Salted fishes marinated with spices, salt, radish and slice of bread on plate over dark stone background. Mediterranean food, appetizer, seafood, top view
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Why Are Anchovies So Salty?

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Many people are put off eating anchovies because of their pungent, fishy aroma or because they have bad memories of a pizza overloaded with these salty sea creatures.

Sadly, the great flavor and nutritional benefits of anchovies are all too often overlooked, especially when people quite rightly have concerns about their high levels of salt.

But why are anchovies so salty? Like all fish and sea creatures, anchovies are naturally salty because they live in salt water. However, most preservation methods used for anchovies also involved the use of extra salt, giving them an even saltier flavor. Anchovies can be made less salty by soaking them in water, wine, or vinegar.

Are you ready to give anchovies another try? Or maybe you’re intrigued to learn more about the many ways in which this delicious and nutritious fish can be prepared and eaten?

Let’s find out everything you need to know about why anchovies are so salty, and the best ways to include anchovies as a healthy part of our diet!

What Are Anchovies?

Anchovies are small fish that live predominantly in the Black Sea in the Mediterranean Sea. They range in size from 1-4 inches and live in huge shoals containing thousands of fish.

These fish have long, slender bodies with silver scales — kind of like a scaled-down version of a sardine. The main diet of anchovies is plankton and they live in large groups for safety.

Unfortunately for these little fish, this also makes them very easy for fishermen to catch! Anchovies are always caught in the wild and it is not necessary to farm them, unlike many other fish intended for human consumption.

Anchovies can be eaten in many different ways, but you are more likely to find them preserved on grocery store shelves rather than at a fresh fish counter.

While fresh anchovies are a delight that everyone should try, it is when they’ve been preserved that they really come into their own!

The interesting thing about anchovies is that even if you think you don’t like them, you have probably eaten them without realizing it.

This is because they are used as a flavoring for a variety of different commonly consumed foods. They have been using this way for many thousands of years, dating back to ancient Roman times!

In modern times, anchovies are a key ingredient used for flavoring sauces such as Worcestershire sauce and fish sauce. They are so small that they appear to melt when added to a hot pan and will blend easily with other ingredients.

So, you may have eaten anchovies without knowing it!

The vast majority of anchovies are preserved for long-term storage, but you may be lucky enough to come across them on the fresh fish counter.

When sold in this way, the fish are normally whole, complete with head, tail, scales, and bones. The flesh of the raw fish is a beautiful pale pink color, although this can change depending on the preservation method used.

Anchovies can be preserved and packaged for sale in many different ways.

The most common option is cured anchovy fillets packed in sunflower oil or olive oil — these anchovies have normally been skinned and deboned. Cured anchovies in oil are normally sold in tall jars or horizontal ring-pull tins.

The jars are more convenient as you can take out just a few anchovies at a time as you need them. If you buy a ring-pull tin, you will need to use them all in one go or transfer the remainder to a different container for storage.

Another less common way of preserving cured anchovies is to pack them in salt.

When prepared in this way, the heads and tails are removed, but the scales and bones may still be present. This is not normally a problem as the bones are soft enough to eat.

You can also come across marinated anchovies, which are a Spanish delicacy eaten as a tapas dish. Deboned anchovies are marinated in a mix of vinegar, oil, and salt, which turns them a bright white color.

In some regions, you may also find anchovies packed in brine.

And finally, you may spot a tube of anchovy paste on the grocery store shelves. This has the consistency of pâté and is made by blending anchovies with vinegar, spices, sugar, and water.

What Do Anchovies Taste Like?

Anchovies have an undeserved reputation as being overly fishy, pungent, and far too salty.

We are here to set the record straight when it comes to anchovies, as we think that they have been unfairly maligned!

If you are lucky enough to get your hands on fresh anchovies, they have a mild fishy flavor and are satisfyingly rich. They taste very much like sardines, only smaller.

However, when anchovies are cured and preserved, the flavor changes considerably. Cured anchovies develop an intense umami flavor, which is why they are so popular in sauces and savory recipes.

It is hard to accurately describe the taste of cured anchovies, as they are quite unlike any other foodstuff! They are intensely fishy, and their umami flavor reminds many people of caramelized meat or aged cheese.

The preserving method used also affects the flavor and texture of anchovies:

  • Whole salted anchovies have a firmer, meatier texture and a sweeter flavor.
  • Oil-packed anchovies have a less intense flavor, while those preserved in brine or vinegar take on the taste of the seasonings used. The meat of anchovies stored in this way tends to be softer.
  • Anchovy paste has the most concentrated flavor of all and a smooth, spreadable texture.

Why Are Anchovies So Salty?

Like all fish that are found in the sea, anchovies are naturally salty since they take on the flavor of the saltwater in which they live.

However, fresh anchovies are not necessarily any saltier than other types of fish caught from the sea.

So, why do they have a reputation for being so salty?

The reason for this is that we generally eat anchovies that have been cured and preserved.

The most common curing method is to prepare fresh anchovies and cure them with salt for several months. This draws out moisture and prevents bacterial growth, but also greatly increases the saltiness of the fish.

And to add to the salt levels, some anchovies are then preserved by packing them in salt!

This is a great way to preserve fish, as it helps to keep the flesh firm and results in a sweeter texture. However, the downside to this process is that it does make anchovies taste incredibly salty.

Are All Anchovies Salty?

The vast majority of anchovies live in saltwater and naturally have a salty flavor. This is the same as we would expect from any other fish or crustacean that comes from the sea.

Interestingly, some anchovies live in brackish water — these are areas of water between sea and land, where the water has a lower salt content than seawater.

These anchovies will taste less salty than their sea-dwelling counterparts, but you are less likely to find them on sale for human consumption.

The main factor that affects the saltiness of anchovies is the method used to preserve them. Fresh anchovies are relatively uncommon — most of us normally find these tiny fish preserved in jars or tins.

If you buy any form of preserved anchovy, whether they are in oil, brine, or vinegar, they will most likely have been cured in salt for several months first. This means that they will be much saltier than fresh anchovies.

Some anchovies are also packed in salt after they are cured, and these are the saltiest of all.

The Mediterranean method of storing anchovies is by marinating them in a blend of oil, vinegar, spices, and herbs. These tend to be less salty than anchovies preserved in brine or salt.

Are Anchovies Saltier Than Other Fish?

When eaten fresh, anchovies are no saltier than any other fish caught from the sea such as cod, haddock, or sea bream.

Anchovies will be considerably saltier than freshwater fish such as salmon, trout, or pike.

This is because anchovies and other sea-dwelling fish take on a natural saltiness from the seawater — it is this characteristic that many people love when it comes to seafood, as they have the perfect mix of salty and sweet flavors.

However, when it comes to anchovies, they are preserved in a way that greatly increases the salt content.

This means that anchovies sold in tins, jars, or packed in salt will be much higher in salt than other types of fish.

How Many Anchovies Should You Eat?

Anchovies are incredibly nutritious and are particularly high in omega-3 fatty acids.

These help to decrease inflammation and maintain healthy cells in many body systems, particularly the brain and nervous system.

They are also a good source of many other nutrients, such as calcium, iron, and zinc.

Unfortunately, the preservation methods used for anchovies mean that they are also very high in sodium. This is due to the salt used in the curing process, which raises the sodium levels by as much as 30 times higher!

Nutritionists advise that we avoid eating too much sodium, as it can cause high blood pressure and other health problems. But we are also urged to eat more oily fish, like anchovies — so how many anchovies should you be eating?

If you can get your hands on fresh anchovies, you can treat yourself to a larger portion due to the lower salt content.

Food authorities recommend eating around 3.5 ounces of fresh oily fish per week to reap the health benefits of these flavorful sea creatures.

When it comes to cured anchovies, the recommended portions are much lower due to the high sodium content.

Just five tiny anchovies can contain around a third of your recommended daily salt intake. Yes, that’s right — a portion of cured anchovies is really this small!

As a guide, if you were to eat around one can of cured anchovies per week, you’d be staying well within your recommended salt intake.

Luckily the flavor of cured anchovies is so intense that a little bit goes a long way. These tiny fish are intended to add flavor rather than make up the main part of a meal.

A whole cup of Caesar salad dressing can be seasoned with just four anchovy fillets, and the same amount will add a delicious umami flavor to a pasta sauce.

Can You Reduce The Saltiness Of Anchovies?

When it comes to anchovies, many people think that saltiness is part of their appeal. But what if you want to make them less salty?

There is little you can do to make fresh anchovies less salty, apart from using other ingredients that counteract the salty flavor.

Any kind of acid will work well here, such as lemon juice or vinegar. You could also serve your fresh anchovies in a creamy sauce to counteract the saltiness.

Cured anchovies that are stored in oil or a marinade should be consumed just as they are — if you attempt to remove the saltiness, they are highly likely to disintegrate into a mushy mess!

Anchovies stored in brine can be very gently rinsed to remove any brine residue.

If you have anchovies stored in salt, there are many ways to make them less salty! In fact, this is how they are normally prepared, as they are far too salty to eat as they are.

The first step should always be to scrape away any excess salt with a knife, then carefully rinse the anchovies under running water. Experts say you should do this for up to half an hour, which is a long time when you’ve got a lot of fish to rinse!

A simpler way to remove salt is to soak the anchovies in water for around half an hour. This not only makes them more palatable, but makes the flesh of the fish more tender and meaty.

But if you find that these methods still leave your anchovies too salty, some other tricks will reduce the sodium content even further.

Once you’ve rinsed or soaked the anchovies in water, marinate them in lukewarm milk for up to half an hour. They should be left in the milk long enough to become tender, without becoming so soft that they start to fall apart.

Alternatively, you can switch the milk marinade to white wine instead. This should be done for the same amount of time and will give your anchovies a pleasant flavor as well as remove the excess salt.

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