Canned fish belongs in your kitchen, full stop. The easiest thing to do with a can of fish is to pop it open and eat its contents immediately. You should always have some on hand in your pantry, not only for instant gratification, but because you can cook some seriously delicious stuff with it. Two of my favorite types are anchovies and sardines, and though the average person might conflate the two, there are specific times you should use one over the other.
When to use anchovies in your cooking
Anchovies are edible straight from the can, though I’d recommend you taste a sample before you go all in, since they can be extraordinarily salty. High-quality anchovies, packed in oil or salt, can easily be appreciated on a cracker or a piece of bread.
But where anchovies really sing is within the context of a broader recipe. Because they’re so intensely savory, you can take an anchovy, chop it roughly, and gently sauté it with some aromatics like garlic or onion. The fish will disintegrate into a fine paste and add an intense umami layer to any of your dishes, while the cooking process eliminates all of its fishiness. You can turn this base into a sauce for dishes like pasta (pasta puttanesca is my recommendation).
Anchovies also add a natural MSG-like kick to Caesar dressing; in fact, it’s one of the key components that makes the classic dressing taste so identifiable. This anchovy dressing recipe is another great example of how the tinned fish can lend extraordinarily unique flavor to your cooking.
And of course, there’s always pizza. While it’s a controversial topping, a bite of anchovy and savory tomato sauce really does kick ass. (Again, it’s salty, so a few anchovies go a long way on top of any pie.)
Anchovy paste vs. whole anchovies
Brands differ in how they package anchovies, and for my money, the ones sold whole are the way to go. Sometimes these require de-boning, but it’s a pretty simple process: All you have to do is gently separate the meat from the bones, and the fillets pull away rather easily (as you can see in this video tutorial). While premade anchovy paste sounds good on paper—considering you can just squeeze the stuff out of a tube rather than see the anchovy in its fishy form—I’d skip it. The paste can be intense and overly fishy in some applications. Fillets are barely any extra work, and the flavor is so much better.
When to use sardines in your cooking
Grab sardines when your dish needs a central protein. As I mentioned previously, they’re great straight from the can as a snack (one of my favorites!), but you can also use them in applications like salads, toasts, and rice bowls, or as a topping for crackers. They differ from anchovies in that they’re not cured in salt, so you can expect much meatier, flakier fillets with a much less pronounced umami flavor.
Sardines packed in oil are best
Sardines are a naturally fatty fish and take best to being packed in oil. The kind packed in water tend to be mealier and drier, which makes them less fun to eat straight from the can. (This is also true of canned tuna, for what it’s worth.) If there are bones present, don’t worry about it—you can eat them. They’ll crumble immediately in your mouth as you’re chewing them, and as an added bonus, will give you a hit of calcium.
Anchovies vs. sardines: here’s the rule
Think of anchovies as a seasoning ingredient, while sardines are a starring one. Anchovies are good for sauces and dressings; sardines are what you’ll reach for when you want a hunk of fish as your starring protein. Go ahead and grab a few cans of each when you’re at the store and you’ll find yourself incorporating them into a wide range of meals in no time.