As a novice cook itching to learn more about whipping up a delicious meal, I have put a lot of trust into testing out the seemingly bizarre methods professional chefs swear by (like Alton Brown’s unique trick for boiling pasta). But there has been one frequently suggested pro-tip that I have been incredibly reluctant to try: cooking with anchovies.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a cooking video or scrolled through recipes only to be shocked at the inclusion of those tiny slivers of salty fish packed in tins of oil. One recent headline from Bon Appétit went so far as to claim, “95% of the Time, Anchovies are the Secret Ingredient.” That is a lot of anchovies going around.
I know they’re sneakily in things I eat and enjoy regularly, like Caesar salad dressing or marinara sauce, but the suggestion to add anchovies while sautéing greens or veggies seemed like a stretch. And OK, yes, maybe I was influenced by a cultural bias against anchovies without ever really trying them. But I finally decided to grab a can and test it out, all in the interest of truly becoming the best cook I can be.
I wanted something simple, so I went with some advice I found on Epicurious: “Use a fillet or two to bump up the flavor of already-robust vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, and kale. Basically, if it’s a crucifer, it’ll taste good with an anchovy accent.” It seemed like a bold claim to me, but I was trying not to let my anti-anchovy tendencies get in the way of the experiment.
Peeling back the can’s lid and actually seeing the fish in person for what I’m pretty sure was the first time in my life didn’t exactly fill me with confidence, though.
But I was happy to discover they didn’t have an overwhelmingly fishy smell just from opening the can. I even braved taking the tiniest little bite out of one and…it wasn’t bad! I still don’t see myself choosing them as a pizza topping in the near future, but they definitely weren’t as off-putting as I thought they’d be.
After heating up some olive oil in my pan, I tossed a couple of fillets in before adding my kale. I didn’t want to overwhelm it with other flavors, so I just seasoned with salt and pepper rather than raiding my spice cabinet. Once the kale seemed sufficiently wilted and warmed up, I plated them with some grains before digging in.
It turns out the little fishies really do add that extra “jolt of umami,” as Bon Appétit puts it. I’ve sautéed kale so many times as a frequent weeknight side dish, but it has never been nearly as savory and flavorful as this batch. There was a slightly lingering “fishy” flavor, but it didn’t take away from overall richness of the salt and oil. Next time I’ll probably even let them simmer on their own in the oil for longer before adding in the greens.
I’m also excited to try anchovies in more cooking ventures. Both Bon Appétit and Epicurious recommend adding anchovies to pasta dishes, either in the sauce or while simmering garlic and other toppings, and even in meatier dishes like roast lamb, beef stew, and pan-sautéd chicken.
I really wasn’t sure how this experiment would end up, so I’m glad it’s added another new culinary trick to my belt. If you’re still raising an eyebrow at the idea of adding anchovies to your recipes you’ve seen call for them, I totally recommend giving it a shot. I’m sure you’ll be just as happy with the results as I was!