The Secret Ingredient That Totally Elevates Boiled Potatoes

Boiled potatoes are as simple of a side dish as they come. Usually topped with little more than butter and salt, they get the job done. But although the simplicity of warm starch and rich fat certainly hits the spot, boiled potatoes aren't pushing any culinary envelopes. Unless, that is, you punch up that drizzle of butter with something interesting. Anchovies, anyone?

Anchovies might not be the first ingredient to pop into your head when pairing with potatoes, but keep an open mind. Using anchovy butter as an accompaniment works wonders to make this standard side take on a new life. The butter mixes creamy, fatty dairy with the potent, salty-savory fish taste of oil-packed anchovies to create an addictive topping. Boiled potatoes are neutral on their own. They can handle intense flavors, and rather than overpowering them, the anchovies perfectly season them and add a much-needed umami depth.

Anchovies bring the umami

What is it about anchovies that works so well with potatoes? The secret to this unlikely pairing is in the intense umami kick that these small, briny fish impart to anything they're mixed with. Anchovies are little savory bombs of flavor. The umami in anchovies comes from glutamate, a type of amino acid that provides the distinct savory flavor in foods like soy sauce and mushrooms. Anchovies pack roughly 630 milligrams of glutamate per 100 grams, which is nothing to sneeze at. By comparison, soy sauce, another umami-rich ingredient, can have anywhere from 400 to 1700 grams depending on the brand.

Potatoes have long paired well with meaty, savory, umami-forward dishes. There's a reason why the combination of meat and potatoes is a tried and true classic: The starchy, mild taste of potatoes serves as a vessel for richer, heavier fare. This secret ingredient complements umami, rather than competes with it, and leaves those potatoes flavored to perfection.

A better butter for boiled potatoes

Making a compound butter like anchovy butter is as simple as mixing softened butter with your preferred ingredients. It's an easy process, but the results are luxurious. Selecting the right anchovies is the first step. They come packaged in a variety of types — some of the most common being salt-packed, oil-packed, marinated, and anchovy paste. Salt-packed anchovies are often applauded as being ideal for their larger size, but they do require fileting and preparation before cooking. Oil-packed anchovies are smaller, but they come ready to eat and don't need to be de-boned, sliced, or preserved.

For anchovy butter, use oil-packed anchovies, as well as any other aromatics or spices you please (garlic and lemon pair well). Your anchovies should already be bone-free and ready to mince and mix right in with the softened butter. There's no need to wash them, but do drain the excess oil off before mincing.

Another way to prepare anchovy butter is to "dissolve" anchovies into the butter by heating them up with the butter. The little fish are so soft, it just takes a bit of heat and pressure to break them down. This is a common technique in other anchovy-forward recipes such as puttanesca sauce.

Regardless of which of these avenues you decide to choose, the heat from the boiled potatoes will melt the butter when combined, leaving you with a decadent, salty-savory potato side dish that's good enough to eat on its own.