The Secret Ingredient Behind Your Grandma's Best Recipes

This flavor booster is a favorite of grandmas and restaurant chefs, alike — even if you don't want to know it's in there.

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Ever wonder why Grandma's cooking tastes so good? Of course, it's because it is made with a lot of love. But it's also sometimes made with ingredients we don't necessarily want to know about. Case in point? My Nana's favorite dip.

I grew up my entire childhood eating a dish called Liptauer, an Austrian cheese spread typically made with quark or another soft cheese, plus butter, paprika, other spices, and — in my grandma's case — one particularly pungent ingredient. I happily gobbled the dip down on nearly every visit to her house, enamored with the creamy texture and mild, salty flavor. It wasn't until I was older that I made the mistake of asking her what made my beloved Liptauer so good. The answer? Anchovies.

Why Anchovies Are the Best-Kept Culinary Secret

That's right. The controversial ingredient that seemingly everyone loves to hate is likely the ingredient behind some of your favorite savory pasta dishes, salads, appetizers, and more. From Pasta Puttanesca to Sicilian Pizza, anchovies are a staple of Italian cuisine, especially dishes from the Southern coast where seafood reigns supreme. But, make no mistake, anchovies subtly sneak into dishes across many cuisines.

There are the more obvious dishes like Caesar salad, where anchovies are spotlighted. But then there are dishes you'd never even know contain anchovies. Chefs, for example, love to add anchovies into dishes ranging from pan sauce for steak to soups to any and all pasta dishes. Chef John is no exception; you'll frequently see anchovies or anchovy paste in his recipes. Why do people love these little fish so much?

Simply put, anchovies are an umami bomb. They're super savory, compact packages of salt and richness. Yes, they're fishy but not as pungent as their smell would suggest. Anchovies add a level of depth to dishes in the same way umami-rich ingredients like miso and sun-dried tomato add savoriness. They really tend to get lost in a dish while still managing to accentuate other nuanced flavors in there. And if you're stuck on when and how to add anchovies to your cooking, don't worry, we wrote a whole guide to that.

Why You Should Be Adding Anchovies to Your Cooking Now

Why now? For one thing, anchovies are inexpensive, especially for protein. And moreover, tinned fish is undoubtedly having a moment. The quality of anchovies available — and their popularity — has never been higher. In 2022 alone, canned seafood sales shot up by 10%, according to Euromonitor International, and sales are projected to rise over 300% by 2027 according to IndustryARC (from $2.7 billion to $11 billion). Whether it's due to TikTok, rising food prices, sustainability concerns, or something else, people are certainly warming up to the idea of tinned fish, including anchovies.

So are you ready to try a 'chovy? Here's our best recommendation: If the idea of incorporating whole fish into your recipe repertoire doesn't appeal, try anchovy paste. It's processed and packaged exactly like tomato paste, meaning you get all the great flavor of anchovies with none of the "ick" factor for the faint of heart. Plus, it lasts a long time in the fridge (about a year once opened), meaning you can use a little at a time without having to worry that the rest will go bad.

When you're ready to graduate to the real thing, try adding whole anchovies to pasta sauce in the same step as you would add tomato paste or garlic. They will "melt" into the sauce, leaving behind a savory, salty je-ne-sais-quoi that will have your guests asking you for your secret. Little do they know, you got it from grandma (and Allrecipes!).

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