Haven’t tried anchovies since that one bad pizza experience? Well, you might have had some mediocre ones. Good anchovies can be excellent; here’s how to buy, store, and eat them.
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That innocuous tin of anchovies in your pantry packs a lot of potential for your cooking. The umami maestro of the canned fish world is a flavor-wielding Godzilla above and beyond the Caesar salad dressings you know and love. Think: pasta, tapas, pintxos—the snack popular in the Basque region of Spain—with Parmesan, with tomatoes, on toast, or all of the above.

I’m a newbie anchovy enthusiast, so I reached out to known evangelist and Spanish chef Alex Raij of New York City Basque restaurants La Vara and Txikito. “I’m pretty obsessed with them,” she said. Here are her tips on what kind to buy, how to store them, and some of the surprising uses in your culinary repertoire.

What should good anchovies taste like?

Many of us first encountered anchovies on pizza, says Raij, which means you probably tried “the nastiest, gnarliest” ones. Good anchovies, she says, should “taste clean, not muddy. They should not be creamy. They should have integrity.” They also shouldn’t have been oxidized by the oil they’re stored in, she says. It’s OK if they’re gray or silvery on one side, but they should be pink on the inside. If they have feather bones, that’s fine, says Raij, but “you shouldn’t be chomping on bones.” The fish should be supple and pliable.

Should you buy tinned or jarred anchovies?

Raij goes for tins because the anchovies are “lying flat, not standing up,” which she thinks helps protect the integrity of the loins themselves. She’s also noticed that sometimes, with jars, “there’s one quality on the outside, and different ones in the middle; they’re shoved in there.”

Can I get away with just a small tin?

If you go for tins, buy the largest one you can use in one cooking extravaganza, Raij advises. “The larger the format, the larger the actual loin. The larger the loin, the more prestige.” The format you buy your anchovies in can impact how it’s curing. “The bigger the tin, the more it’s surrounded by oil.”

How should you store them?

Anchovies are extremely sensitive to heat, and should be stored in the refrigerator even prior to opening, says Raij. They’re what’s known as a “semi-conserva,” she points out, so they’re not fully pasteurized. If you’ve stored them somewhere with fluctuating temperatures, such as near your stove, you might notice that they’ve dissolved when you open them. It’s fine to use those for sauces and dressings, says Raij, but you’re not eating them at their best.

Can I use half a tin at a time?

“If you open your tin you should finish it,” says Raij. Once they’re open, “they do oxidize and get stronger.” (Not necessarily a bad thing, but maybe not what you want.)

Which brands should I look for?

Raij loves Ortiz, which she buys in the largest tins available. She’s also a fan of Don Bocarte and Maisor smoked anchovies, which are “a fun novelty for pintxos and stuff.” Be forewarned, though: “Good anchovies cost money. A lot of it.”

What do I do with them?

Raij snacks on them with cheese, pairing them with fresh cheeses or aged ones such as Idiazabal or Manchego. “I like ‘em on bread, I like ‘em with butter.” She’ll rub toast with garlic and half a tomato, layering a single anchovy on top, for pintxos. She eats them on cheese-free marinara pizza with capers, and will chop them up with parsley to make a gremolata for lamb. They’re wonderful in Caesar salads, of course, but also in pasta with unexpected partners—like sambal oelek and Parmesan, or dashi and Parmesan.

And the best anchovies, in Raij’s opinion? The ones being conserved in salt in homes all around Basque country in Spain.

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.