How to Give Anchovies the Respect They Deserve

"Our anchovies are life-changing for a lot of people," says chef Stuart Brioza, who's instituted an entire "anchovy protocol" at his acclaimed San Francisco restaurant State Bird Provisions.

Stuart Brioza
Photo: Lindley Rust Photography

"There's something so beautiful about the rotty, fermented flavor of anchovies; there's something very sensual about them," says Stuart Brioza. At San Francisco's State Bird Provisions, Brioza and Nicole Krasinski give anchovies the care they deserve every night, recently schlepping them 900 miles from the Bay Area to Wyoming for Jackson Hole Food & Wine's summer dinner series in June.

The secret to excellent-tasting anchovies comes down to preparation, says Brioza, and the team has anchovy prep down to a science. In fact, he has an entire "anchovy protocol," in which the butcher team (AKA the anchovy production team) switch gears to focus on cleaning and preparing the fish.

"I'm not trying to preserve time, but to capture time," Brioza says—while explaining that after about eight hours out of the water, the bellies start to thin and the guts start to explode, and this is prime time for the intensity of flavor. "You can capture that time, and you can stop it—you can hold onto that time at that moment for a couple of weeks. That's why our anchovies are life-changing for a lot of people."

Here, Brioza gives us a few pointers on how to properly appreciate the polarizing little fishes.

Feed them to your children.

"I used to feed my son anchovies like a seal," says Brioza. "His first fish was an anchovy, and he was a baby. He'd grab my hand and be like, 'more, more, more.'"

We cling to flavors we're brought up with from childhood. "It's sort of like how Mexican children can deal with hot sauce from a young age," Brioza says. "I'm blown away that a four-year-old [child] is eating a jalapeno but—from generation to generation, they're exposed to those flavors." In Spain and Italy, anchovies are commonly enjoyed at dinner tables; in the States, it's less common. "I don't meet a lot of people who are anchovy occasionalists, it's very divided," he says. "We don't have a culture of eating small, strong fish."

Anchovy Tacos
Lindley Rust Photography

Resist the stigma.

Anchovies undoubtedly offer a salty, fishy bite, and "'fishy' has a negative-implied meaning," Brioza says. It's like eating briny oysters straight from the sea. They're aromatic and strong-flavored and not for everyone, but one bad experience can ruin a person's perception of anchovies forever.

A chef can take a bad eating experience and turn it around. "With anchovies, we follow a very strict protocol," he says. "They're a powerful little fish, and they've got a lot to say, and you should be aware that you're going to get a salted, strong taste ... It's important to have a very bright, delicate fish that's really focused on the season in which it's caught. It's a real luxury to have fresh anchovies, and it's difficult to find them."

Eat them fresh and in-season.

"If they're not from your area, it's probably not worth getting them," Brioza says. "We are very strict to our protocol. We have to be. It's so important to the quality of our fish." In San Francisco, they're best enjoyed six months out of the year, especially during summer.

There's one guy, Eric, fishing anchovies in the area. They're caught right near Fisherman's Wharf and the schools move with the tides. Rather than flooding the market with 1,000 pounds at a time, the fish are placed in a holding tank and are harvested to order—entering Brioza's spots no more than two hours out of fresh ocean water. "I'm not preserving them for a year, they're meant to be eaten within two weeks of coming out of the water," he says.

Experiment with them in all forms—canned, fresh, oil-cured, in sauces etc.

Brioza doesn't discriminate; he says he's like the "Forrest Gump of anchovies" and loves them in all forms. "I love them salted, packed in oil; I love that they can create a fish sauce; I love eating fresh anchovies," he says. "I love the idea of capturing time and saying, for the next two weeks, you're going to eat these anchovies and love them. I think that's a really special element."

When buying tinned, go for the highest quality.

As for tinned, be prepared to spend money on quality anchovies. And do your homework. Places such as Southern Italy and Spain, he notes, are known for anchovies. "There are anchovies you can buy on the bone in rock salt, I like those," he says, while "sometimes I prefer an oil-cured product. They're super salty add have a rotty, fermented flavor that I absolutely love."

Anchovy Tacos
Lindley Rust Photography

Balance out their flavor.

Many people who say they dislike anchovies are still eating Thai food, pho, Caesar salads and so forth. "They don't realize fish sauce is in the simplest of dishes," Brioza says. "You hate the smell of fish sauce but when it's blended right, with something bright and acidic, it's a great way of illuminating and making something more interesting to eat." Caesar dressing is a "taste sensation" of flavor balance by way of good vinegar, great salt, Parmesan cheese, anchovies, and oil.

(Here are a few of our favorite anchovy recipes.)

Pat yourself on the back for being sustainable.

"They're low men on the totem pole," he says of anchovies, which eat plankton and are very high in oil content. In other words, they're very healthy, too.

"There's no threat to anchovies going out of existence," he says. "They reproduce in huge numbers and it's a food that we should be eating more often than fish such as the big tuna."

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