The Anchovy vs. The Sardine: What’s the Difference?

Chefs love to sing the praises of canned fish. They’re affordable, shelf-stable, and a great way to add depth of flavor to almost any dish. For the uninitiated, they can be slightly intimidating. If you’re ready to hop on board the anchovy-flavored bandwagon, consider this a primer. 

Braised greens with anchovy
Braised greens with anchovy

The difference between a sardine and an anchovy 

There’s a wide world of tinned fish available to the supermarket shopper, but the two most popular options are sardines and anchovies. Even though they’re both small and oily, these tinned fish have distinctly different flavors, appearances, and origins. Sardines are native to the southern Mediterranean. They’re larger than anchovies, and are in the same family as herring. When compared to sardines, anchovies are even smaller and more oily. Although we tend to paint them with a broad brush, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations lists over 140 types of anchovies. The main commercial anchovy is the European anchovy. 

Can you substitute one for the other?

It’s not a good idea to substitute anchovies for sardines or vice versa. These two fish behave very differently when cooked. Anchovies tend to melt away, flavoring the entire dish with their savory saltiness. Sardines are meatier and more mellow. The thick flesh of a sardine won’t dissolve the way an anchovy fillet will. Trying to emulsify a sardine into a caesar salad dressing would be nothing short of catastrophic. 

How to Eat Anchovies 

anchovy tin
Snug in their tin

Chef John Adler didn’t always love tinned fish. Growing up, he watched with a pinched nose while his father polished off full tins of King Oscar sardines on buttered wheat toast for lunch. Of course, his opinion has evolved. He’s cured and pickled his own fish as a professional chef, and at home he happily uses sardines, canned clams, and pickled mussels. 

This recipe showcases Chef John’s true love: the anchovy. It was inspired by his summer cooking in Italy, where the kitchen was always filled with fresh seafood. There, fresh anchovies were cured in salt and packed in olive oil before serving over braised bitter greens with a hefty squeeze of lemon.

This recipe is a home-friendly interpretation of that meal, using canned anchovies.

Braised Greens with Anchovy

  • 2 bunches dandelion greens (or chicory, curly kale, turnip greens or mustards) – washed and roughly chopped
  • 4 small (or 2 medium-large) cloves garlic – roughly chopped
  • 6 anchovy fillets
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon (or 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar)

1. In a large pan over medium heat, heat oil and butter until the butter is fully melted and begins to sizzle. Add the garlic and cook 1- 2 minutes until beginning to soften. 

2. Add in anchovy fillets and crushed red pepper flakes and cook until the anchovies have begun to break down.

3. Add the greens and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly wilted. Turn off the heat and add lemon juice (or vinegar). Stir to incorporate. 

4. Transfer to a serving dish and finish with a healthy glug of full-bodied olive oil.

Serves 2 – 4 as a side dish, or as a perfectly acceptable lunch for one with a few slices of good bread and cheese. 

How to Eat Sardines

Sardine toast with plenty of butter

If you like a tuna sandwich, you’ll love Chef Kristen Merris-Huffman’s meaty sardine toast. This is easy to pull together for a quick lunch or snack. It feels elegant, and yet it’s delightfully budget-friendly. 

Calabrian-Chili Butter Sardine Toast

  • 4 slices of crusty bread
  • 1/2 stick of butter, room temperature
  • 1 Tbsp chopped Calabrian chiles
  • 1 can of sardines
  • 2 Tbsp chopped scallions
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 2 tsp olive oil

1. Heat the oven to 450°F. Place slices of bread on a baking sheet and toast for 10 minutes. Allow to cool. 

2. Place room temperature butter and Calabrian chiles in a bowl and mix until well incorporated. 

4. Drain the oil or water from the canned sardines. Place the fish, scallions, lemon juice, and olive oil in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Gently toss the ingredients together, flaking the fish slightly with the back of a spoon. 

5. Once the bread is cool, spread with a generous portion of butter and top with the scallion sardine mixture. Top with flaky salt and drizzle with more olive oil if you are feeling fancy. Enjoy!