Anchovies: why they belong in your pasta and how to use them

Do you cook with anchovies? I do, often. Especially in pasta as they dissolve easily into sauces and can add complexity to a dish. While anchovies seem like a strong eccentric flavor, they are in fact quite balanced and do a good deal to enrich the overall taste. Tomatoes love anchovies, as do most vegetables.

A small, common, and sustainable fish, anchovies are a flavor powerhouse that bring not only an obvious salty taste to food but also an umami or savory flavor. Umami is the fifth basic taste along with the more familiar sour, sweet, salty, and bitter. It’s found in anchovies, but also in meats and broths, fermented fish sauces, and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. As you can probably guess from this lineup of ingredients, umami makes your cooking more delicious.

If not using anchovies, I love to use colatura di alici, an Italian anchovy sauce which does a similar trick. You can read more about it here.

Anchovies show up all over Italian menus, battered and fried or marinated or baked, and even fresh. While fresh anchovies have a place in pasta, they are not something I use often. I am also not talking about marinated anchovies which are delicious, but not a go-to for me on a regular basis. It’s the oil-packed and salt-packed anchovies that live in my kitchen and that tend to find their way into my cooking almost every day.

I use oil-packed anchovies a lot as they don’t require any prep work. You can just remove them from the jar or tin and add them directly to your cooking. Although not all oil-packed anchovies are created equal and the quality can depend a good deal on the oil itself.

Salt-packed anchovies require some prep work but are generally of a higher quality with a more concentrated anchovy flavor. I usually use the salt-packed anchovies when preparing puntarelle, the crunchy Roman chicory salad with anchovies, garlic, and vinegar.

Salt-packed anchovies are sold without heads and with the guts removed. Before using, they should be rinsed thoroughly in cold water and the spines and fins removed. This is already done in the oil-packed versions on an industrial scale. It’s okay if you don’t remove all the tiny bones as they are edible. A salt-packed anchovy, unlike an oil-packed anchovy, is also not yet separated into two fillets which is why it looks twice the size.

If you aren’t already an anchovy lover, try to find some higher quality ones. Low-quality anchovies are often the most widely available. When baked on pizza, a common place for many folks to encounter them, the heat from the oven can concentrate the saltiness and the unpleasant flavor of lower quality anchovies.

Here are some super simple pasta recipes that rely on oil-packed anchovies.

Photo by Diane Helentjaris on Unsplash.

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