Why Are Anchovies So Salty? How to Reduce the Saltiness

Whether on pizza, salad dressings, or sandwiches, anchovies can taste amazing if their flavor is balanced right. The biggest issue with our flavorful little fish is that they can be super salty! Why are anchovies …

anchovies marinated in vinegar with garlic and parsley

Whether on pizza, salad dressings, or sandwiches, anchovies can taste amazing if their flavor is balanced right. The biggest issue with our flavorful little fish is that they can be super salty! Why are anchovies so salty, and how can you reduce their saltiness?

Anchovies are so salty because they come from a saltwater habitat. A lot of salt is also used in preserving them, making the preserved fish even saltier. You can reduce the saltiness of your anchovies by soaking them in tepid milk or white wine, rinsing with water, or marinating in vinegar.

In this article, I’ll take a closer look at the saltiness of anchovies and how you can make them less salty. Keep reading!

marinated anchovies on a white plate

Are All Anchovies Salty?

All anchovies are salty. They’re mostly found in marine habitats, living in water that has a high salt content. However, some anchovies may be less salty than others because they live in fresh or brackish water.

The freshwater or brackish anchovies are naturally less salty because their habitats have less salt in the water. Common examples of less-salty anchovies are The Freshwater Anchovy (Thryssa scratchleyi) and the uncured Boquerones. (source: Atlas of Living Australia)

Another major reason anchovies are so salty is that a lot of salt is used in preserving them in cans or glass jars. The salt prevents the buildup of bacteria to make the fish last longer in containers. When preserved with salt, canned anchovies can last for years without spoilage.

Some anchovies (especially Mediterranean style) are marinated, rather than salted. This means they’re much less salty – but their texture will also be more full and fleshy, so you can’t always substitute salted for marinated ones.

Are Anchovies Naturally Salty?

Anchovies are naturally salty. Most anchovies are found in saltwater bodies like branches of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans. The seawater in these oceans has a salt concentration as high as 35 parts per thousand, making the anchovies in them naturally taste salty. 

(source: United States Geological Survey)

The anchovies can survive in this water because they have features that help them easily adapt, but the saltwater still makes them naturally salty to eat. Besides their habitat, what contributes the most to the saltiness of anchovies is the salt used in processing and preserving them.

Anchovies are processed hours after they’re caught, and a large amount of salt is used to preserve them. The salt used to preserve anchovies helps in many ways, including the following:

  • Reduce fish muscular activity.
  • Prevent bacteria buildup.
  • Prevent spoilage.
canned anchovies on a plate

How to Make Anchovies Less Salty (or Reduce the Salt)

Because they have such a high salt content, cooking with anchovies in their direct form can be quite tricky. The best way to work with your anchovies is to get rid of as much of the preservation salt as possible before proceeding to cook with them.

There are two types of canned anchovies – oil-packed anchovies and salt-packed anchovies. The oil-packed anchovies are only semi-conserved, so unless you need to reduce your salt or sodium consumption, you don’t need to do much before using them.

These are the best methods to reduce the salt in your anchovies:

Soak the Anchovies in Tepid Milk

Tepid or lukewarm milk is served at room temperature. To get the salt out of your anchovies, dip them carefully into a bowl of tepid milk and let them soak for about 15-30 minutes.

If you leave the anchovies to soak for too long, they can get too soft and fall apart, making a big mess of fish and milk. On the other hand, if they don’t soak for long enough, they can come out tough. So, you need to get it just right.

You need your anchovies to be supple after soaking, so tough fish isn’t great news either.

Therefore, it’s best to regularly check on the soaked anchovies to monitor the texture. When they’re well-soaked, rinse the milk off with water and use them right away!

Soak the Anchovies in White Wine

If you aren’t a big fan of cooking with milk, you can soak your anchovies in white wine instead. Some even prefer this approach because it leaves your fish with a pleasant aftertaste of wine.

Soak the anchovies in white wine for 15-30 minutes until they’re soft and flexible. If you like that subtle taste of wine, you don’t need to rinse them afterward.

Rinse the Anchovies With Water

If you don’t have any milk or white wine, you may have to settle for rinsing them with water. Because you’re trying to wash off a lot of salt, you have to rinse them thoroughly for 30 minutes. You should be careful not to break the fish or take the filets apart while rinsing. 

Rinse the anchovies separately under cold running water and try to peel off as much of the silver skin as you can. You can wash each fish at least twice to get off as much salt as possible. After washing, your anchovies will be ready for use!

fresh anchovies marinated in vinegar with garlic and parsley

Marinate Fresh Anchovies in Vinegar

You can buy fresh anchovies with little to no preservative salt instead of the canned ones. Fresh anchovies don’t come with the ready-made flavor of canned anchovies, but you can easily season them yourself by marinating them before you start to cook.

Some of the ingredients you may need to marinate your fresh anchovies include: 

  • Vinegar
  • Oil
  • Salt 
  • Lemon juice 
  • Pepper
  • Garlic 

For a better end product, you should scale and filet the anchovies before you marinate them.

Marinated anchovies are great for eating, but not cooking. They go very well with hot, crusty bread, but you can also eat them alone.

Although anchovies are overly salty because they come from a saltwater habitat, there are many ways you can reduce the saltiness, including soaking them in tepid milk, white wine, or vinegar. Choosing one of these methods to soak your anchovies in can not only reduce the saltiness, but improve the flavor too!