If you’ve ever been freaked out by fish in jars, you’re not alone. Given all the horrible things that can happen if you make the mistake of eating anything from the ocean that’s a little past its best, old sea creatures should always be treated with caution.
However, as every cook knows, there are no absolutes in the kitchen. Where one fermented fish might glue you to the toilet for a few days, another, properly prepared, might be the key to transforming your dinner from bland to brilliant. With this in mind, it’s time to talk about anchovies.
Like mackerel, sardines and herrings, anchovies are part of a select group of small oily swimmers that can make culinary magic. Delicious in their own right, the fish really comes into its own when it has been preserved.
By burying anchovies in salt, drowning them in olive oil, or even leaving them in a well-aged wooden barrel, you can create a range of ingredients that can take any meal to the stratosphere. All you need is a little faith.
Take tomato sauce, for instance. While dousing your penne in red juice that smells like a fishmongers bin is at the top of nobody’s menu, in moderation, the addition of a few diced anchovy fillets creates a depth of salty flavour that makes seasoning your dinner as simple as opening a tomato tin.
Finely chop the fillets, add them to your pan at the beginning and watch as they evaporate into a puddle of seriously savoury flavour. It’s this impact - delivered without any overly fishy side-effects - that makes anchovies such an important ally in the kitchen.
It’s not just sauces where the little fish can make their presence felt. If you want to include a satisfyingly salty element to a roasted meat joint, simply rub a few diced fillets around the outside of your meat.
Once cooked, the result will be a thin coating of delicious crunchy flakes that taste more like supercharged pork scratchings than something that’s come from the sea. This trick works particularly well with lamb.
Given how much punch they pack, anchovies are best used together with dishes that have a strong flavour of their own. Covering a delicately flakey seabass with anchovy extract will obliterate everything. It will probably still taste good, just not of seabass.
This is why anchovies can make an excellent addition to hearty, cheesy comfort foods such as pizza and pasta. Even though some might see it as sacrilegious to top a slice of pie with fish, the combination of a salty fillet, melted mozzarella and doughy crust really takes things up a notch.
If you’re still feeling sceptical about the secret power of anchovies, you should know that they’ve actually been indispensable parts of the menu for thousands of years.
Long before we could complain about the purity of pizza, the ancient Romans covered everything they could get their hands on in the anchovy-based condiment garum, proving that we’ve always been susceptible to the fish’s salty charms.
In fact, our obsession has continued well into the modern-day. Popular condiments such as fish sauce and Lea & Perrins are all derived from the fermented little fillets, providing yet more evidence that we can’t get enough added anchovy flavour. Even if you consider yourself a fishy sceptic, this delicious body of evidence should be enough to get you to dip your toe in the water. You won’t regret it.