look at the culinary history of the anchovy and explore why they’re such a prominent ingredient in so many cuisines. 

You may not realize it, but chances are you’ve eaten a meal that incorporated anchovies in some way.

 Ever had a caesar salad? Your dressing was flavored with anchovy oil. 

What about Worcestershire sauce? Anchovies are a key feature in giving Worcestershire its pungent flavor. 

The reality is that anchovies have been used to flavor foods for millennia.

Ancient civilizations along the Mediterranean Sea have been consuming anchovies whole and seasoning foods with anchovy oil for thousands of years. 

So, what are anchovies?

What exactly is it about the tiny fish that appeals to so many palates? 

In this article, we will delve into what makes anchovies the culinary powerhouse that’s worked its way into almost every country’s cuisine.

Table Of Contents

What are anchovies?

To understand how anchovy became such a popular fish to consume, we need to understand a little bit more about what they are. 

An anchovy is a small fish from the Engraulidae family that can grow from 1 to 15 inches long. 

While there are some larger species of anchovies, the most widely consumed version of the fish is harvested when they are only between 1 to 2 inches long. 

Anchovies tend to have only two consistent food sources, tiny newborn fish found in estuaries and plankton. 

These food sources are part of the reason why anchovies can be found gathering in estuaries or feeding on plankton that groups at the surface of the ocean. 

They’re considered prey fish, meaning they travel closely together in schools and are often eaten by larger predator fish. 

The fact that anchovies group together in enormous schools makes them an easy fish for people to harvest en masse. 

From ancient times to today, anchovies are wild-caught by using large nets targeting schools of anchovies that gather near the water’s surface. 

One of the most important things to know about anchovy is that they are particularly oily fish. 

This means that their bodies contain a higher fat content than many other types of fish.

The oil in their bodies is what is mainly responsible for their strong fishy flavor.

Comparative to their size, anchovies are absolutely packed with nutrients.  

What do anchovies taste like?

Many people imagine the flavor of anchovy to have only three components: salty, oily, and fishy.

The truth is that anchovy’s taste will vary depending on how it’s been prepared. 

Fresh anchovy that has been cooked in its most basic form has a delicate white flesh with a mild fishy flavor.

Because of the mild flavor of fresh anchovy, you can incorporate them nicely into many dishes by taking on the flavors of the other seasonings used in the dish. 

Throughout Europe, it’s more common to see anchovies cooked fresh and served whole in different recipes instead of being eaten from a tin. 

When they have been soaked in salt and oil for preservation, the anchovy flavor becomes more intense with an intensely fishy taste. 

Most people think of anchovies as salty fish, but this is generally due to the way they’re preserved. 

Without the salt involved in the preservation process, anchovies aren’t salty on their own. 

There aren’t very many fish that have a comparable flavor to anchovies, but the two that come closest in taste would be sardines and mackerel. 

One of the most essential aspects of anchovy flavor is something called umami. 

Umami is a word that literally translates to “essence of deliciousness” in Japanese. 

This umami flavor is what makes anchovies a vital ingredient in things like fish sauce, Garum, and caesar salad dressing. 

It can be hard to describe what anchovies taste like because there really isn’t another flavor precisely like them.

Since anchovies are so widely available worldwide, we encourage you to seek some out and try them with one of the recipes we listed in the article below.

Difference between sardines and anchovies

It can be easy to confuse sardines and anchovies, considering the wide range of similarities between these two types of fish. 

But the truth is, they’re pretty different even though they’re usually preserved using the same canning methods. 

For starters, anchovies and sardines are two completely different species of fish. 

Sardines are a small type of herring fish, while anchovies belong to a different taxonomic family altogether. 

The most apparent visual difference between sardines and anchovies is the variation in size. 

Overall, sardine is a larger fish species generally harvested when they’ve grown to 8 inches, compared to the anchovy, which is usually harvested around 1 to 2 inches in length. 

Another easy-to-spot difference between these two fish is the color of their flesh once they’ve been preserved. 

When soaked in salt and oil, sardines maintain a white color, whereas anchovies tend to turn a reddish hue during the preservation process. 

Because of their small size, anchovies have smaller and softer bones, which can be less intrusive to eat than the bones you may find in a sardine.

While preservation methods for these two fish can be similar, the resulting flavors of the finished product are not exactly the same. 

Anchovies have a much higher oil content than sardines, giving them a more robust fish flavor. 

Thanks to that higher oil content, anchovies also contain more omega-3 fatty acids than sardines do. 

This makes them a really popular choice for people looking for the types of health benefits that omega-3s can provide.

Apart from those differences, both fish are a delicious part of a seafood fan’s diet, especially if you want to mix up your typical salmon, tuna, and tilapia rotation. 

How to use anchovies?

Anchovies are an excellent choice for a quick snack packed with healthy fats and protein. 

The most convenient way to consume anchovies is undoubtedly eating them straight from a jar or can. 

But if you’re looking to incorporate these tiny delicious fish into actual meals, there are endless possibilities for cooking with anchovies. 

Thanks to the fact that home cooks can find anchovies in cuisines all across the world, you can try out this new ingredient in many different ways.

Below are some delicious and diverse anchovy recipes that are guaranteed to change how you think about this versatile ingredient. 

This Korean side dish combines sweet and savory elements to make a crispy and flavorful addition to your meal. 

Sprinkle them on top of your signature wok recipe or eat them as part of a dim sum sampling.

Incorporating anchovies into pasta dishes is common across Italy’s coast, and with good reason.

Skip out on the meatballs and top your spaghetti bolognese with these scrumptiously oily fish for a new take on the classic weeknight favorite. 

If you’re a pasta lover, then this recipe is a great way to explore anchovies as an ingredient.

No list of anchovy recipes would be complete without the classic anchovy pizza. 

Anchovies on pizza can be a single topping or combined with your favorite veggies for a filling, delicious meal. 

Where do anchovies come from?

Anchovies are found schooling together in large groups along the coastlines of almost every ocean across the world. 

They prefer more temperate waters, which means that you won’t find anchovies in extremely hot or cold parts of the ocean. 

Europe as a whole is responsible for the bulk of anchovy production, with Spain producing more anchovies than any other country in the world. 

While they’re almost exclusively saltwater fish, they can also be found in brackish waters like estuaries where rivers meet the ocean. 

Only one species of anchovy is considered a freshwater fish, and that species is found only in South America. 

Anchovies prefer to gather in shallow waters near the shore so that they’re protected from attacks by larger fish in deep water. 

Those with culinary curiosity can find references to using anchovies in a culinary capacity as far back as 3000 years. 

Ancient Greeks popularized the fish with a condiment called Garum that fermented the anchovies and made a shelf-stable sauce.

Greeks also popularized packing anchovies in salt and oil so that they could be brought further inland and sold to towns that weren’t located close to the coast. 

Further East, the Chinese have been using anchovies for millennia in the form of fish sauce to flavor different dishes. 

Because anchovies come from oceans all around the world, they’ve worked their way into a variety of different cuisines.

How to store anchovies

Storing your anchovies will depend mainly on what form you bought them in.

If your anchovies are packed in a jar or tin, then they can be stored in a cool, dry place for up to a year. 

Like most preserved foods, it’s best to keep them out of direct sunlight to ensure they last as long as possible. 

If you buy fresh anchovy filets, it’s essential to store them in a refrigerated environment and use them within a few days. 

If you’re unable to use your fresh anchovies, they can be tightly wrapped and frozen for up to six months before their quality degrades. 

Dried anchovies can be stored on a shelf or in a pantry, as long as you keep them dry, as the most important storage rule for this type of anchovy is to ensure the environment is free from all moisture.

How long do anchovies last?

One of the most appealing things about anchovies flavor as an ingredient is their uncommonly long shelf life. 

If you purchase canned anchovies, they can last up to one year if they are properly stored. 

Jarred anchovies will also last you a year, provided that they are tightly packed and covered in salt and oil. 

Once you open your canned or jarred anchovies, they should be tightly sealed and refrigerated for up to two months before they go bad. 

Dried anchovies will last anywhere from 2 to 6 months, depending on the moisture present in the air and the type of container they’re stored in. 

Like any other fresh fish, you should use raw anchovies within one or two days before you need to consider freezing them. 

Once you’ve cooked your anchovies, they can be covered and stored in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 more days.

If you need to freeze anchovy filets, they will remain safe to consume as long as they stay frozen.

But keep in mind that the quality of frozen fish begins to degrade around six months. 

Can you eat anchovy bones?

One of the more convenient things about eating anchovies is that their bones are cooked until very soft, so yes, anchovy bones can be eaten.

Anchovy bones are not like the more rigid bones you find in larger fish. Instead, they are small, flexible and cooked until soft. 

When anchovies are preserved or cooked, the bones soften even more, making them almost imperceptible when you’re eating anchovies whole. 

The bones of a cooked or preserved anchovy can’t harm you the way bones from a larger fish can. 

The ability to eat the entire anchovy makes them a very convenient fish to eat. 

You won’t ever have to worry about the tedious process of deboning an anchovy, all you have to do is either cook or preserve them, and they’re ready to eat.

The bottom line

Cultures have used anchovies worldwide as a mainstay in many different types of cuisine. 

Thanks to preservation methods like packing anchovies tightly in salt and oil, they can last for an impressively long time without needing refrigeration. 

Anchovy flavor is packed with umami and brings something unique to every dish they’re included in. 

Don’t be afraid to start incorporating this delicious and healthy little fish into your diet by trying out one of the recipes we listed above!