Stop Everything and Put Your Anchovies in the Fridge

Are your anchovies getting mushy and overly fishy tasting? Bad storage might be to blame. 
A selection of Spanish anchovies on a stone surface.
Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Mira Evnine

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Do you have anchovies in your pantry right now? A few skinny tins tucked away in the cupboard behind the canned tomatoes for your next puttanesca? That’s great, but I want you to very calmly walk in there right now, pull those anchovies out, and put them in the refrigerator.

Over the course of writing my cookbook, Tin to Table, I realized that there’s some major misinformation floating around out there about these salty little fish. While many Italian and Spanish grocery stores keep the tins in the refrigerator case, big-box American grocery stores tend to store them at room temperature alongside the rest of the canned fish.

Tin to Table

And while anchovies are often eaten whole as luxurious, meaty snacks in these European countries, they’re too often relegated to a sparingly used, often polarizing, pantry item in American home cooking—a brash source of salinity that you can melt into some hot oil and garlic to start a pasta sauce. Could these two things be related? Do Americans undervalue anchovies and use them sparingly because we just don’t know how to care for them? 

I reached out to Ortiz, a Spanish brand whose iconic red, yellow, and blue tins of anchovies I’ve seen both on shelves and in refrigerators in specialty food stores in New York. Iker Fernández, the company’s American brand representative, tells me that he recommends refrigerating all anchovies, no matter the brand. 

“Although they normally come in tins or jars, they are not heat-treated,” Fernández explains. While most canned goods (including other fish, like tuna, sardines, and salmon) are cooked in some way during the canning process, anchovies don’t go through any sterilization or pasteurization process. They’re simply cured in salt, and then cleaned and packed in oil. While there are a few exceptions to this anchovy production process (like boquerones, which are cured in vinegar and should also be refrigerated, or Patagonia’s anchovies, which are tinned more like sardines), most of the salty, brown fillets that we think of as “anchovies” are essentially raw fish that have taken a long, leisurely bath in some salt.

That salt is enough to kill harmful bacteria, but it doesn’t completely eradicate microbes inside the tin, which can change the texture and taste of the fish over time. Because of this, some tins suggest storing in cooler temperatures but don’t strictly require refrigeration.

“Anchovies are cured in salt, and the salt content once they are cleaned and filleted is still very high,” Fernández says. “This salt acts as a preservative because it reduces the water activity and therefore it avoids or reduces the microbial growth and chemical reactions. This means that even if anchovies are not refrigerated, there are no issues with food safety.”

Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Mira Evnine

However, if kept at too warm a temperature, Fernández warns, “The texture of the anchovies becomes softer and less meaty, and the taste saltier.”

Rainbow Tomatoes Garden, an online retailer of tinned seafood, includes a printout of a QR code with every anchovy order, directing customers to read more about anchovies’ unique production process on the Crown Prince website. The website explains that a non-harmful bacteria that survives the salt-curing process remains in the tins, breaking down the fish’s meat over time and turning it mushy, sometimes even making the can puff slightly.

Dan Waber, the owner of Rainbow Tomatoes Garden, explains that this breakdown doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s completely okay to ship anchovies or store them in the short term at ambient temperatures. And, as he points out, even storage on grocery store shelves won’t have a huge impact on quality if the grocery store temperature is kept cool and product turnover is high.

“Wine is a great way to think of these products,” he says, “If you bought a really fine bottle of properly long-term-stored bottle of a fantastic Burgundy, would you transport it from where you bought it refrigerated? Probably not, unless it were something legitimately historic, because you have an innate understanding that for the amount of time it’s going to take to get from the point of purchase into your cellar (or belly) no appreciable change is going to occur.”

But once you get that bottle of wine or tin of anchovies home, it’s a good idea to take care of it. Brands like Don Bocarte and Fishwife recommend (but don’t require) refrigeration, and others, like El Capricho and Codesa, specify on their labels that the product should be kept between 5° and 10° Celsius (between 41° and 50° Fahrenheit). While this is warmer than the average refrigerator, it’s also quite a bit colder than the average kitchen cupboard.

Mercado Central, a Spanish specialty store in Brooklyn, keeps their anchovy selection in the refrigerator case with the chorizos and cheeses. As owner Zhana Londoner explains, “If your pantry is not cool enough, the anchovies deteriorate quicker and the fillets fall apart and take on that ‘fishy’ taste and smell that is the major detractor for those who don’t (or think they don’t) like anchovies.”

This may be part of why anchovies have such a polarizing reputation in the United States. Many people have only had them from tins that have been sitting in the back of their cabinet for months, getting pastier, fishier, and grayer. But when you taste a good anchovy (that’s been stored carefully) the experience can be ground-shaking.

“The beauty of an anchovy is the complexity and depths of flavors you can find,” says Londoner. At their best, anchovy fillets are meaty, clean-tasting, and full of the types of nuanced, salt-aged flavors I associate with a really great Parmesan or prosciutto. 

In addition to shopping for great quality anchovies (I like Codesa, El Capricho, Don Bocarte, Yurrita, and Ortiz, but there are hundreds out there), shop from retailers who you know are turning over product frequently and storing their tins mindfully. And while I’ve been known to open a can of sardines that’s been in my kitchen for three solid years, anchovies are a product that I keep half an eye on the “best by” date on the tin, usually trying to use them up within six months to a year of purchasing. Don’t forget to pull your anchovies out of the fridge a good 20 minutes or so before using them so that the olive oil can melt back into its silky liquid form and each fillet separates easily to drape over your next piece of toast or jammy egg.

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