Here’s how to pickle fresh herring. Most recipes on the old internet tell you how to take canned and salted herring, draw off the salt, and season it with vinegar. I wanted to pickle the fish fresh with a live lactobacillus culture, and the recipe I came up with is an adaptation from Linda Ziedrich’s Joy of Pickling.
This fish pickles in just 24 hours and has a mellow flavor. It makes a great snack with bread (and maybe some vodka?), as an appetizer, or as a small meal. The picture above is herring in kefir, sprinkled with dill.
Small fish are popular these days because they’re low on the food chain and don’t collect as much mercury and other metals as larger fish. They’re also a natural source of Omega 3 fatty acids, which supposedly make you happier and smarter. Good combo, huh? These oils are a trend food, too. They’re even getting pumped into orange juice! The only trouble with herring is where to get it. The population goes through booms and busts and this coming season California has closed entirely the part of its fishery that it regulates because there are so few of the little guys. Hopefully, their numbers will rise again. If you can’t get any fresh, sardines might work just as well.
Part of the trick of preparing herring is filleting the fish. If you buy it fresh at the supermarket, they’ll probably clean for you. If you want to fillet it yourself, jump down to how to fillet a fish.
Pickled herring recipe
Ingredients for a one-quart mason jar
1 pound whole fresh herring, filleted
several springs dill
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp coarsely ground pepper
2 bay leaves
1 small onion (any color)
1/4 cup whey (the thin, whitish water that rises to the top of yogurt)
brine of 1 cup water and 2 tsp salt
crumbled dried chilis or chili flakes
Take the dry ingredients and layer them in the jar. I like to lay the fillets flat across the jar. They tend to (almost) fit perfectly that way and it makes them easy to pull out one by one when you want to eat them. Pour in the whey and then add brine until it nearly covers the contents.
The view from above.
Fill a smaller jar with water and put it into the jar as a weight to press the pickle under the water. A wide-mouth mason jar makes this easier. Drape a towel or cloth over the top and put the jar in a dark place for 24 hours. After that, take out the smaller jar of water, pop a lid on your herring, and throw it in the fridge. It’s ready to eat! And it will last about two weeks in the fridge.
If you want to clean the herring yourself, or you buy it at the farmer’s market like I did, here’s how to fillet a fish.
Rinse off the fish and put them in a bowl. Get a second bowl for the fillets and a third for leftover heads and guts.
Start the fillet by lying the fish on its side and cutting down perpendicular to the spine just behind the side fin. Don’t cut all the way through. Keep the knife parallel to the cutting board and bring it down till you hit the bone. Pick up the fish and roll it against the knife so that the knife cuts through the top of the fish. Lay the fish on its other side and cut down like you did on the first side.
Roll the fish back so that the spine faces you again. angle the knife and cut along the spine toward the tail. Don’t poke the knife all the way through the fish or you’ll rip open the stomach and organs and make a mess. Some bones from the rib cage might end up in the fillet. Fear not! They are small and, especially after the pickling, can be eaten without a problem You won’t even notice them.
When you get toward the back of the herring (just past its butt, to be specific) push the knife all the way through and cut till you reach the tail.
Pull the fillet up away from the spine. The guts will be held together in a thin sack. Gently pry them from the flesh then cut the fillet away from the fish and put it in the bowl.
Now you want to get the guts out. Start by cutting them from where they meet the fish’s backside.
Use the knife to push the guts up toward the head and off of the body.
Pick up the fish and hold the head. Gently pull on it to pry the spine away from the second fillet. You might need to use to knife to keep the flesh from sticking to the spine.
At the bottom, cut the fillet from the tail. What’s left is compost.