The Secret Ingredient Every Chef Uses

There are those who love anchovies, those who hate anchovies, and those who only think they hate anchovies. “If it says anchovy on the menu, then people will ask for the dish without it. They’ll like it more with the anchovy; they just don’t know it,” says Craig Stoll of San Francisco’s Delfina restaurant.

Anchovies are a chef’s secret ingredient. They balance the flavors and add saltiness. Mario Batali often adds a few salt-cured anchovies to braising meats. Ana Sortun of Oleana in Cambridge, Massachusetts, stirs a few fillets into her Mediterranean Braised Chard, where they counteract the sweetness of the raisins. At the New York restaurant Savoy, Peter Hoffman slips a few under the skin of a roast chicken.

Spanish anchovies are considered best, particularly those harvested from the Cantabrian Sea. The short season runs from April through June, and each fish is graded, filleted, cured, and packed in jars by hand. Cantabrian anchovies are larger than those found in the Mediterranean and are of unequalled quality, with a rich, full flavor.

What to Buy
Most recipes call for fillets of anchovy, which come packed in olive oil in 2-ounce tins or small glass jars. Because the fish are already boned, they’re ready to use in recipes. They’re also sold by weight at Italian delis and upscale markets. Look for the Spanish Cantabrian or Catalonian fillets. We particularly recommend those produced by the company L’Escala.

Salt-packed anchovies are another traditional preparation. Be forewarned: These often require boning and will need to soak in water before they can be used; otherwise they’re too salty. But the result is tender flesh, less salty than the oil-packed variety. You can usually find salt-packed anchovies at Italian delis, upscale markets like Whole Foods, and online at ChefShop.com. Another option is anchovy paste, which comes in toothpaste-like tubes. The ingredients should be nothing more than salt, anchovies, and oil. The paste keeps for months and is useful when you need just a dab.

Photograph by Kevin Twomey