Thanks to its preservation in salt or oil, anchovies arrive on our tables and can be eaten even months after being caught.
Anchovies represent one of the most characteristic ingredients of Italian and Mediterranean cuisine, a fish that has always been widespread in our seas. It is so common that it is probably taken for granted by now ... but are we sure we know everything about an ingredient, which is, yes, simple, but which needs to be treated carefully in order to enjoy it at its best?

Salt-packed anchovies and anchovy fillets: what's the difference, how to store, how to use, recipes

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The difference between salt-packed anchovies and anchovy fillets

All packaged anchovies have been salted anchovies for a period of their 'life'. In fact, one of the first steps in preserving anchovies is that the fresh fish, cleaned of head and entrails, is placed inside containers with salt, arranged in layers, with a weight on top of the cap to apply pressure and help the salt work to dehydrate and dry the liquids in the fish flesh. As you will read later, it is precisely this process that makes it possible for anchovies to be eaten even months after they have been caught.

So now let's assume that the right maturing time has passed since the anchovy was salted: the product is ready and can be sold (and already eaten). If the anchovies are to be marketed as salt-packed anchovies, they are simply taken and packaged according to the various weights and sizes one prefers, whereas if they are to be sold as anchovy fillets, this is when the salted anchovies are 'transformed': the anchovy, which is still practically whole, must be washed and filleted, then jarred with oil. So the major difference between salt-packed anchovies and anchovy fillets is that the former is a raw material that can be further processed, whereas anchovy fillets are a ready-made product.

How to store anchovies 

Fresh anchovies are first cleaned of their heads and entrails and then placed in jars (in Genoese, 'arbanelle') and left to ripen under salt for a few months, stacked in layers with a weight on top to apply pressure. This step serves to dehydrate the fish so that it can be perfectly preserved when it is packaged: sometimes the liquids that the anchovies release during this processing step, and which have become a brine, are collected and made to shrink and thicken in the sun; the end result will be what many people know as 'colatura di alici', a very tasty liquid sauce used for pasta.

Fresh anchovies before being salted - Anciua di Sestri Levante

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In the market, after at least two months or more, when you decide it is time to jar the anchovies, you can choose whether to keep them still in salt (and/or to transfer them to smaller jars) or fillet them and put them in oil: in this case, the fish is passed under running water, cleaned of salt, stripped of the bone (filleted) and dried again (since it has been washed from the salt with water): there are those who use desiccators to speed up the process and there are those, like Michele Senno our Anciua anchovy maker, who prefer a slower method at low temperatures to keep the quality of the flesh high; the difference is that for anchovies dried with a desiccator, the salt flavour many times covers that of the anchovy, while with Michele's processing the fish flesh retains its organoleptic qualities of fleshiness and flavour. At this point, when the anchovy fillets are dry again, they can be put in oil.

Consequently in both cases, for salt-packed anchovies and anchovy fillets, the final product is free of liquid and water and therefore there are no problems with preservation and they do not need to be vacuum-packed. If the jars have not been subjected to a passage of more than 90°C (pasteurisation), like Anciua's artisanal anchovies, they are called semi-preserved and it is advisable to keep these products cool so as to avoid altering the flavour qualities of the meat. If you don't have a cool, dry place that allows you to keep the jars of anchovies at a maximum of 12°/15°C then it is best to keep them in the fridge, at least during the summer and hot months. The storage instructions are always stated on the product label. Anchovies in salt have a longer shelf life than anchovies in oil.

How to use salt-packed anchovies

Salt-packed anchovies are whole fish that have been stripped of their heads and entrails; otherwise they still have the central bone, which must be removed if you want to make fillets. The first thing to do is to rinse the salt off the anchovy thoroughly: the fish can be washed under running water or in a basin. Only if you want to use the salted anchovy to add flavour to a sauce or dish can you add the anchovy without desalting it, but remember not to put any more salt in afterwards!

To enjoy salt-packed anchovies as they are or to make them in oil, they must be desalted and deboned. First, you need to dry the anchovy well with kitchen paper: On an industrial level, dryers are used to speed up the process in a few hours, while artisans like Michele Senno of Anciua take more than four days, drying the fish at low temperatures; let's imagine that you have neither the time nor the desire to take care of the anchovies for four days after washing them from the salt, so in the home process you will just have to proceed by gently blotting with kitchen paper several times (however, in this home-made way you will have to consume the final product within a few days). Once the anchovy is salt-free and well dried, we can proceed with the filleting. We deprive the fish of its fins (tail, ventral and dorsal fins) with a clean cut, open the fish with our fingers and remove the central bone, taking care not to ruin the flesh of the fillet, if necessary using the blade of a knife. At this point we can choose whether to enjoy our anchovy already or to season it by leaving it for a day with extra virgin olive oil or by marinating it with flavours.

Anchovies: ideas and recipes

Salt-packed anchovies are recommended to be used for cooking and as an ingredient (e.g. to season pasta) while anchovy fillets are best eaten as they are, au naturel, e.g. simply accompanied with bread (and butter to taste) to bring out all the goodness of the anchovy.

Salt-packed anchovies can be used to prepare sauces, such as anchovy paste, tapenade (a Provençal 'pâté' made with olives, salted anchovies, capers, garlic and oil) and salsa verde, perfect to accompany boiled meats. Salted anchovies are natural flavour enhancers for meat or fish dishes, but also for sauces: without having to add extra salt to your chosen recipe, just use an undesalted anchovy.

One of the most famous recipes using salted anchovies is bagna càuda. It is a typical Piedmontese recipe, especially from Lower Piedmont, an area historically linked to the tradition of trading anchovies in salt because the ancient 'Salt Road' passed through there. Bagna càuda is a sauce made from desalted and boned anchovies that are cooked with garlic and oil (usually in a typical terracotta pot): this sauce is then used as a dip to accompany seasonal vegetables. The anchovy tradition in Piedmont can also be found in other recipes such as bagnet verde (green sauce).

Salt-packed anchovies are also used to garnish pizza and focaccia. In the Riviera di Ponente there are various focaccias (each village has its own version) that are seasoned with tomato and anchovies: these focaccias are known as Pissalandrea or Sardenaira (the latter from Sanremo). They are also an excellent ingredient for salads.

Once desalted and boned, anchovies can be seasoned a few hours with oil or various marinades with flavours and aromatic herbs, becoming a perfect appetiser: another tasty appetiser are anchovy fillets stuffed with capers or pieces of pepper.