I once believed I was an equal-opportunity anchovy-lover. Whether straight out of the jar and into my mouth, draped over a slice of pizza, shoved into a sandwich, or ground into my burger meat (seriously, try it), I'd never met an anchovy I didn't love.
But that was before I met many more anchovies in our recent taste test, many of whom I didn't love one bit. It's sort of like that time M. Night Shyamalan tricked everyone into thinking he was a great director until we all realized that unlike his movies, which feature twist endings, his story had the twist at the beginning: only his first movie was any good.
So we know that there's a big variance in anchovies from brand to brand. But what about different anchovy products? How would they stack up to the familiar oil-packed filets?
On the surface, the idea of anchovy paste—a product made of anchovies ground with salt and oil—is rather appealing for certain applications. It's more inexpensive than anchovy filets, it comes in a sealable tube, and it saves you the trouble of chopping or mashing filets for cooked or blended applications.
Salted whole anchovies are held in high esteem by anchovy lovers. When I was living in San Francisco for the summer, my housemate Rick kept a big can of them in the bottom of his fridge. I gotta admit, I snuck my fair share of those over the course of the summer (sorry Rick, I'll get you back). Meatier and firmer than most jarred anchovies, they come gutted with their heads removed, but still require you to filet them before they can be eaten. This is easier than it sounds—you can pull out the bony little spines and tails directly with your fingertips. Still, unless there's a large flavor advantage, it doesn't seem worth the trouble.
I gathered up ten tasters to try out these anchovy alternatives in two different forms: raw in a Caesar Salad dressing, and cooked in a Puttanesca Sauce. The samples were tasted blind and tasters were asked to offer their overall preference on a 1 to 10 scale, as well as comment on the flavor of each sample.
In order to make sure that the samples were as close to each other as possible, we used the same brand of salted and oil-packed anchovies (Agostino Recca, the third place winner of our anchovy filet taste test). For the paste, we selected Amore, an Italian brand made from Sicilian anchovies—the same source for the anchovies in the Agostino Recca jars. All anchovies and paste were weighed in order to ensure that we used the exact same amount in each recipe.
In the Caesar dressing, there were very few differences noted. Many tasters claimed they couldn't distinguish them, though some found the version made with paste to have a slightly grittier texture with a bit more fishy punch and saltiness. Overall, the canned anchovies won, garnering an overall score of 7.6/10. Oil-packed filets and anchovy paste scored 7/10 and 6.7/10 respectively.
Things took a far more drastic turn when we cooked the anchovies in our puttanesca sauce.
The minute the anchovy paste started heating up I could tell something was different. It had a strong, fishy odor, unlike the mild, pleasantly pungent aroma of the salt-cured and oil-packed versions. Tasters confirmed this with their comments, which ranged from "Ew, why is this happening?" to "chum bucket bites" to simply, "No No No No No NO." Overall score: 4.8/10
Meanwhile, the salted whole anchovies and filets placed high again, with respective scores of 7.5 and 7.1.
Turns our we're not alone in this assessment. Cook's Illustrated's anchovy taste test turned up similar results, with tasters describing a different brand of anchovy paste (Flott) as "heinous," "vile," and "gritty, bony, and salty."
As someone who cooks with anchovies on a very regular basis, to me the answer is pretty clear: I'll stick with the oil-packed filets, but also keep a jar of the salted whole anchovies on-hand for when I really want that anchovy flavor to come forward. The paste can stay on the shelf.
Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.