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What Are Anchovies?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Anchovies are small, silvery-green fish in the family Engraulidae. They are found throughout the Mediterranean and along parts of the coastline of Southern Europe, sometimes ranging as far north as the base of Norway. These fish have been an important source of food for centuries, for both humans and marine life alike. They are available fresh in regions where they are heavily fished, and preserved all over the world. The distinctive flavor of the preserved fish can be tasted in many dishes, especially in Mediterranean cuisine.

Some people confuse anchovies with sardines, another silvery fish in the herring family. Sardines grow larger, range in different waters, and have different physical characteristics. Six anchovy species are widely harvested for food purposes, and all of them have characteristic gaping mouths, along with pointed snouts and green to blue bodies that flash silver underwater. They feed on plankton, and also act as a food source for larger fish. Their role in the food chain makes them an important fish species to preserve.

Like many fish in the herring group, anchovies live in large schools, groups of fish that can contain thousands of individuals. Both humans and birds look for these fish by seeking areas of disturbance on the surface of the water, which indicate a panicked school of fish trying to escape a predator.

Like many heavily fished species, anchovies are potentially at risk for serious decline. Several European nations have cooperated to institute limits on their catch, and to regulate the fishing industry to ensure that the fish are caught sustainably. Many fishing companies use large drag nets, which can pose environmental problems as they stir up the ocean floor. Some of these companies have voluntarily modified their fishing practices to ensure that fisheries will remain healthy.

When fresh, the fish have a mild, slightly oily flavor. They are very popular in both France and Italy, especially grilled. Preserved anchovies, typically packed in salt and oil, are also a staple food in many European countries and around the world. They can be extremely salty, so some consumers soak them in cold water for half an hour before consuming them, to draw out some of the salt. The fish is also available in the form of paste, a thick mixture made from ground fillets, vinegar, sugar, and spices.

Why Are Anchioves Healthy?

In addition to packing a flavor punch, these small but mighty fish are an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, including:

  • Vitamins B3, B6, and B12, which support red blood cell production, healthy nerve function, good eyesight, high energy levels, muscle tone, and hormone balance
  • Vitamin D for healthy teeth, bones, and insulin levels
  • Calcium to support bone, muscle, teeth, and cardiovascular health
  • Iron, which promotes the body's hemoglobin production, increases energy levels, and aides gastrointestinal function
  • Selenium to support reproductive and thyroid health and protect against infection and free radicals

In addition, anchovies have an abundance of nutrients essential for a healthy body.

Protein

Anchovies are densely-packed with protein, which the body uses to build bones, cartilage, and muscle, repair tissue, and metabolize food efficiently. Protein is also the main component of hair and nails, and other body parts. A serving of five anchovies contains nearly six grams of protein, promoting satiation and a healthy weight. The protein in anchovies is also highly digestible; therefore, it is easily accessible throughout the body.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Although the body cannot make these nutrients, they are essential for survival and must come from food sources. Eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA and docosahexaenoic acid or DHA are two of the three Omega-3 fatty acids necessary for good health. Anchovies are a significant source of EPA and DHA, which studies show positively impact the cardiovascular system by regulating heartbeat, lowering blood pressure, and reducing LDL cholesterol levels.

In addition, Omega-3 fatty acids promote brain health by improving cognition and memory and reducing the development of beta-amyloid protein levels, which are present with Alzheimer's disease. They also play a pivotal role in fighting inflammation associated with Alzheimer's and other chronic conditions, including cancer, diabetes, and various auto-immune diseases.

Omega-3 fatty acids are also vital for maintaining healthy skin. In addition to promoting elasticity and reducing wrinkles, these nutrients protect the skin from damaging UV sun rays and help prevent dryness. All of these benefits contribute to answering the question, "why are anchovies healthy?"

What Are Some Suggestions for How To Eat Anchovies?

Anyone who loves anchovies knows the pleasure of eating them unadorned, but they are also a perfect choice for adding flavor to other foods. For example, one of the most popular ways to enjoy cured anchovies is topping for pizza. Savory anchovies balance the subtle sweetness of a pizza's tomatoes sauce topping.

In addition to topping a pizza, cured anchovies are a healthy addition to sandwiches or salads when you want to give your meal or snack a protein boost.

Do You Know How To Cook Anchovies?

Whether you use canned or jarred anchovies in brine to flavor a dish or cook fresh anchovies whole, their preparation possibilities are endless. Anchovies can work beautifully both as a versatile ingredient and the focus of a meal.

Why Are Anchovies a Chef's Secret Weapon?

If you wonder why your favorite restaurant dish is indescribably delicious, you may assume that the perfect combination of herbs and spices is responsible. However, the chef who created the recipe may have a simple secret to tantalize your taste buds.

Professional chefs know that a gourmet dish exhibits a perfect balance of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter flavors, and anchovies provide all of these. Therefore, you can elevate your recipe from ordinary to gourmet when you know how to cook anchovies.

Part of what makes anchovies such a versatile ingredient is their ability to quickly and thoroughly dissolve. For example, adding them to a stew or soup leaves behind a complex flavor without overpowering other ingredients.

How Do You Cook Fresh Anchovies?

Although the small anchovies packaged in brine may be most familiar to you, fresh anchovies have a milder flavor, though they are also salty because they swim in seawater. Knowing how to cook fresh anchovies can help you create a memorable entre. You can cook fresh anchovies as you might cook other types of fish by marinating, frying, steaming, or baking them to make a healthy meal.

Cooking fresh anchovies starts with cleaning them if the store where you purchase them cannot do so. Fortunately, this is easy because snipping off the heads helps release the guts. Also, flattening the fish makes the spine come out quickly before you apply your favorite cooking method.

When deciding how to cook anchovies, you can turn to the traditions of many Mediterranean countries, including Greece, Italy, and Spain, where anchovies are a favorite part of the cuisine. Anchovies are naturally flavorful; therefore, they require minimal seasoning regardless of which cooking method you prefer. Olive oil and lemon are all you need to complement the fish's complex umami flavor, which comes from glutamate, an amino acid of protein they contain.

All Things Nature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By jonrss — On Dec 01, 2012

I am a vegetarian and pretty strict about it. But I do allow myself one compromise. My favorite jarred pasta sauce contains anchovies. I am sure it is just a few but they are in there.

I don't feel great about it but I love this sauce so much. I never crave steak or chicken, but I know that if I gave up eating this sauce I would crave it like crazy. So I allow myself one little indulgence and hope that the vegetarian Gods don't mind too much.

By croydon — On Jul 18, 2011

Anchovies have been a traditional food in a lot of cultures for a long time. They were even eaten by the Ancient Romans 2000 years ago. We learned about it in classical studies. The Romans used to pack anchovies into jars and allow them to ferment. Basically, the fish went rotten and turned into a kind of paste that was then used as a flavoring.

I think it was probably an acquired taste!

But that makes it doubly sad if the anchovie stocks around the world are declining. It will disrupt the ecosystem as well as deprive people of a well love food type.

I hope they can be sensible about fish stocking rates. It is for everyone's benefit in the end, after all.

By Mor — On Jul 17, 2011

I can see why people would confuse anchovies for sardines as they do look a little bit similar.

But they taste completely different, especially when anchovies have been heavily salted. I personally prefer sardines, but they are both good in the right kind of meal.

They are both really healthy fish to eat, because they are both small enough that you can eat the whole thing.

Eating the tiny fish bones provides a lot of calcium and they are both oily fish which means they contain omega 3 oils. Omega 3s are incredibly good for you so you should eat as much of them as you can.

By nextcorrea — On Jul 17, 2011

I love to order antipasti platters with olives, anchovies, sausages, breads and cheeses. This smorgasbord of Italian delights is usually as good or better than anything else on the menu. I also love to serve these as an appetizer at parties. It is a real crowd pleaser and it looks great on a platter.

By tigers88 — On Jul 16, 2011

There is a jarred pasta sauce that is my absolute favorite and is only sold in my town. It has a really distinctive flavor, I could never put my finger on what was the taste.

One day I was reading the ingredients label looking for anything out of the ordinary and then I noticed that it included anchovies. I tried making my own red sauce with anchovies included according to a recipe I found online and it tasted a lot like the jarred sauce. Anchovies are the secret ingredient.

My wife was actually horrified by this because she is a vegetarian and we have eaten gallons of this sauce together. Now we have to have 2 different jars, pone for her and pone for me.

By truman12 — On Jul 15, 2011

I used to think that anchovies were so disgusting. I would see the reaction that characters would have to them in movies and I would think they were just a stinky fish that only crazy people like to eat.

Then I had anchovies that had been cooked into a pasta dish and I fell in love with them. I love the salty strong flavor that they have. I still can't eat the plain straight out of the can but I have been working them into a lot of my cooking. I even tried them on a pizza. Loved it!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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