Quick Pickled Mackerel:

Tasty, Fairly Easy, and Keeps Well{!}:
(c) 2014, Davd

This recipe will be of most interest to readers who live near the sea. It’s tough enough to buy any fresh saltwater fish in say, Winnipeg or Kansas City—but mackerel? They don’t keep as well as many other fish—which is why the {!} after “keeps well” in the subtitle. (It’s true, too—vinegar is a good preservative, and this recipe seems to include enough vinegar to preserve the pickled fish for a week or two in the ‘fridge.) Salmon and cod and sole—often haddock, “Alaska pollock”, and some exotic farmed fish like ‘basa’—can often be bought “fresh frozen”; but if you find mackerel, or herring, inland, it’s almost certain to be smoked or pickled.

Living near the Gulf of St. Lawrence, i found mackerel to be one of the few species of fish that are available for ordinary people to catch in quantity for food. Salmon and sea bass are very restricted, i’m not sure if the public may angle for cod or haddock at all… but mackerel, you may catch all you can. Late summer and early fall are the easiest time to catch mackerel fairly near shore—so here, if you have a place nearby to fish for them, or somebody gave you a few, is something to do with mackerel that will make them a treat, and give some enthusiasm to your thanks for the next ones.

If you start with “round” (whole) mackerel, my first advice is: Fillet them soon! If somebody brings me a few mackerel and i don’t have time to fillet them that day—make it, within three hours—i put them in the freezer. Since they fillet rather well half-thawed, that’s a practical way to organize the work. I suggest peeling the thin, plastic-like skin from the fillets. (If you have a dog or cat, then when you have cooked the fillets,, pour the “juice” from the container that held them into the cooking pan, add the skin, and cook slowly a few minutes for your pet. My dog likes this treat and giving it to him helps him to let me eat the fillets in peace.)

If somebody gives you mackerel fillets, thank him [or her] enthusiastically. They’re well worth having if you know how to pickle them quickly [or smoke them]; and if you fillet them yourself, you’ll have the task of disposing of the rest of the fish. It has a fairly strong odor and will attract cats and larger carnivores1.

In Europe, i had eaten smoked mackerel that were delicious. Here—well, i won’t name the “brand” i found to be fit to eat but not nearly as appealing as the smoked mackerel i had met in Finnish (and if i recall correctly, Swedish and German) stores when on sabbatical. I didn’t find any processed mackerel that appealed to me as those in the Baltic countries had—and i had learnt to appreciate mackerel over there.

Reading several Internet recipes, and Lapointe’s Poissonerie, i found these seasoning patterns repeatedly:
— bay, onion, and pepper
— mustard and butter
— onion, vinegar, and mixed pickling spice

Dill and parsley were fairly often specified.

So, given what was in the house, including the fillets of two mackerel, i tried: Half a cup of white vinegar,
— 10 peppercorns, 1 bay leaf, a teaspoon of dill seed,
—and a generous amount of chive [cut no longer than ¼”—about half a centimetre—long],
… simmered in a small stainless steel pan. (If you don’t grow chives, i suggest you start with a rounded tablespoon of finely chopped onion [bulb or greens], and then adjust how much onion you use, according to your liking.)

When the liquid had simmered for 3-5 minutes—and it must simmer very gently or the pan will boil dry or too near to dry—i poached 4 fillets [2 fish] in that liquid, which required me to cut the fillets to fit in the pan, and cook them in 2-3 “batches”. Each pan-full took less than five minutes to cook, turning the fillets once, with the vinegar just barely boiling.

The mackerel came out delicious, not rank at all—and rank taste can be a problem with mackerel. It was good plain and with mustard. And unlike the cast iron frying pan in which i had slow-fried fresh mackerel, the stainless steel pan in which i pickled fillets, washed clear of the odor, so i could use it to heat salsa and rice without giving them a fishy taste.

I usually eat mackerel with potatoes or rye bread. I also tried some pickled mackerel with rye porridge for breakfast, just to see—and that was pretty good, too.

Take some time, i suggest, with the first batch you make: Be sure the vinegar doesn’t boil hard2, let the dried herbs simmer slowly so they can have 4-5 minutes to flavour the vinegar, and cook the mackerel at “barely a boil”. If you pickle mackerel often, you’ll get used to the timing, and then the work will not need your full attention.

It’s worthwhile making up plenty of this, and freezing it in small amounts to take out now and then over the winter and spring for a treat, if you have the time and the mackerel. If so, you can double, triple, even more than triple the amounts of vinegar and herbs. (You can also use this recipe to cook thawed fillets during the winter. I wouldn’t keep mackerel frozen all the way through spring.)

Like white fish poached in salsa picante, this can become something that distinguishes you as a cook. It’s distinctive, most men like it [and fairly many children and women, too] and it “repeats well”: A guest (or a host to whom you take it as a contribution) will be glad to see and taste it again.


1. I recently filleted two mackerel, and buried the carcases about a foot deep, covered with some crab shells, then dirt, then a layer of dog dung, then more dirt. Two days later i saw that a passing fox, or perhaps a raccoon or cat, had started to dig for the fish and stopped at the level of the dung.

2. If much of the volume boiled away, you’d have to add water, and guessing how much water is difficult. Vinegar contains much more water than acetic acid, and the boiling point of acetic acid is hotter than that of water, so the little bit that is lost by gentle simmering causes no trouble.

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About Davd

Davd (PhD, 1966) has been a professor, a single father keeping a small commercial herb garden so as to have flexible time for his sons, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. He is a practicing Christian, and in particular an advocate of ecoforestry, self-sufficiency horticulture, and men of all faiths living together "in peace and brotherhood" for the fellowship, the efficiency, and the goodwill that sharing work so often brings.
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