Anchovies: A little can of fish that packs big flavor

Don’t be grossed out. Anchovies dissolve when cooked, leaving behind only savory flavor in this Flatbread Pizza with Anchovy Oil. Enlarge photo

Matthew Mead/Associated Press

Don’t be grossed out. Anchovies dissolve when cooked, leaving behind only savory flavor in this Flatbread Pizza with Anchovy Oil.

If anchovies gross you out, know this – compared to what people ate before there were anchovies, they’re practically cake and ice cream.

Because until about the 16th century, there were no anchovies as we know them today. That is, small silvery fish that are boned, salt cured and packed in oil.

Instead, there was garum – the juice of salted and fermented fish guts. Garum lost favor about 500 years ago when people learned how to make anchovies.

Can’t imagine why.

Anchovies, however, are not a singular fish. Most cuisines around the world have their own “anchovy,” most of which tend to be variants of one variety of fish, a relative of the herring.

But given the ick-factor some people suffer, why eat them? Easy. They are flavor bombs that lend serious Wow! to whatever they are added to. And the good news is that the flavor they add isn’t even a little fishy.

Here’s why. After months of salt curing, the dominant flavors in anchovies are from enzymes and good bacteria, not the flesh itself (of which there is little). The result is an intense blend of fatty, salty, savory, meaty, even a bit cheesy.

Even better, when you cook anchovies they dissolve, leaving behind a massive savory flavor but no evidence that any fish were harmed in the making.

Anchovies are widely used in the cuisines of Spain, Portugal, Italy and France. In Turkey, they are so prized they have inspired volumes of poetry, even folk dances. That is some serious anchovy love.

Even if you don’t like them dumped on pizzas, chances are you’ve eaten plenty of anchovies; they are critical for Caesar salad and olive tapenade.

You’ll generally find anchovies alongside the Italian foods or with the tuna. Most varieties are packed in oil in cans or jars.

Some delis also sell salt-packed anchovies, but these sometimes need to be boned and always should be rinsed.

Many grocers also sell anchovy paste, which is ground anchovies blended with oil and sometimes seasonings. The pastes are fine in a pinch, but whole anchovies tend to have better flavor. Unopened cans can be stored at room temperature for a year; opened cans can be refrigerated for a week or two.

Try anchovies in this recipe for flatbread pizza brushed with anchovy oil. And for more ideas, check out the Off the Beaten Aisle column on Food Network’s website.