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Jun 13, 2012 07:49 AM

Salt-packed anchovies: worth the time and expense?

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: 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.

          2. 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.

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