Pickled, raw, broiled, grilled, steamed, and fried are just some of the ways to cook herring, a small, oily fish that’s found worldwide. It’s neither a strong-tasting fish like salmon, nor a mild one such as cod, and it’s much smaller than both. Herring is strongly associated with Eastern European, English, Scandinavian, and German cuisine, though some parts of Asia and the Caribbean have also taken to the food. Herring is a versatile fish beloved for its small size, firm and silky flesh, and ability to be prepared in a variety of ways.
Herring doesn’t grow longer than 16 inches or so, and it is found worldwide in both fresh and salt water. This means herring is common in cuisines all over the world.
Herring moves in schools, with a single school hosting around three billion. It has a fairly long life span, lasting up to 15 years in the wild. Those that are caught young and small are often mistaken for sardines, and in some cases are marketed as such.
In the kitchen, herring often gets preserved, often either smoked or pickled. These iterations generally are found in countries such as Russia, Poland, Scandinavia, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. Pickled herring has a lot of holiday ties and remains one of the most common things served on Christmas Eve in Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine. In Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Scandinavia, herring is a lucky food served on New Year’s Eve, symbolizing prosperity.
Smoked herring is common in the Caribbean, Ireland, England, and parts of North America. Most of the time smoked herring falls under the moniker of kippers, and is cold smoked long enough to tint the flesh red.
There are many ways to cook and prepare herring, such as from boiling, frying, smoking, roasting, grilling, and pickling. Smoked or pickled herring makes a nice accoutrement to an appetizer spread, and is often served at breakfast in Scandinavian countries. Most fresh herring has to be cooked right away as it gets pungent fast, and although it can be filleted fresh for the grill, pan-fried, or deep-fried, most herring is cured for consumption. Pickled herring is the most common way to eat herring, which requires a vinegar, salt and sugar mixture that often includes onion, bay leaves, and peppercorns.
Other ways to prepare herring include baking the fish whole (with or without heads) after stuffing it with herbs and spices. Coating it in breadcrumbs and deep frying can be delicious, though you can’t necessarily get the nuances of the fish this way. There’s also grilling; typically the fish is filleted and marinaded or at the very least treated with salt, pepper, and oil.
When eaten fresh, herring has a distinct flavor similar to a sardine. It’s an oily fish so it flakes off in moist chunks, and the rich fatty components give herring a hearty body that’s fulfilling and coats the palate. Pickled herring tastes quite different and tends to have a vinegary bite that works well with cream cheese, sour cream, onions, and grainy breads.
Herring and sardines often get confused with each other, though despite the similarities there are some differences. First of all, while both fish are in the Clupeidae family, not all herring are in this family. Furthermore, sardines are in the genera Dussumieria, Escualosa, Sardina, Sardinops, and Sardinella, and herring are the genus Clupea. Because herring and sardines have a lot in common, some fisheries classify them the same way, calling them both as sardines. That means if a can of sardines gets cracked open at happy hour, it could be young herring instead. Both are oily fish that swim in schools and have the same silvery fins with a touch of blue and black to them.
Herring can be broiled, sauteed, fried, baked, and even pickled. The popular appetizer rollmops is a German food featuring pickled herring rolled around a gherkin or pickled onion. Pickled herring salad also proves prevalent in Russian cuisine, most notably Herring Under a Fur Coat, a layered dish featuring the fish along with grated boiled vegetables, onion, mayonnaise, hard-boiled eggs, and shaved beets. Try it out in one of these traditional dishes and then experiment with herring in other ways.
Canned and pickled herring get sold at many Eastern European specialty stores, both physical ones and online. It’s a popular dish in Jewish cuisine, and visiting a Jewish deli or grocery is a good way to find it.
Some fishmongers may sell herring fresh, but it’s not common unless you happen to live in a country in which it’s consumed heavily. Smoked herring is more readily available canned and under the name kippers.
Like most fresh fish, herring should be eaten within a couple days of consuming. Otherwise, freeze it for up to six months in an airtight container.
Once opened, pickled herring can last in the refrigerator for around three months. Canned smoked herring can be kept in packaging on the shelf until the expiration date, but once opened it’s best to refrigerate until ready to finish. Since it comes packed in oil, it can last for months stored this way.