Anchovies vs. Sardines: Here’s the Difference

Plenty of people mix up the two little fish, but they’re not the same thing.

When it comes to tiny fish that pack a serious flavor punch, you need not look farther than sardines and anchovies. These oily little swimmers both can bring serious umami to your dishes, or just to the top of a cracker, so it is no wonder that some can confuse them with each other. But while they share many characteristics, anchovies and sardines are not the same thing. So how do you tell the difference?

They’re different species that live in different places.

First and foremost, these are two different species of fish. While both small fish, sardines are distinctly larger than anchovies, and they tend to populate different waters. Sardines tend to prefer temperate waters, while anchovies like it warmer. Sardines are purely a saltwater fish, while anchovies have some freshwater varieties and those that live in brackish water. Sardines are actually more closely related to herring in the fish world and can sometimes be referred to as herring or sprat. Both school in large groups, and feed on plankton. Sardines are a true silver color, while anchovies are silvery with a bluish green tinge.

They’re packaged differently and don’t taste the same.

Sardines are sold both fresh and canned in either brine or oil, and usually with the heads still attached. They have a lighter color flesh, and when canned the skin is easily removed. While they are an oily fish with a pronounced flavor, they are a bit flakier in texture than anchovies with a subtle, buttery undertone to the taste. 

Anchovies are also sold both fresh and preserved, although fresh ones are much harder to source. Anchovies are most commonly sold in jars or cans, skinned and broken down into filets instead of being sold whole, and preserved packed in either oil or salt. Their flesh is usually dark and brownish, and the filets can have something of a “hairy” appearance. 

There are also “white anchovies” which are filets sold packed in an oil and vinegar brine, and with the skin attached, which are commonly used in Spanish tapas. These white anchovies are a good substitute for sardines in recipes, but not for traditional anchovies. If you cannot source regular anchovies for a recipe, you are better off using anchovy paste which will have the right profile.

They’re not exactly interchangeable in recipes, but you can try.

Sardines tend to be a much more primary ingredient in recipes that call for them, while anchovies serve more commonly as a supporting flavoring ingredient or garnish. When it comes to cooking with them, they are not exactly interchangeable. Anchovies tend to have a much stronger flavor and intense saltiness, so while you can use sardines in a 1:1 ratio in a pinch to sub in for them, the same cannot be said of the reverse. Anchovies in a dish that calls for sardines, especially if the recipe requires a lot of sardines, will be a bit too overpowering. You are often better off subbing a dark tuna packed in oil if you need a swap for sardines.



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