Preparing Salt-Packed Anchovies: A Step-by-Step Guide

Anchovies rank at the top of the list when it comes to flavor-enhancing ingredients. Loaded with glutamates and inosinates–molecules that we perceive as deeply savory and even meaty–anchovies can improve the flavor of all sorts of foods without adding any overt fishiness. They’re even added to meatloaf, leg of lamb, and Worcestershire sauce.

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They can be a bit salty or intensely fishy if eaten whole, in a pizza or salad. This can turn off some people. Anchovies can be delicious in large quantities, but they are best when fresh. To get the best anchovies, you need to buy only the best. What does this mean? Anchovy paste is a bad idea. Our tests showed that it can add unpleasant flavors to almost anything. This leaves us with the choice of oil-packed or salted anchovies. (You can learn more about anchovies and marinated anchovies here).

The oil-packed and the salted product are basically the same. Oil-packed anchovies have just been salted, then deboned and then submerged in olive oil. This is the process that you will have to perform yourself if you begin with salted achovies.

Why bother buying anchovies that are already salted and preparing them yourself? It’s not always worth the extra effort. You can find great anchovies that are oil-packed (see our results from the anchovy test here) and in some applications, like when the anchovies have been melted or blended, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two. When eaten whole (as in a Nicoise Salad), the salted anchovies tend to be superior to oil-packed ones, assuming that you know how to cook them. Here are some basic steps.

How to prepare salted anchovies
You can find salted anchovies in cans, but you may also see them in glass jars. Some, such as the canned variety shown, contain a lot of crystallized sea salt along with a salty brine. Others, like certain brands of jarred anchovies I occasionally buy, contain more brine than crystallized sea salt. The first thing you need to do is pry some anchovies out. You can use your fingers or a spoon to scrape off enough salt so that the anchovies are exposed. Transfer the salt gently into a small bowl using a teaspoon if there is a lot of it. You can easily break or scratch the anchovies if you are not careful.

Step 1: Remove the Anchovies…Carefully!
Be careful to work slowly and carefully, because the anchovies can be packed tightly and break if they are forced.

Step 2: Replace salt
Once I have removed enough anchovies to make my recipe (or snack), I will replace the salt or brine that I scraped off so that all the anchovies remain well covered in salt. Once the tin has been opened, some people prefer to transfer the anchovies with their salt/brine into a plastic or glass container for long-term storage. I have never had a problem with keeping them in their tin. I just wrap it in plastic and keep it in the refrigerator. The tins will last months and months in this way.

Step 3: Rinse
Rinse your anchovies one at a time under cold, gently flowing water. You want to remove any salt encrusted on the anchovies. You can let some of the skin come off but be careful not to break the fillets.

Step 4: Dry
The excess liquid can be absorbed by laying the anchovies, once they have been washed, on paper towels. Anchovies can be lightly cured to the point that they are ready for filleting. If they feel plump, then you may want to try it. Most often, however, the anchovies are firm due to all the time they spent in salt curing.

Step 5: Soak
Soak them to remove the extra salt and soften them. Some people soak them in water, others in milk and still others with white wine. Water is the best option, as it’s free. I also tried milk and found that there was no discernible difference in taste. If you have a bottle of white wine, it will add a subtle wine taste to the anchovies. However, it is not necessary.

The length of time the anchovies should soak depends on their firmness. If you leave them in the water for too long, they will become mushy and soft. If you remove them too early, the flesh will be hard to cut because it is heavily salted. If you find that the fillets are too hard and difficult to remove after 15-30 minutes, give them more time.

Step 6: Fillet
The anchovies must be plump, flexible and not mushy or soft. It’s time to filet them. Pinch one of the fillets where it meets its tail. Carefully pry the spine and tail from beneath. After you have a firm grip on the fillet, slowly lift it from the cage. Be careful and take your time, especially if the goal is to keep them whole.

After lifting the first fillet and laying it down skin-side down, you can continue. Remove any viscera or silver skin that may be in the area of the organ cavities and throw it away. Grab the fillet still attached to spine, then, working again from the tail end of the fillet, remove the spine and tail.

Remove any fins from each fillet. This includes the dorsal. It’s not always easy to see, but you can look closely. You should also feel each fillet around with your finger and remove any hard boney bits. Pay special attention to the area of the collar, where small, sharp bones may still be attached. The tiny hair-like bones do not pose a problem and should not be removed.

Step 7: Dry again
Transfer each fillet to fresh paper towel to remove excess water. The anchovies are now ready for use in any way you like if you plan to cook them right away. The final step, if you’re not cooking with the anchovies right away, is to pack them in oil.

Step 8: Store in oil
Then, pour enough oil to cover the anchovy filets. The fillets should be dry, as even a few drops of moisture will cause them to spoil. Seal the jar, and then refrigerate. Anchovies will last in oil for at least a month, if they don’t longer. Just take them out when you need them. When prepared this way, they’re delicious and you’ll be able to eat them much quicker than that.

Here is a video that shows the filleting process. In the video, all fins were removed with the spine. This is not always the case.