By Harold McGee
Anchovies, smaller and more southerly relatives of the herring, are cured in and around the Mediterranean to make that region’s version of flavor-enhancing fish sauce (see box). The fish are headed and gutted, then layered with enough salt to saturate their tissue. This mass is then weighted down and held for six to ten months at a relatively high temperature, between 60 and 86°F/15–30°C. The fish can then be sold as is, or the fillets repacked in cans or bottles, or ground and mixed with oil or butter into a paste. Enzymes from the muscle, skin, blood cells, and bacteria generate many flavor components; and their concentration, together with the warm curing temperature, encourages early stages of the browning reactions, which generate another range of aromatic molecules. The result is a remarkably full flavor that includes fruity, fatty, fried, cucumbery, floral, sweet, buttery, meaty, popcorn, mushroom, and malty notes. This concentrated complexity, together with the way that the cured flesh readily disintegrates in a dish, has led cooks from the 16th century on to use anchovies as a general flavor enhancer in sauces and other dishes.