What Are Anchovies? Acciughe Explained

What Is The Difference Between Sardines and Anchovies?

What are anchovies? If you are among the people that usually malign this transformative ingredient, this is your piece! You have probably encountered anchovies on a salad or pizza and wondered what kind of fish they are.

what are anchovies

Anchovies are tiny, common saltwater fish that belong to the Engraulidae family. They are usually used as human food or fish bait. However, their intense fishy and salty flavor has given this delicacy a bad reputation. Some of the most adventurous eaters are among those who feel the anchovies are overly flavored.

On the other hand, sardines are a group of tiny, oily fish mainly found on the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean. The sardine belongs to the Clupeidae family, which has over 18 different species.

However, anchovies are regularly confused with sardines. The confusion is probably because they are both small and oily saltwater fish. Alternatively, people might confuse the two because they are both sold mainly in tins and are usually positioned next to each other on the grocery store shelves.


If you look keenly at the specifics of the two types of fish, you will discover that they have less in common than you might think. Here are some of the notable differences between the two:    

  • The Appearance: Sardines are larger than anchovies. They are usually up to 20cm (7.87 inches) long. The sardines also have white flesh, and their lower jaw protrudes slightly. On the other hand, anchovies come with darker flesh that is reddish-grey in color. They are somewhat smaller than sardines as they are 15cm (5.90 inches) long.  
  • Taste: Sardines’ flavor is less intense than anchovies, famous for their unique and aggressive umami flavor. The rich-umami flavor comes from the curing process that the anchovies go through. It involves drying the fish in salt and packaging it with olive oil in tins.
  • Anchovies are reserved for pizza: The two types of fish can be served differently. However, only the anchovies are reserved for pizza and were key to one of the original pizzas. If you don’t like the idea of anchovies on pizza, you can try other anchovy recipes that appeal to you.

What Are Anchovies Exactly?

To answer this question more accurately, look at anchovies from different viewpoints. Biologically speaking, the anchovy is a seawater fish that sometimes migrate to rivers to enjoy the freshwater for a while.

What do anchovies look like? The adult anchovies’ average size is around 15cm. It has a slim body silver in color with a bulgy and blunt snout. The anchovy has big eyes, and some unique species have sharp teeth that you can see with your naked eyes.

According to Ichthyology, there are six different species of anchovies, all of which are edible. The main species is the European anchovy, typically fished on a large scale for commercial production.

From a gastronomic viewpoint, anchovies are a perishable product. This is why you will find fresh anchovies being sold where they are fished for canning.     

Where do Anchovies Come From?

As mentioned earlier, anchovies are saltwater forage fish. They are indigenous to the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, making them very popular in local cuisines. They usually run in large schools and feed on plankton and newly hatched fish.

the black sea

The Peruvian anchovy fishery is the most significant source of anchovies as it accounts for up to 68% of the catch. The Japanese anchovy fishery comes in a distant second with over 19% of the total catch statistics, while the European fishery is third, accounting for over 8%.

Which Type of Fish are Anchovies?

The anchovies are small silverfish that are related to herring. They have a short life span and usually live for less than three years. They are mainly found in the East Atlantic region–especially in the Mediterranean and off the Atlantic coasts of France, Spain, and Portugal.

They usually move North into surface waters during the summer and go back to deeper waters during the winter. Cornish ring net fishers seldom catch them. They are popular as the salty little fish found on pizzas.

What do anchovies taste like? Their intense flavor makes them ideal for adding flavor to several dishes and sauces. For example, they are popularly used as pizza toppings and are an essential ingredient in Worcestershire Sauce. They are also used widely in Mediterranean cooking.

The Age-Old Question of Whether Anchovies Belong on Pizza

Well, in case you didn’t know, pizza toppings go beyond just the popular topping pepperoni these days. Also, even though many people don’t like anchovies on pizza, they are synonymous with it anyway. Moreover, you will not find any other kinds of fish used on pizza.

Pizza and anchovies go back to the beginning. Fish on bread has been a popular Italian delicacy from the days of ancient Rome. This practice continued when the pizza was invented.

Pizza Marinara was the earliest pizza variant, and it came with tomatoes and anchovies. Why anchovies, you may ask. Simple! They were low-priced and plentiful. It was also effortless to preserve them using salt and oil.

pizza marinara

Pizza was also considered peasant food, and peasants loved cheap things and did not go bad. This made the anchovies a favorite.

As Italians started immigrating to the U.S., they went with their food, including pizza. Non-Italians started loving the pizza, and the pizzerias started catering to other tastes. However, some of these people did not grow up eating the salty little fishes on their pizzas.

As a result, the anchovies started losing their popularity. In fact, it reached a point where they were no longer popular at all.

How do you Choose Good Quality Anchovies?

Until now, you probably know anchovies as the ingredient nobody wants on their pizza! But, nevertheless, these tiny popular fish are very nutritious. So, how do you choose the best quality anchovies?

First, you don’t have to ask whether the anchovies were wild-caught or farmed. This is because all anchovies are usually wild-caught. In this regard, top-quality anchovies are those that are harvested with sustainable methods.

Additionally, canned anchovies are of the best quality when they are handpicked into cans or jars. Canned anchovies usually come as small fillets packed in oil or water. They are also cured in salt before they are packed.

To ensure you get a lower sodium content, go for the varieties packed in oil or water, are unsalted and smoked. If you want the classic umami flavor, reserve the whole and top-quality salt-cured fillets.

The Different Ways of Eating Anchovies

Guess what? You most likely love anchovies; it’s just that you don’t know it yet. If your diet allows it, there are several ways you can enjoy salt-cured anchovies. They are prized by renowned chefs and home cooks worldwide because of their strong flavor and unmatched versatility.

Apart from adorning salads, sandwiches, and pizzas, anchovies are also popular in sauces, rubs, dips, and dressings. The secret is to lend the meaty umami flavor to a variety of dishes.

So, what are the anchovies good for? Here are some excellent tips you can consider:

Eat Them Whole

Yeah, you heard that right. You can snack your anchovies straight out of the jar. This is possible if you have gotten top-quality anchovies that are tender and meaty, having a smooth texture and clean brininess.

However, they are generally robust in flavor, so you can avoid overdosing on salt by laying the anchovy fillets on an open-face sandwich. You can also throw in some sliced tomatoes, garlicky aioli, and basil.

Saucy Pasta

Apart from giving the anchovies a bold, spicy flavor, the salt from the curing process also breaks down the myosin in the fish. Myosin is among the muscle proteins that hold the anchovies’ flesh together. The breaking down for myosin makes the fish very easy to dissolve as it cooks.

In this regard, you can mince or mash them, then heat them with olive oil, garlic, olives, and tomatoes. The result is a salty, intense pasta fish sauce.   

pasta fish sauce

Funkier Salads

If you balance them well, anchovy-based salad dressings can give your salads an extra snap and an addictive salty aftertaste. Most usually incorporate oil and egg yolks whipped into a thick emulsion that cuts through the intense salty taste coating your greens nicely and evenly.

How Anchovy Paste Can Enhance Any Italian Dish

Every top chef has a secret ingredient. This is usually something no one else can quite identify, but it gives the dish a more sophisticated taste. You can find the anchovy paste in a toothpaste-like tube. The paste comprises ground anchovy fillets, salt, and olive oil or water. Some contain vinegar and sugar to mellow out its fish flavor.

The paste is usually used in small doses because of its overpowering taste and smell. The paste is popularly used to add a flavorful, umami quality to Italian Dishes. Additionally, it is primarily used to boost stews, braises, and soups.

You can also use the anchovy paste to perk up your tomato sauce or meat rub. Another classic use of anchovy paste is to dress salads. For example, it is a popular ingredient as a Caesar salad dressing. The anchovy paste is also a great addition to your vegetables; however, you cook them.

anchovy paste

Why Do Italians LOVE Anchovies?

Anchovies can be traced back to a Roman cookbook that dates back to around 5th century A.D. Acciughe or anchovies are preserved in salt and olive oil, and alici or fresh anchovies are a staple food for the Italians, especially those living in Southern Italy.

The Italians love fresh anchovies and salted anchovies because they are tasty, economical, and very healthy. Therefore, they became trendy in the humble fishermen’s diet on the Italian peninsula. Another thing that makes them very popular among Italians is because they are available in different forms, making them easy to use with various Italian dishes.

Health Benefits Associated With Anchovies

Anchovies are rich in vitamins and minerals that provide the human body with many health benefits. They are a popular source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for cardiac and brain health.

The health benefits of anchovies are:

Heart health

As mentioned above, the omega-3 fatty acids in anchovies offer many benefits to your heart. Research has confirmed that they can reduce your triglyceride levels and slow the buildup of plaque in your arteries. It is also critical in reducing blood pressure. They also lower the risk of certain types of cancer.

Thyroid protection

One anchovy serving has around 31 micrograms (1.09 oz) of selenium. Teenagers and adult bodies require approximately 55 micrograms (1.94 oz) every day. This is critical because studies have revealed that selenium deficiency could lead to thyroid problems.

Eye health

According to health experts, men need 1.6 grams (0.06 oz) of omega-3 fatty acids while women need 1.1 grams (0.04 oz). Therefore, taking anchovies provides your body with necessary Omega-3s that reduce the chances of developing macular degeneration that can distort your vision.

Prevents Alzheimer’s

Research indicates that those who eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids have lower levels of beta-amyloid, which is a marker for Alzheimer’s disease.  

Other health benefits include improving digestive health, anti-inflammatory properties, repairing body cells, and being excellent for weight loss.

The Nutritional Content of Anchovies

The anchovies are a nutritional powerhouse. For example, when you consume 20 grams (0.71 oz) of anchovies, you will get the following nutrients:

  • Sodium– 734 mg
  • Vitamin B3– 3.91 mg
  • Selenium– 13.6 µg
  • Iron– 0.93 mg
  • Protein– 5.78 mg
  • Copper– 0.068 mg
  • Vitamin B-12– 0.18 µg
  • Phosphorous– 50 mg
  • Vitamin B2– 0.073 mg
  • Primarily used

As you can see, anchovies are a great ingredient to include in your recipes. You should particularly consider having the anchovy paste on your kitchen shelves as it can come in handy in various scenarios. 

If you were wondering whether anchovies are good for you, you have your answer! So, how do you like your anchovies?