Don’t ‘chovy my ‘dines! Telling your tinned fish apart.

Wherein we investigate the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between anchovies and sardines

If there was ever a case of guilt by association, it is the sad story of the anchovies and the sardines. I am here to finally set the record straight: these are two totally different kettles of fish. And neither of them is really guilty of anything, making it all the more incumbent upon us to prevent them from constantly incriminating one another.

First, a bit of history. Years ago, when America was still a fledgling society, pizza-eaters had only two choices: Pizza with anchovies, and pizza without anchovies. The question was divisive, but the anchovy-eaters were wildly outnumbered.

Pizza with anchovies

Soon, the question of anchovy pizza became less of a meal choice and more of an in-joke among the entire pizza-eating community. To many, the anchovies in the pizza parlors of yesteryear bore little resemblance to any normal species of fish, except for a slight suggestions of a fishy skeleton, maybe.

The pizza problem only got bigger when the idea of anchovies got confused with every other breed of small fish that comes in a can. To this day, I hear people make the same mistake: whenever they ask me if sardines are too salty (no), too fishy (no), or come on a pizza (not usually), I know they have fallen into this trap. They are thinking of anchovies, but they are saying “sardines.”

It’s time to end the confusion. It’s time we did it, today. Sardine Freak will help you separate the sardines from the anchovies. So by the end of this lesson, you will be able to distinguish anchovies from sardines and even categorize your human friends accordingly.

Anchovies at large

What are anchovies?

Anchovies aren’t just one type of fish: The term actually refers to an entire family of fish called engraulidae, from the Ancient Greek term ἐγγραυλίς meaning, “a fish.” The fact that these fish know Ancient Greek should tell you something. But these is so much more to these fish than the language they use.

For instance, did you know that anchovies possess an electro-sensory organ in their nose? The reason is a mystery, but chances are that anchovies have electroreceptive powers that humans only dream about.

Anchovies are also naturally green, but they are easily identified (and, with the right lights at night, caught) by looking for their long stripe of silver. They have a snub nose and sharp, pointy teeth. Those pointy teeth are something they were lucky enough to inherit from their gigantic, saber-toothed anchovy ancestors. I’m totally serious.


In cooking, think of anchovies as the olives of the sea

In case these sharp-toothed, radar-nosed, Greek speakers weren’t already interesting enough during their lives, they have even more interesting personal habits after death. In particular, after they are caught and being prepared for human consumption, anchovies verge on the extravagant.

After being cleaned and filleted, anchovies are cured in brine (super salty water). This curing bath can take quite a while–usually somewhere in the 3 to 6 month range. No one knows when anchovies decided they needed to take a long, soothing, and restorative salt bath after death, but this burial tradition appears to date back at least to the time of the first Papa Gino’s. Soaking in brine for 3 to 6 months is way of preserving the meat. It also ensures that the meat will, in the end, taste pretty salty because it has, after all, been taking a salt bath for months now.

So all this time, many people have been thinking that these little fish jump out of the ocean full of an overpowering salty fishy flavor. But the anchovies do not arrive this way. They become super salty as a result of their religious adherence to the practice of having salt applied to their bodies later to preserve their corporeal forms.

After being removed from the brine, canned, sold, resold, brought home, put on the shelf, removed from the shelf, opened up, and removed from their can, anchovies impart and deep and compelling flavor base to so many difference recipes. Happen to like Caesar salad? That dressing is made with anchovies. Like Worcestershire sauce? Made with anchovies. Fan of Asian fish sauces? Anchovies again. And if you poke around the interwebs you will find a great many recipes where anchovies form the base of a sauce so full of flavor your guests would never even guess it involved fish.

One little-known fact about anchovies is that they dissolve pretty easily when they are cooked. With some gentle fork action, the meat just disintegrates into whatever sauce you’re making, which explains why so many fishophobes have been unwittingly eating anchovies all these years.

Anchovies and olives are so alike

There is another food that is soaked in brine for a period of 3 to 6 months, a food that packs a wild burst of flavor and yet does not antagonize the misinformed masses. That food is olives, another regular participant in the pizza-topping parade as well as so many salads, pasta sauces, charcuterie boards, and three-martini lunches. Italian puttanesca sauce, for example, is built on a flavor foundation of olives and anchovies. So that’s why I, Sardine Freak, command you to think about sardines as the olives of the sea–a bold accompaniment that everyone is comfortable with and no one needs to be afraid of.

Sardines on the grill

What are sardines?

OK, so what about the sardines? Sardines are similar to anchovies in the sense that they are little fish, but the similarities might as well end there. Sardines have very small teeth and sometimes no teeth at all. They don’t belong to the engraulidae family that you became so needlessly obsessed with two sections ago. They belong to a family called clupeidae, from the Latin word clupea, meaning a kind of very small river fish who speak Latin. Does that clear things up? Can you believe you ever thought these two were the same? On the one hand, the Greek anchovies represent a loose network of culturally rich city-states replete with interesting burial traditions. On the other hand, the Latin sardines take a more utilitarian approach to empire-building based on a more sophisticated military and administrative apparatus. Just look at their web presence.

And sardines really have conquered the world, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic, off the shores of North and South America, and stretching all the way to the Shores of Asia and the Indian Ocean. Sardines generally exist in abundance in nature, though (as with anchovies) certain populations such as U.S. Pacific sardines have been subject to overfishing.

Grilled sardines for dinner

Sardines are always there for you in a way that no one else can be

When it comes to eating, the sardine experience is a far cry from anchovies. Whether you enjoy them grilled fresh (see above) or in cans (see below), sardines are usually not the accompaniment–they are the star of the show. On this blog, we focus on some of the most basic ways that this occurs, such as by making a sardinafish sandwich, performing sacred sardine rituals, or simply opening a can using the correct method.

Sardines are self-sufficient. Sardines make no apologies. Sardines go well with olive oil. Sardines go well with piri-piri. Sardines go everywhere. Sardines will wait for you by the door all day. Put them in your purse. Put them in your pocket. They will adapt to any taste you throw at them, and at the same time you will adapt to the identity of the sardine-eater.

Sardines don’t dissolve as readily in sauces. They aren’t featured on pizzas as much. And they frequently don’t spend their afterlife in a briny bath. But what we get from sardines is a trusty fish meat, stored in a can, that checks most of the boxes for why we should decide to do something new (or keep doing something good) in our lives.

Comparing the cans

How are anchovies different from sardines?

For many of you who will have read this far, despite the constant, widespread, and ongoing efforts of the greatest talents on the internet to educate you about the myriad differences between anchovies and sardines, you continue to persist in your delusional fantasy that sardines and anchovies occupy the same physiological and taxonomical space in humanity’s shared experience of ichthyofauna. In order to disabuse you of this fatuous cast of mind once and for all, I will resort to visual aid(s).

The web is full of charts, diagrams, and infographics, but until now none of them have provided the public with a clear picture of the sardine-anchovy divide. Take the handy reference below and either pin it to your refrigerator or tattoo it on your lower back so that you never conflate sardines and anchovies while appearing on national television again.

Color (meat)Greyish brownPinkish white
FlavorSalty and fishy with
extra salt and fish
Light to moderate fish flavor;
sometimes smoky or earthy
HabitatOceans around the world,
and The Bronx
Oceans around the world,
and Sardinia
UsesAs a topping, accent, or base
for sauces and dressing
Instant lunch, improving health,
improving self-worth, changing
the world one mind at a time
PackagingGood things come in
tiny 1-ounce cans
Three to four ounces of
power and prestige
AttitudeYou talkin’ to me?Do you even lift?
PizzaSlice me.No thanks, I’m keto.

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