The fish are washed in a brine solution, then packed whole, heads and all, into large barrels and salted. They are allowed to cure like this for 6 to 8 months at room temperature, which develops the taste.
Most anchovies used to be sold at this stage, as Salted Anchovies, and some Anchovy fans say this is still the best to buy them, packed in the salt they were cured in. These dried whole ones are a bit more work in the kitchen, as you will want to remove any obvious bones. You can still buy these jarred or tinned, or loose at some delis.
Some anchovies are allowed to continue maturing past the 6 to 8 months, until they become soft and liquidy and are sold to makers of sauces such as Worcestershire sauces and Asian fish sauces. Most, however, at the end of these months of curing in salt, are refrigerated to stop the maturing process. They are washed in water, the skins are rubbed off, and the head and tails removed. After another wash in brine, then they are hand-filleted (do you see now why your mother told you to stay in school?) Each fish produces two small fillets. The fillets are layered into tins with oil, cleaned and boned and ready to use. This labour-intensive process accounts for how expensive a little tin can seem.
On cooking, anchovies melt away and blend into whatever you are cooking them with. They don’t leave a fishy taste, just a salty one. Some say that the taste anchovies give to dishes can be classed as “umami.”
The Ortiz brand of anchovies is rated highly by some people; the fish used come from the Cantabrian coast on the north of Spain, and the southern Mediterranean coast of Spain.
When preparing salted anchovies, rinse the salt off them under cold running water. Then, pull each of the two fillets per fish off the bone, carefully. If you’re planning to use the fillets later, cover them with oil and store in fridge.
Some will tell you to discard the packing oil as it is too salty and fishy. It can depend on the brand of anchovies you buy.
Others will tell you to rinse anchovies in water to help get rid of some of their taste.
Gentlemen’s Relish, Capers
2 oz of anchovy paste = 4 tablespoons = 1/4 cup
2 oz anchovy fillets in oil = 50g = 8 to 12 Anchovies in oil = 12 drained
1 1/2oz anchovies, drained = 40g = 8 to 10 Anchovies
1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste = 1 Anchovy fillet
You can substitute capers for anchovies at the rate of 1 1/2 tbsp capers (rinsed if they were in a vinegary solution) for every 6 anchovy fillets the recipe calls for.
Once a tin of anchovies is opened, you can store the anchovies in the refrigerator (discard the tin and store them in a sealed container) for up to two months: just make sure the fillets are covered in oil during that time to keep them fresh.
The Romans liked strong, fishy-tasting sauces and so, naturally, adored the Anchovy! Their most common condiment was liquamen, made from anchovies. Liquamen’s nearest equivalent today (and it’s not all that “near”) is Thai fish sauce. Liquamen was so popular, that it was commercially produced and sold in many parts of the Roman Empire — it was the Roman Worcestershire sauce.
Elizabethan gourmands would keep a barrel of salted anchovies in their cellars.
Commercial sauces which use anchovies: Harveys, Burgess’s Anchovy Essence, Gentleman’s Relish, Worcestershire sauce (invented 1838).
In Italian, “Acciughe” are anchovies in oil; “Alici” are salted anchovies.
Parle, Stevie. Anchovies: Small fry that packs a punch. London: Daily Telegraph. 11 March 2011.