If you've encountered anchovies on your Caesar salad or pizza, you might wonder what kind of fish it is. Anchovies are small, shiny, silver/green fish of the Engraulis (the Mediterranean and European) or Anchoa (North American) family.
Where Do Anchovies Come From?
Anchovies are saltwater forage fish, native to the Mediterranean and the Black Sea and thus very popular in the local cuisine.
Similar to herring, anchovies run in large schools. They eat plankton and newly hatched fish. Anchovies are, in turn, eaten by other fish, including halibut, shark, and salmon, as well as birds and marine mammals. Fishermen can use them as baitfish. They are found in temperate waters rather than cold or very warm seas, and they school in brackish areas such as bays and estuaries.
The biggest sources of anchovies are the Peruvian anchovy fishery, which dominates with over 68 percent of the catch. The Japanese anchovy fishery is second at over 19 percent, and the European fishery third at over 8 percent.
Anchovies Versus Sardines
Because they are small, generally 5 to 8 inches long, anchovies are often confused with sardines (Sardinella anchovia). In some areas, the terms anchovy and sardine are used interchangeably. In addition to being slimmer and smaller than sardines, anchovies have a more intense flavor than sardines, so they are often used in small amounts, while sardines usually are eaten whole.
Both are oily fishes. Sardines are higher in omega-3 fatty acids than anchovies, but both are good sources of beneficial fatty acids. Due to their small size, anchovies and sardines both are lower in mercury than larger fish. However, anchovies are a source of amnesic shellfish poisoning in humans and birds when they feed during algal blooms and concentrate domoic acid in their guts.
Uses of Anchovies in Cuisine
The minuscule scales on anchovies are virtually nonexistent, and the skin is perfectly edible. Anchovy fillets are produced simply by gutting and brining them and then packing them in oil or salt. Anchovy paste is also produced to use as an ingredient. Spanish boquerones are pickled in vinegar, which makes them milder.
Anchovies are notable in the culinary history of salt and condiments that provide umami, the savory "fifth taste" that adds depth to dishes. They are the base of the Roman fermented fish sauce garum. Today, many sauces use anchovies to provide umami, including Worcestershire sauce, remoulade sauce, and fish sauces such as Vietnamese nuac mom and Thai nam pla.
Many people instantly disdain any recipe made with anchovies, immediately thinking of pizza or perhaps antipasto salad. This is often due to the use of the least expensive, most strongly flavored and salted anchovies. Using boquerones or fresh anchovies, tapas in Barcelona are a delight. One of our favorite Spanish anchovy recipes is anchovies marinated in vinegar (boquerones en vinagre).
Many recipes use anchovies for a punch of flavor where the anchovies are neither recognizable visually nor by the taste buds. Anchovies are often that secret ingredient that you just can't put your finger on, the one that makes the recipe pop.
More About Anchovies
Learn about anchovy equivalents, measures, and substitutions. A key to using them successfully is knowing how to select and buy anchovies.