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Salt-packed anchovies: worth the time and expense?

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I love to cook with anchovies, the magical ingredient in many pasta sauces, salad dressings, etc. I've tried the better oil-packed anchovies in jars, but I see many chefs prefer the salt-packed variety. I found some at Formaggio's, from Sicily, loose by the pound. They were....different, but I can't say I loved them. Maybe I'm just accustomed to the oil-packed flavor. Still, I'm intrigued by the thought that there's a better anchovy out there. So here are my questions: Do you think salt-packed anchovies really are superior and worth the extra money and effort it takes to prepare them? Where are the best sources to get them? (I know they're sold in cans, but I've looked in various Italian specialty stores without any luck so far). How do the canned salt-packed compare with the loose ones sold in Formaggio's (I've also seen them loose at Sophia's Greek Pantry)? And how long do the canned and loose last? Can you store them in the fridge indefinitely? So many fishy questions!

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  1. The salt packed ones taste MUCH better to me. But they are a ton of work.

    You can keep them in the fridge wrapped up almost indefinitely, OR filet them, brush the salt off, or even rinse them very lightly in water, dry them, stuff them in a jar, and cover with good ovoo. They last indefinitely this way as well and the oil takes on an amazing flavor and is great as a drizzle over just about anything.

    1. According to Michael Ruhlman in The Elements of Cooking, salt-packed anchovies should soaked in milk, then rinsed, to remove the salt.

      8 Replies
      1. re: GH1618

        That soak in milk thing is nonsense and kinda gross to boot. You WANT the flavor. You don't want to take OUT all the flavor, and you certainly don't want your anchovies to taste like milk.

        Any Italian grandmother would cringe at the thought of ruining perfectly good anchovies that way.

        1. re: StriperGuy

          Soaking in milk is how you reconstitute Baccalà. The fish comes out tasting very fresh, not milky. Many Italian grandmothers do this. I'm not sure if anchovies would be any different than cod.

          1. re: pdxgastro

            I soak baccala in water.

          2. re: StriperGuy

            »"Any Italian grandmother would cringe..."
            WOW! You sure aren't Italian. After culinary school, I worked in a restaurant in Milan for two years, and that is EXACTLY how the Italians prepare & use ancovies! Including my Sicilian grandmother...
            The French are the only people I know who soak baccala in water (to make Brandad de Morue), and that's only Parisians; in Provence, they soak in milk.

            1. re: hneilm

              Milan and Sicily. You've got your bases covered!

              1. re: hneilm

                To each his own, my Italian wife and in-laws from Pisa cringe at the thought (they also cringe when Americans put Parmesan cheese on chicken!)

                1. re: StriperGuy

                  That's because Americans think "chicken parmesan" means chicken WITH parmesan, when it actually means chicken in the style of Parma, i.e. breaded & pan fried, as opposed to Chicken Milanese, where the chicken is floured, but NOT breaded.

                  1. re: hneilm

                    D'accordo.

          3. Salt-packed are definitely better. The extra work is worth it, IMO. You do have to clean them, however, which means filleting, cleaning out the innards, removing fins, heads, and tails, etc. The flavor is a dramatic improvement, though.

            1. Yes, the short answer is salt-packed are better, but not all salt-packed are the same, and not all oil-packed are the same. When the anchovies are playing a leading role, such as fillets on toast or pasta sauces where they're a principal ingredient, I buy great big gorgeous salt-packed anchovies from the Cantabrian Sea by the piece. For everyday use (pounding in a mortar for puntarelle or dissolved in a pan for pasta sauces), I buy Callipo jars, packed in extra virgin olive oil. On a trip to northern Spain last year we stocked up on tins of oil-packed Cantabrian fillets which are too good to cook with. We just eat them straight or on toast. I have bought salt-packed fillets in a jar, which were awful, pretty much mush. There's a huge difference between the whole salt-packed anchovies I see at the supermarket and the beauties I buy at Volpetti, my local gourmet shop. The Volpetti guys say to wash theirs in wine or vinegar, too good for water. They also need scraping and filleting and gutting (sounds worse than it is). You can make the fillets and store them in extra virgin olive oil. Never heard of milk for anchovies in Italy. Only have heard of it for Nordic stuff like those seriously salty herrings.

              1. I prefer salt-packed. Though they cost more and aren't always easy to find. Cleaning them is no more bother than shelling a prawn. Once you learn how to do it, it takes a few seconds. I carefully separate the two fillets from the skeleton, under a very gently running cold-water faucet, and remove any fins, then putting the fillets on a paper towel to drain. That's all there is to it. The running water makes the fillets come away from the bones easier. Anchovy puree, sold in squeeze tubes, never tastes as good. There is a thick creamy Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce called mam nem that's a fair substitute for the flavor of cured anchovy fillets. It's hard to find, too, but ask around at Asian stores.

                My anchovy story: One day, at the age of 50-something, in Hawaii, I munched an anchovy fillet that was part of a spread at a party. The flavor hit me immediately. It was a flavor I had forgotten. When I was a little kid, see, maybe 5 to 6 years old, I lived in Belgium with my military parents. Over a couple summers, we spent some weeks at a beach near Barcelona. The long, elaborate Spanish lunches were memorable affairs. One of the distinctive flavors was that of salt-cured anchovies. I loved them. I had no idea what a salt-cured anchovy was, of course. Just knew the ones I ate in Spain were way better than the (oil-packed) ones I ate everywhere else before or after ... until that day in Honolulu. So that's how it was: My first taste of salt-packed anchovy in 45 or so years instantly took me back to small-kid time on the Costa Brava. Soon after, I bought a one-kilo can of salted anchovies from a restaurant food wholesaler. I put them into a sealable glass container, added more salt to cover, and kept them in the fridge. It took a couple years to use them up -- gave away some to friends -- but they were good to the last anchovy.

                1 Reply
                1. re: emu48

                  Great story, viva Espana!

                2. Frankly, no. I've purchased good imported salt-packed anchovies back in the days when there were many authentic Italian delis/groceries in NY. Never could warm up to them. Simply didn't like the flavor.

                  Good-quality oil-packed remain my favorite for everyday use.

                  1. I have to say yes. I like the brand Agostino Recca. About $ 16.00 a can. I confess, for conveince I will buy a small jar packed in oil. But nothing like the big tin of salted anchovies.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: emglow101

                      The kilo can I bought was Agostino Recca ... just now saw a picture in a Google search. Just a note to anyone who buys a big can and follows my advice (above) about keeping it long-term in the fridge: Cover the clump of anchovies (they're all pressed together) with additional salt, like I said, but it's probably a good idea to avoid using iodized salt. I say that only because most pickle recipes urge you to avoid it ... the iodine apparently doesn't do good things to pickles. Just guessing that may be the case for anchovies too. Doubt that it matters whether you use fine, coarse or granular salt. The salt in the anchovy can was fine, but I added granular to keep the little fishies covered. Kosher salt is available everywhere inexpensively. In Hawaii, so is alae salt, white or clay-colored. It would be a waste to use some expensive French sea salt for this. Can't remember where I originally got the advice to keep the anchovies covered with salt, but it did the job.

                      1. re: emu48

                        The reason to avoid iodized salt in preserving is that, over time, it can impart a metallic taste to the food is used on. Your treatment of you anchovy filets is spot-on. Treated like that, they will literally last for years...unless I got at them!

                    2. Salt packed are superior to the oil packed.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: cstr

                        Actually no, they're not, depending on what one prefers. As usual, it's all up to PERSONAL PREFERENCE. You can't generalize something like that for everyone.

                        1. re: Bacardi1

                          Of course preferences vary, but often one's preferences are coloured by one's early experiences. Most America's have only been exposed to oil-packed anchovies, and so , for those who have developed a liking for them, those are the style of choice in many cases...it's why we all think our mothers were good cooks, when many of them were horrible cooks by any non-biased measure.
                          I've traveled and worked extensively in Europe, where the salt-packed anchovies are the more common variety, and I have never met a European chef who didn't claim the salt-packed to be far superior. Personally, I believe the poor quality and flavor of some of the American mass-market oil-packed anchovies is the reason most Americans are turned off by those umami-packed little morsels.

                      2. Salt packed are superior but I still don't bother. I use at anchovies at least once a week but only about two at a time and it just doesn't matter much.

                        More expensive olive oil packed anchovies are superior to cheapo ones.

                        1. I actually use Thai/Viet fish sauce when it comes to sauces and soups.

                          1. Hi Katzzz -

                            We prefer anchovies packed in salt.

                            Each anchovy is easier to work with, and in some recipes no oil is used or desired.

                            We buy Spanish, Greek, or Portuguese sourced-anchovy which come in lock-seal glass jars with a red rubber gasket.

                            1. I think the salt packed are superior. I've had some still packed in the salt in the back of the fridge for a couple years and they haven't killed me yet. The oil packed ones have a milder flavor. I use those on pizzas, the salt packed ones in soups and stews.

                              1. Different anchovies for different uses. I empty my big tin of salties into an airtight refrigerator container, and take them out one or two at a time. I tend to soak them a few minutes after rinsing off the salt, then use my thumbnail to debone them. For things like mincing up to go into a green salad (I throw them in the bowl with the vinegar and oil), and anywhere you need only a few, it's a great solution. For lying across a pizza or a devilled egg or a fancier salad, then the tinned ones or the marinated white anchovies are what I use.

                                The salt-packed ones - and you surely don't need to add more salt once you put them in the container you'll keep them in - will keep forever, seemingly. I have certainly used them over a year after opening and they are still good.