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The Mystery of Salt-Packed Anchovies

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Quality ranges considerably; the worst come in a brine or packed in oil (often rancid); the best anchovies tend to be packed in salt, are worth seeking out, and can be delicious by themselves.

- Michael Ruhlman, The Elements of Cooking A to Z

On one of my last Brooklyn weekends before the big move to the Mid-West, I spent most of my time dashing in and out of every specialty grocery store in the Carroll Gardens area on a very important mission.  I wasn’t searching for perfectly cured sausages or the best baked bread; That would have been easy. I wanted anchovies packed in salt.  I had read about these superior versions for far too long without actually seeing them in person.  Of all the neighborhoods in all the world, I had to be able find them here in this predominately Italian-American enclave.  And I did find lots of anchovies: there were walls of the teeny, tiny fishes packed in oils of all sorts, but nothing with just salt.  I even trekked out to Fairway and couldn’t find one.   Sure I could have gone to Manhattan and probably found what I was looking for, but the disappointment still haunted me. 

Since then I moved to Columbus, Ohio, and kind of gave up hope.  Not that I haven’t been impressed with the food I’ve been able to find.  The North Market has fresh, local veggies, butchers cutting up humanely raised meat, and a great cheese-monger.  But I’m far from the sea.  Great anchovies are probably not here.   

Meanwhile, nearly every recipe that lists anchovies as an ingredient wants them packed in salt.  And, through no fault of my own, I can’t find them.  So I gave in.  Perhaps they were just a little too idealistic with their enthusiasm.  If the anchovies were so good, then why did no one have them?  I needed some anchovies for a Dinner Tonight recipe I pulled from the River Cottage Meat Book.  So I walked into the North Market and tried to find some, even if that meant the oil packed kind.

I started with the fish monger, but he didn’t have any tins.  He recommended, of all people, the cheese-monger.  And sure enough, anchovies were stacked on the counter.  I picked one off, a rather average one packed in olive oil, and decided this was the best I could do.  I casually asked if these were the only anchovies he had. 

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He reached into his fridge and slipped me a shrink-wrapped package of salt-packed anchovies like it was the most normal thing in the world.  I couldn’t believe it.  Notice the price, though.  They weren't cheap.   

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So, anchovies packed in salt are the real deal.  Straight from the Elements of Cooking I learned that they need to be soaked in milk for thirty minutes to wash away all that salt.  Then they need to be rinsed in water.

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I’m not sure if this is completely normal, but mine came whole (though headless). 

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Which meant I needed to remove the backbone.  It was quite easy.  I just cut the fish half and then removed the backbone in one large piece.  Then they were, more or less, anchovies like I was used to. 

Though, they were far from easy.  I’d already spent roughly 30 minutes more than I would have had I just bought them packed in oil.  They were also way more expensive.  I had found these mysterious salt-packed anchovies, but was that necessarily a good thing?  I mean, did they taste any different?

If the lamb chops were any indication, it was completely worth it. They had a much more full taste, coating the chops with a luscious rich sauce.  These are stronger, more robust, and more impressive in nearly every way.  They also keep very nicely in the salt for quite a long time.  I guess all those cookbook authors were right.  I wish they were just a little easier to track down.

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