Holy Mackerel!

Mackerel Sky (Used by permission.)
Mackerel Sky

Mackerel scales and mares’ tails
Make lofty ships carry low sails

‑Old Sailors’ Rain Warning‑

(Due to family obligations for a few weeks, I’m posting some previous posts that I’ve dusted off and updated. )

Alas, the poor mackerel!  A sky resembling its scales bodes rains. An unfriendly person is “cold as a mackerel”. “Dead as a mackerel” leaves no doubt in a listener’s mind: so‑and‑so or such‑and‑such has moved on to clearer seas. Protestants called Catholics “mackerel snappers,” a most decidedly derogatory term. And the French word for mackerel – maquereau –  is slang for “pimp.” And many other names, too, demean the lowly mackerel.

School of Mackerel (Used by permission.)
School of Mackerel (Photo credit: Damon Garrett.)

Called “wolves of the sea,” because they swim fast and in packs or “schools,” mackerel shine with green and blue and black scales. Their silvery bellies flash in the sunlight as they speed through the water. Legends abound about mackerel and their behavior. In her influential and far-reaching book, Book of Household Management (1861), Mrs. Isabella Beeton includes five recipes for mackerel and relates a perhaps apocryphal tale in this vein:

THE VORACITY OF THE MACKEREL.-The voracity of this fish is very great, and, from their immense numbers, they are bold in attacking objects of which they might, otherwise, be expected to have a wholesome dread. Pontoppidan relates an anecdote of a sailor belonging to a ship lying in one of the harbours on the coast of Norway, who, having gone into the sea to bathe, was suddenly missed by his companions; in the course of a few minutes, however, he was seen on the surface, with great numbers of mackerel clinging to him by their mouths. His comrades hastened in a boat to his assistance; but when they had struck the fishes from him and got him up, they found he was so severely bitten, that he shortly afterward expired.

It is no wonder that the mackerel figured in much early folklore, for salted or smoked mackerel was an essential food item in the days before refrigeration.

Romans like Pliny sang the praises of garum, a fermented sauce somewhat related to modern Worcestershire sauce, made from soaking fish carcasses for months in liquid. He may (or may not) have said, according to an epigram by Martial, “Receive this noble sauce made from the first blood of a mackerel, breathing still, an expensive gift.” Medieval cooks used wine, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and sugar in many recipes for mackerel and other fish.

In the same way as their ancient and medieval forebearers, New Englanders reserved an important place at their tables for the mackerel. And some Virginians, too, ate mackerel, prepared as “Caveach,” or in other words, as the Oxford English Dictionary has it, pickled, a sort of “ceviche.” Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife (1824) contains a recipe for this method of preparing mackerel:

Cut the fish in pieces the thickness of your hand, wash it and dry it in a cloth, sprinkle on some pepper and salt, dredge it with flour, and fry it a nice brown ; when it gets cold, put it in a pot with a little chopped onion between the layers, take a smuch vinegar as will cover it, mix it with some oil, pounded mace, and whole black pepper, pour it on and stopt the pot closely. This is a very convenient article, as it makes an excellent and ready addition to a dinner or supper. When served up, it should be garnished with green fennel or parsley.

Before 1870, most of the mackerel eaten in the U.S. came home from the market in salted form. After that, as shipwrights built ships with ice‑box holds, fresh mackerel showed up frequently in food shops. And still does, generally as fillets, cut from fish weighing on average two-to-four pounds. London allowed mackerel sellers to sell or “cry out” their fish on Sundays because of the rapid decay possible with these rich, fatty fish. Law forbade other vendors the equal privilege.

Today, several different mackerel types swim the world’s seas:  Atlantic, bullet, cero, chub, king, Pacific jack, Spanish, and wahoo. Spanish and king mackerel – a game fish ranging from 5 to 25 pounds – abound. But the Atlantic mackerel dominates the commercial market.

Some mackerel possess more red flesh, similar to that of their tuna relatives, than others. Spanish mackerel boasts the whitest flesh. All fishermen agree that mackerel appear at their best and fattest just after spawning. In fact, between December and March, mackerel eat very little and resemble emaciated famine victims. After spawning, the fish gorge voraciously. By late summer and early fall, fattened like calves to the slaughter, mackerel reach their prime, a joy to the hungry fisherman.

Eat freshly caught mackerel as soon as possible or freeze them in a block of ice within 6 hours after the catch. Otherwise, the taste of the fish suffers. (See above mention regarding London.) Fresh mackerel are oily fish; because of the high fat content of the fish, around 6-8 percent, deterioration occurs rapidly. And proper storage is essential, no matter the type of mackerel.

Mackerel on ice (Used by permission of Jeremy Keith.)
Mackerel on ice (Photo credit: Jeremy Keith.)

Proper cooking brings out the mackerel’s best features. Broiling or baking mackerel produces the best results, although other methods can be used. If you have a king mackerel (also known as kingfish), enhance the taste of the fish by marinating it first in a citrus‑spiked marinade. Mullet can be substituted for Spanish mackerel after a bad day of fishing. For the moistest baked fish possible, try the following trick: cut a piece of wax paper to fit the baking pan, butter it lightly, and cover the fish as it bakes with the paper. Use this technique in the recipe for “Mackerel with Mexican Tartar Sauce.” A sort of “en papillote,” no? There’s also Mrs. Beeton’s “Fillets of Mackerel,” with its French touches.

Tonight, after eating your mackerel, go out and search the heavens. Look for the cirrocumulus clouds of the “mackerel sky.” Will it really rain tomorrow?  If it does, those old sailors were really on to something, weren’t they?

Nutrition Notes:

A 4‑ounce broiled mackerel fillet contains approximately 248 calories, as well as appreciable amounts of niacin and iron. Fat content is 16.6 grams.

Broiled mackerel (Used by permission of Laurel Fan.)
Broiled mackerel (Used by permission of Laurel Fan.)


Serves 4

1 pound Spanish mackerel fillets

Salt and freshly ground black pepper


Lemon slices to cover fillets


2 cloves garlic, mashed

Salt to taste

1/2 cup mayonnaise (low‑calorie if possible)

1 T. chopped pickled jalapeno peppers or other fresh hot peppers

1 t. lemon or lime juice

1/2 t. ground cumin

1 t. chili powder

2 T. scallions, finely chopped

2 T. chopped cilantro leaf (note: cilantro is the same as coriander leaf)

Lemon wedges and whole cilantro leaves for garnish

1. Preheat the oven to 425. Lightly oil a flat baking dish and lay the fillets skin side down in it. Sprinkle the fillets with the salt, pepper, and cayenne. Top with the lemon slices. Cover the fillets with a piece of buttered wax paper. Bake for 15 minutes in the top third of the oven. Remove from heat.

2. Mix the sauce ingredients together.

3. To serve:  Place the fillets on warmed plates and garnish with a large dollop of the mayonnaise. Top each mound of mayonnaise with a few whole cilantro leaves and a lemon wedge. Serve fish with a tomato salad, yellow rice, and green beans.


For more about Mrs. Beeton, see “Mrs. Beeton, I Presume?” The following recipe looks just as it does in her book.

282. INGREDIENTS – 2 large mackerel, 1 oz. butter, 1 small bunch of chopped herbs, 3 tablespoonfuls of medium stock, No. 105, 3 tablespoonfuls of béchamel (see Sauces); salt, cayenne, and lemon-juice to taste.

Mode – Clean the fish, and fillet it; scald the herbs, chop them fine, and put them with the butter and stock into a stewpan. Lay in the mackerel, and simmer very gently for 10 minutes; take them out, and put them on a hot dish. Dredge in a little flour, add the other ingredients, give one boil, and pour it over the mackerel.

Time – 20 minutes.

Average cost, for this quantity, 1s. 6d.

Seasonable from April to July.

Sufficient for 4 persons.

Note – Fillets of mackerel may be covered with egg and bread crumbs, and fried to a nice brown color. Serve with maître d’hôtel sauce and plain melted butter.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

6 thoughts on “Holy Mackerel!

  1. I’m serving a Greek recipe for mackerel baked with potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, & rosemary to guests this Friday. It calls for chub mackerel but my local fish monger only carries Spanish and King. What do you recommend? By the way, great article. I’m going to read it to my guests before dinner!

  2. Who knew there was so much to know about Mackerel? Why you did!!! GREAT post Cynthia. The recipe looks good too!!! I’m having haddock tonight. I don’t remember seeing any mackerel at the fishmonger today. I’ll have to take a better look next time. This post was quite timely for me:) Thanks for sharing…

  3. Personally I love mackeral, sardines too. While oily fishes are a bit of an acquired taste I find them my favorites. I intend to try the baked mackeral dish when I get a chance.

Comments are closed.