In the arsenal of flavor-boosting ingredients, anchovies are right at the top. Loaded with glutamates and inosinates—molecules that we perceive as deeply savory and even meaty—anchovies can improve the flavor of all sorts of foods without adding any overt fishiness. We even sneak them into meatloaf and leg of lamb—and if that sounds strange to you, just remember that they're also a key ingredient in Worcestershire sauce, one of the most popular condiments for steak.
Sure, they're salty and intensely fishy when eaten whole in a salad or on top of pizza, which can put a lot of people off. But at their best, anchovies are delicious even in concentrated doses. The secret to anchovy success is to get the best ones you can. What does that mean? For starters, avoid anchovy paste at all costs, since our tests have shown that it adds unpleasant flavors to just about anything it's in. That leaves us with a choice between oil-packed and salted anchovies (you can read more about anchovies, and preparations like boquerones, or marinated anchovies, here).
Oil-packed and salted anchovies are essentially the same product—oil-packed anchovies are just salted ones that have been washed of salt, deboned, and submerged in oil, which is basically the process you'll have to do yourself if you start with salted anchovies.
So why go to the trouble of buying salt-packed anchovies and prepping them yourself? In many instances, it's actually not worth doing the extra work. There are great oil-packed anchovies on the market (see the results of our anchovy taste test here), and, in many applications, such as ones in which the anchovies are melted down or blended into the dish, you won't be able to tell much of a difference between them and salted ones. But when eaten as whole fillets (say, in a Niçoise salad), salted ones tend to edge out the oil-packed option—assuming you know how to prepare them. Here are the basic steps.
Step by Step: Preparing Salted Anchovies
Salted anchovies often come in a can, though you will sometimes also find them in glass jars. Some, like the canned variety shown here, contain lots of crystallized salt, along with a very salty brine; others, like a certain brand of jarred ones I sometimes buy, have more brine and less crystallized salt. Either way, your first task is to pry out some anchovies. Using your fingers and/or a spoon, scrape away enough salt to expose the anchovies. If there's lots of salt in the way, transfer it gently to a small dish using a spoon. Be careful, since it's easy to scratch up and break the anchovies themselves if you don't use a delicate touch.
Step 1: Remove the Anchovies...Carefully!
Pluck the anchovies out one by one, as many as you need; again, be careful and work slowly, since the anchovies are often packed in tight and can break if you force them.
Step 2: Replace the Salt
After I've removed enough anchovies for my recipe (or my snack), I'll replace the salt and brine I scraped away so that the remaining anchovies are well covered with salt. Some folks prefer to transfer all the anchovies and their salt/brine to a glass or plastic container for long-term storage once the tin is open. I've never had any issues with just keeping them in the tin, which I wrap in plastic and store in the fridge. They'll last for months and months like that.
Step 3: Rinse
Now rinse your anchovies, one by one, under gently running cold water. Your goal here is to wash off any encrusted salt. It's fine if some of the silver skin comes off, but you want to handle the anchovies with enough care that the fillets themselves don't come apart.
Step 4: Dry
Lay the washed anchovies on paper towels to soak up excess liquid. In some instances, the anchovies will be cured lightly enough that they'll be ready for filleting at this point; if they feel plump and tender, you can give it a try. More often, though, they're on the firm side from all that time spent curing in salt.
Step 5: Soak
To remove more salt and soften the anchovies, you'll need to soak them. Some people use water, some use milk, and some use white wine. I tried all three and found no noticeable difference in flavor between milk- and water-soaked ones, and, since water is free, that's what I'd recommend. White wine does add a subtle wine flavor to the anchovies, so feel free to use it if you have an open bottle available, but it's by no means necessary.
How long the anchovies need to soak, if at all, depends on how firm they feel. Keep them in the bath too long, and they'll start to become overly soft and mushy. Take them out too soon, and they'll be difficult to fillet, as heavily salted flesh can be brittle. Usually 15 to 30 minutes is enough, but if you find the fillets too firm and difficult to remove, go ahead and give them a little more time to soak.
Step 6: Fillet
Once sufficiently soaked, the anchovies should be plump and flexible, but not mushy and soft. Now's the time to fillet them. Start by pinching one of the fillets right where it meets the tail, carefully working to pry it from the tail and spine beneath. Once you get a good hold on it, gently lift the fillet from the bone cage bit by bit. Take your time and be careful, especially if you want to keep the fillets whole, since they can tear if you go too fast or clumsily.
Once you've lifted the first fillet, lay it skin side down. Pull away any viscera and silver skin from the organ cavity area and discard. Then grab the fillet that's still attached to the spine, and, once again working from the tail end, free the tail and spine and lift it from the second fillet.
Inspect each fillet, removing any fins, like the dorsal fin. (Look closely—it can be hard to spot, but it's often there.) Also, feel around each fillet with your fingers and remove any hard bony bits; pay special attention to the collar area, as small, sharp collar bones are often still attached and need to be discarded. Tiny hairlike bones are not an issue and do not need to be removed.
Step 7: Dry Again
As you finish with each fillet, transfer it to fresh paper towels to dry it of excess water. If you're cooking with the anchovies right away, they're now ready to be used however you wish. If not, the final step is to pack your cleaned, dried fillets in oil.
Step 8: Store in Oil
Layer your cleaned anchovy fillets inside a clean glass jar, then pour enough oil on top to completely cover them. It's important that the fillets be on the dry side, since tiny drops of water will hasten spoilage. Then seal the jar and refrigerate. The anchovies should last at least one month in oil, if not longer; just pluck them out as you need them. They're so delicious when prepared like this, it shouldn't be hard to polish them off much faster than that.
Here's a video demonstrating the filleting part of the process. Note that in the video all the fins came off with the spine, which doesn't always happen.