Mackerel Time – Get Smoking!

The annual return of the Mackerel into the coastal waters is not really a miracle but for many a reason to rejoice. I’m no fisherman but do enjoy spending a warm evening trying to catch a mackerel or three. Along with many others, I join the annual festival of “feather chuckers” down on Chesil Beach. We line the shore casting out as far as we can, trying to wish the mackerel to go for our “feathers”, hoping for a full-house (one fish on each of 3, 4, or 6 hooks!). Some do use real feathers, but more often its bits of white plastic or shiny silver tinsel. The Mackerel think they are young fish and, we hope, get hooked.

Mackerel caught on a Dorset beach
Mackerel caught on a Dorset beach

There’s no denying mackerel are fantastic eating. There are so many ways to cook them. Simple can be best; pan-fried they are superb. At the right time of the year the forager can serve them with sauce made from gooseberries – foraged from the woods and hedgerows of course. A French friend did once tell me that the French for gooseberry was “sauce for mackerel”. Sorrel has a much longer season and makes another great sauce to go with your mackerel. In both cases the sharp flavours go so well with this oily fish.

Wild Gooseberries - smaller than their cultivated descendants, they can be pink or white. Some will be sweet enough to eat raw.
Wild Gooseberries – smaller than their cultivated descendants, they can be pink or white. Some will be sweet enough to eat raw.

There’s lots more ways. We like cooking them in foil parcels – stuffed with herbs, such as fennel (foraged again) or sage, with apple and cider, with white wine, or as Chinese parcels with soy sauce, carrot, leeks and ginger. You can even breadcrumb or batter them!

Another way of enjoying them is to hot-smoke them. This is not a preserving technique, like cold-smoking, but a different way of cooking them. Here are a few photos showing the process and kit.

Fillet the mackerel:

Mackerel fillets
Mackerel fillets

Sprinkle lots of salt over them and leave them for about half an hour before rinsing the salt off and drying them with kitchen towel.

Salting mackerel fillets for smoking
Salting the fillets

The smoker can be a metal biscuit tin (if you can still find one!) with holes in the ends, metal skewers through and a wire rack on top. A handful of hardwood sawdust is put in the bottom. Oak, Beech or a fruit (Cherry or Apple) are recommended. The tin won’t last for ever but does the job for a year or two.

Smoking fish with a biscuit tin.
Simple hot-smoking apparatus – a biscuit tin on a camping stove.

If you want something that will last longer, find an old enamel bread bin in a junk shop. Again drill some holes on the ends for your skewers/rods and the rack to sit on.

Enamle Bread Bin Smoker
An old enamel bread bin makes a great smoker (idea taken from The River Cottage Fish Book)

Put the mackerel fillets on the rack, put the lid on very loosely, set your watch and go and do something else for half an hour.

Mackerel fillets in
Mackerel fillets in

All being well, you come back to beautiful looking and amazing tasting smoked mackerel.

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The result – mouth-watering!

The fillets are great as they are, hot or cold. They can also used in dishes such as a risotto or frittata.

Smoked Mackerel Frittata
Smoked Mackerel Frittata with Sea Beet