Should you buy salt- or oil-packed anchovies?


With the discovery of umami, and the further discovery that anchovies are packed with this flavor component, anchovies have expanded their food reach way beyond pizza. As their ability to impart umami doesn't depend on quantity, and as anchovies dissolve easily which masks their flavor, it's easy to add succulence without a fish taste.

Which brings us to our question of the day - should you buy salt- or oil-packed anchovies?Conventional wisdom started with Alice Waters, who originally laid down the rule that salt-packed is better. But, after awhile, other authors have weighed in, noting this is no longer true. 

Chow recently revisited this question in Are the Best Anchovies Oil-Packed or Salt-Packed? Their preference is for salt-packed as they argue that the quality of the oil in oil-packed anchovies isn't particularly good, so they should be blotted dry.  Further, there can be a lot more work involved with salt-packed anchovies which "should either be soaked for several minutes or thoroughly rinsed in cool water in order to remove the excess salt."

However, the good news is that this advice tends to apply to standard supermarket brands. The Spanish take care with their oil-packed sardines and have, over the past several years, expanded their exports. So if you prefer the ease of oil-packed, finding a Spanish brand, especially from Catalonia,  is worth the effort. Cook's Illustrated, in a taste-test from several years ago, especially recommends the Ortiz brand.

We should note that there was one point of uniform agreement - never buy anchovy paste. 

And, now that you've bought great anchovies, if you want to highlight them, try this recipe from Dorie Greenspan for Pissaladière - it earned 5 stars.

Photo courtesy of Fine


  • sir_ken_g  on  5/26/2013 at 4:10 PM

    I wonder if good old Asian fish sauce is not as good or better - at a fraction of the price.

  • wester  on  5/27/2013 at 3:23 AM

    Fish sauce is definitely the third option. Not for pizzas of course, but for all those things that just need a shot of umami (like the eggplant dish I made yesterday ) it's great. My canned anchovies are Spanish, olive-oil-packed, and MSC, so I'm not going to switch to salted ones.

  • Fuzzy Chef  on  5/29/2013 at 11:07 PM

    I'm sure if we try really hard, we can make a quasi-religious argument out of the salt-vs-oil question, and start a flamewar in the comments. Actually, what I get is salt-packed anchovy *filets*, which have he advantage of being very easy to incorporate into dishes.

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