Tuesday, 2 March 2010 | Tags: ,

Often when people say the word anchovies, it usually comes after "hold the" or "no". We tested a an Italian cookbook called A16: Food + Wine in which the authors do their very best to rehabilitate the reputation of the anchovy in North America. Here's a closer look at this nutritious little fish.

The Basics

  • Anchovies are small saltwater fish about 3-4 inches long with silvery skin and finely-grained, off-white or grayish flesh.They have a soft, smooth texture and a rich, lightly oily flavour.

  • They not only resemble tiny herring, they run in large schools like herring. They are also widely used as live bait for tuna and gamefish.

  • There are about six distinct species of anchovies worldwide, most of which are harvested for consumption. The most common species available in North America are:

    • The European anchovy, found in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the warmer waters of the eastern Atlantic. European anchovies are generally fished and are available fresh in these regions all year. This species is often imported to the North American market as canned anchovies.

    • The Northern anchovy inhabits the waters around Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands south to the Gulf of California. In these areas, northern anchovies tend to be abundant in bays and estuaries in the spring, summer, and fall. You may find these available fresh at your local west coast fishmonger. They are also commonly available canned.

  • Buying fresh anchovies in North America is a difficult task as their size and very high fat content makes them an extremely perishable fish that do not travel well.

  • Like other seafoods, they often arrive at the fishmonger having been flash-frozen at sea. Fortunately, anchovies are usually packed in salt, tinned or jarred in oil, or ground as a paste in tubes, and exported around the world.

    • Anchovies Packed in Salt: Regardless of the type of salt used, preserving anchovies in salt is a time-honored technique delivering a distinctive flavour. The fish are cleaned immediately after being caught, washed in salt brine, then allowed to dry. They are then layered into large round tins according to fish size, with each layer receiving a specific amount of sea salt. They cure for up to two months and then the tins are sealed and prepared for shipping.

    • Anchovies Packed in Olive Oil: Just like their salted counterparts, these fish must be processed immediately after being caught in order to ensure flavour. They start out the same way as salted fish, but after two months, they’re cleaned of their fins and any leftover pieces before undergoing repeated rinsing in salt water to remove scales and skin. Each anchovy is then filleted by hand, removing the bones and leaving two fillets per tiny fish, which are jarred or put into tins with olive oil.

    • Anchovy paste is created by grinding fillets into a paste, and adding salt and sugar to reduce the fishy flavour. Paste comes in tubes and is pretty pungent compared to other anchovy products. It adds a salty flavour to dishes.

Shopping Tips


  • If you’re buying fresh anchovies, go to a fish monger or Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese market. The fish should have silvery scales and no blemishes. Avoid any that appear blue or dark. Their flesh is very soft and bruises easily.

  • As with any fresh fish, smell the anchovies to judge freshness. Their eyes should be bright and clear.

  • About 10 fish will make up 1 lb.

  • Use fresh fish on the day you purchase them because they will not last long due to their highly fatty flesh.

  • Keep them on a bed of ice in the coldest part of your fridge until you need them.


  • Canned anchovies are available both whole and filleted in 1/2-ounce and 2-ounce cans and jars, in both salt and oil. They are available in most supermarkets, as well as Mediterranean grocery stores.

  • Salted anchovies must be eaten up immediately after opening, so only buy as many as you plan to eat at one time. To de-salt the fish, you will need to rinse them or soak them in cold water or milk for at least an hour before using them.

  • Anchovies packed in oil have a less intense flavour. Once opened, you should eat them all immediately, or move the leftovers to a glass container or jar and put them in the oil (or use fresh olive oil). Never leave them in the can because it can taint the flavour. They will keep for about 5 more days in the fridge.

  • Unopened canned anchovies will last up to a year if kept in a cool place.

Anchovies and Nutrition

  • As a fatty fish, anchovies are an excellent source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are known for their anti-inflammatory properties, reducing the risk of heart disease, and having the ability to reduce triglyceride and cholesterol levels.

  • Because anchovies are a small fish with a short life span, they’re also less likely to accumulate significant levels of mercury and toxins like PCBs and dioxanes.

  • Five anchovies contain 9 grams of protein, no carbohydrates, and only 55 calories.

  • Anchovies are a good source of calcium for strong bones and reducing blood pressure, and also selenium, a trace mineral that is thought to play a role in cancer prevention.

  • They’re also an excellent source of niacin, a B-vitamin that is important for nervous system, skin, and digestive tract health.

  • Anchovies are high in sodium and cholesterol, however, which means they should be eaten in moderation, particularly if you have a history of hypertension, elevated cholesterol levels, or heart disease.


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