These Are the Only Anchovies I’ll Buy at the Grocery Store

updated Sep 8, 2020
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Anchovy filets in skillet with olive oil and red pepper flakes
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman | Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

When I was developing the recipes for my cookbook, there was one ingredient I knew I wanted to call upon frequently because I reach for it weekly in my daily life, but I was pretty convinced it would be a hard sell from the start: anchovies. Well, I was hopeful at first, but when I posted a picture of a dish on Instagram in the early stages of development that included them and my best friend commented, “You lost me at anchovies,” I realized I probably had lost quite a few others too. So here I am, on a saltbox, hoping to get the record straight: Friends, anchovies are the most deliciously savory, richly flavored ingredient you can keep in your kitchen and I want you to give them a shot.

Credit: Photo: Joe LIngeman | Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

Anchovies Are the Umami-Packed Secret to Extra-Flavorful Pantry Meals

Anchovies have so much love to give — they’re salty, briny, and full of umami-rich flavor. What’s so magical about them is that they actually disintegrate when cooked. Slip a few fillets into hot olive oil and when you stir and break up the fillets, they’ll quickly melt and dissolve into the oil, infusing it with savory, salty flavor. This can be used as an instant sauce for pasta, a base for sautéed veggies or seared meat, and even something to drizzle on pizza or dunk bread into.

Or mince anchovies finely and they become paste-like and the perfect base for a bold dressing (there’s a reason Caesar salad is so tasty, after all). While I love their depth of flavor so much that I’ll happily eat them whole on buttered toast or on top of a halved jammy egg, you don’t have to go all in right away. Your gateway into anchovy appreciation starts with letting their flavor creep up on you in small places first, like in pasta sauces and dressings, before becoming that person who orders it as a topping on your pizza (because perhaps, one day, you just might).

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman | Food Stylist: Cyd McDowell

What Anchovies to Buy

There are a handful of options when it comes to what anchovies to buy. You can find them in different forms, such as salt-packed, oil-packed, and even as paste. Salt-packed anchovies deliver the best flavor, but they are fussy to use because you have to rinse and soak them to remove the salt then actually fillet them yourself. The paste is definitely the most convenient because it comes in a little toothpaste-like tube you can just squeeze right out, but it’s missing some of that depth of flavor. So, I believe the best anchovies to buy are oil-packed. Particularly, I like to buy anchovies that are packed in pure olive oil, either in a glass jar or tin, because you can actually use that oil in your cooking when you’re finished with the fillets. There are a lot of fancy brands out there, but my go-to is always Agostino Recca, which is high in quality but priced right.

Buy my favorite brand: Agostino Recca Flat Fillets of Anchovies in Olive Oil, $11 for a 3-pack on Amazon

An open jar can be tucked right in the fridge, while the contents of an open tin should be transferred to a small airtight container and the anchovies should be topped off with additional olive oil to cover them, if needed. They’ll keep for up to two months this way. The oil may solidify in the fridge, so just take the jar or container out of the fridge for 10 minutes or so before using so you can easily remove a fillet or two.

My Favorite Ways to Use Anchovies

  • Improve on your pasta dinner. This is probably the best place to start. Make a classic puttanesca, this simple olive oil-dressed spaghetti or cauliflower pasta, or this flavorful one-pot tomato sauced pasta.
  • Shake up tastier salad dressings. Definitely make a traditional Caesar dressing, but this vinaigrette is also perfect and one I turn to regularly. The bold flavor anchovies deliver stand up well to bitter lettuces like radicchio, so this is also a tasty salad to try.
  • Try bagna cauda. One of the most well-loved ways to celebrate anchovies in Italy is to make bagna cauda. The specialty of Piedmont, Italy translates to “warm bath” and is a simple combination of melted anchovies, garlic, and olive oil. It’s used as a warm dip or condiment — try it here on roasted Brussels sprouts.
  • Make your own tapenade. While it’s easy enough to buy olive tapenade at most grocery stores these days, it’s fun and simple to make it at home. Serve it with crackers or crostini as an appetizer, use it as a sandwich spread, or dollop it on chicken or fish.
  • Upgrade end-of-summer tomatoes. Right now, tomatoes are their absolute best. As the season wanes, gather what’s left of them and roast them with olive oil, chopped anchovies, and garlic. The salty, savory flavor of anchovies contrasts the acidic sweetness of tomatoes perfectly. Pile this juicy mixture on toast, grilled steak, or even thick slices of fresh mozzarella and you won’t be disappointed.

There are countless ingredients clamoring for space in your kitchen. Taste Makers are the ones that actually make a dish amazing. Each month, we’re exploring one ingredient that has earned its place in our small kitchens and will make even simple food taste spectacular.

Your turn: What’s your favorite underrated ingredient in your pantry? What do you reach for when you want to elevate your cooking quickly and easily? Tell us in the comments below! We may give it the star treatment in an upcoming edition of Taste Makers.