Your Guide to Anchovies, the Salty, Savory Secret Ingredient You Should Be Using

Anchovies are small, silvery fish preserved in salt, filleted, and sold in jars or cans of oil. They can add a hit of salty, briny flavor to a variety of dishes, from salad dressings to stir fries.

Cans, jars, and tubes of anchovies

Lori Rice

It’s time for anchovies to lose their reputation as a stinky little fish. There is so much to love! As someone who didn’t take to anchovies until recently, I am now firmly Team Anchovy.

They are a secret weapon in my cooking arsenal for everything from pastas to vegetables to crostini. (My most recent obsession is anchovy-topped buttered and toasted baguette.) All delicious, and none of it stinky.

San Francisco restaurant chef Sharon Ardiana agrees. The owner of three neighborhood gems including Gialina, Sharon embraces the anchovy:

"To me it just adds that layer of umami and brings everything together.”

She also notes the irony of diners asking to “hold the anchovies” on a Caesar salad, not realizing the flavorful fish is a key component to the delicious dressing!

Collection of anchovies cans, jars, tubes

Lori Rice

Good to Know

  • Flavor: An oily fish with a strong, salty, briny flavor and plenty of umami (that prized “fifth taste”)
  • Nutrition: A source of healthy Omega-3 fats, along with protein, selenium, and niacin
  • Varieties: Fresh, smoked, preserved in salt and packed in oil, cured in vinegar, dried, and made into Asian fish sauce
  • Common uses: Salad dressings, pasta sauces, pizza, soups, sandwiches, crostini, and in the case of fish sauce, a wide variety of Asian dishes 
  • Where sold: Grocery stores, online, specialty markets

What are Anchovies?

Anchovies are small fish that typically measure 1 to 4 inches. They’re related to the herring family and found in oceans throughout the world, as well as fresh water sources. They are abundant along the Mediterranean, which may explain why they’re featured in French, Italian, and Spanish cuisine.

Can of King Oscar anchovies, one open and one sealed

Lori Rice

Varieties

While anchovies are quite tasty fresh, most anchovies are preserved in some way.

  • Packed in oil: These are the brown anchovies you’ll find on pizza. They’re preserved in salt, filleted, packed in oil, and sold in flat cans and glass jars.
  • Pickled: Labeled white anchovies or boquerones, these anchovies are preserved with vinegar. Kelly Cosgrove of Fortune Fish and Gourmet considers them to be a gateway anchovy. She says folks already familiar with pickled flavors might take to white anchovies more readily than their more pungent oil-packed counterparts.
  • Dried: Common in Korean cooking, dried anchovies are used to make stocks for soup and served stir-fried with rice.
  • Paste: Salt-cured anchovies are ground into a paste and sold in tubes similar to tomato paste. It’s a very convenient way to add a pop of anchovy flavor to your cooking.
  • Fish Sauce: The seafood used to make Asian fish sauce is often anchovies, which ferment into an umami-rich liquid that goes into Asian dishes like pho and larb.
Jar of anchovies

Lori Rice

Where to Buy

Oil-packed anchovies are readily available in garden-variety grocery stores alongside the likes of canned tuna and salmon. They come in small cans or jars that typically run between 2 to 4 ounces.

If you’re looking for dried anchovies, a Korean market is a good bet. You can also find them online. For fresh anchovies, talk to your local fishmonger. Also, check out our guide to fish sauce.

For the more premium brands like Ortiz and Agostino Recca that are prized by chefs, you may need to head to a specialty grocer like Eataly or Zingerman's. They are more expensive than grocery store options, but worth the price tag if you can swing it, particularly if you plan to eat them whole, such as on pizza or crostini. 

White anchovies are sold in small trays with clear packaging in the refrigerated section of the market. They’re not quite as mainstream as oil-packed anchovies, though you can find them in places like Whole Foods as well as online at specialty markets like La Tienda.

Collection of anchovies in jars, cans, and tubes

Lori rice

How to Store

Anchovies preserved in oil are shelf stable. That said, Cosgrove recommends storing them in a cool place in your pantry or the fridge. Once opened, keep them in the refrigerator, where they will be good for a few months. Be sure they are fully immersed in oil, so they don’t dry out. Top them off with olive oil if needed.

If anchovies are packed in cans, transfer any you don’t use to a small jar to keep in the fridge. White anchovies are sold refrigerated and should be stored that way. Look for a “best by” date stamped on your anchovies as your guide to shelf life.

Toast with butter and anchovies

Lori Rice

How Cook with Anchovies

Once you begin cooking with anchovies, you will quickly discover an incredible versatility. Consider the fact that they show up in everything from pissaladiere (a savory French tart) to pad Thai (thanks to fish sauce). You can enjoy them whole or mash them into a paste using a mortar and pestle or the back of a fork against a cutting board.

For ideas on how to best enjoy these flavorful little fish, I asked my two anchovy experts, Sharon Ardiana and Kelly Cosgrove. Here’s what they shared:

  • Mash them into a paste and whisk into salad dressings.
  • Cook them with olive oil, chiles, garlic, lemon zest and juice and toss with hot pasta.
  • Make anchovy crostini by topping ricotta or fava bean puree with a single, good-quality anchovy.
  • Wrap a slice of mozzarella and fresh basil around an anchovy for an appetizer.
  • Mince an anchovy or two and whisk into an oil and vinegar dressing. Toss with cooked broccolini and finish with grated Pecorino.
  • Add a few to any braised dish for a hit of umami, such as braised lamb shanks.
  • Include them in a batch of tomato sauce to make it a little more interesting.
  • Add it to pizzas, savory tarts, and flatbreads. (Ardiana adds them to her excellent pizzas after they’re baked!)
  • Top toast with tomato, garlic and a boquerone, along with a pickled pepper.
  • Assemble a brunch board with smoked salmon, bagels, and a little side of boquerones.
  • Add anchovies to a charcuterie board, along with olives and cornichons.
  • Include anchovies in a deconstructed Caesar or Cobb salad for a pop of salt and flavor.
Mustard Salad Dressing in a jar next to a salad.
Anchovy-Mustard Vinaigrette. Alison Bickel

Recipes

For more anchovy inspiration, check out these Simply Recipes favorites: