Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
2 Jun

The Simple Beauty of the Mackerel

I’d like to direct your attention to an incredibly underappreciated member of the marine kingdom – the mackerel. Its many detractors deride it for its “fishiness,” which is ridiculous. Aren’t we eating fish here? That’s like people who complain about free-range steaks tasting too “beefy.” We’ve grown accustomed to flavorless protein, to dry chicken breasts that fall apart in our mouths and to feedlot lamb and beef you can’t even tell apart. Fish is supposed to taste like fish, and the fattier varieties – the ones with all the healthy omega 3 fats, like salmon, sardines, and mackerel – have the strongest flavors.

Most of the Atlantic mackerel we get in California comes wild from Norway, and you’ll occasionally find some imported from Japanese waters. On the east coast and in Britain, Atlantic mackerel is a pretty common fish as well. These are all safe to eat, with low mercury levels, high fat, and a relatively small size (around 1 lb per fish). Fill up on them! Some mackerel, however, should be avoided – or at least limited. The highly carnivorous King mackerel, which can grow to over 20 pounds, is foremost on the list of fish to avoid; its mercury levels can approach that of swordfish or tuna, and regular consumption is definitely not advised. Spanish mackerel is smaller, but certain varieties, like the ones caught off the Gulf of Mexico, are disproportionately rich in mercury toxicity. They’re generally safe to eat on occasion, but try to stick to the smaller ones if possible.

When you go to buy mackerel, get the freshest fish you can find. If possible, get it whole from an actual fish market, rather than filleted in a package; mackerel spoils pretty quickly, and whole fish tend to be fresher. The fish guy will usually fillet it for you, but you can do it yourself, too. Just make sure to leave on the skin, which isn’t scaly at all and actually crisps up nicely in a pan. Extra points if you eat the organs!

Anyway, the “fishiness” is completely exaggerated. Mackerel does have a strong flavor, but that lends itself to simple preparation. It can stand on its own. You could dress up your mackerel with an Indian curry or some chipotle spices, but my favorite way to prepare mackerel is simply with salt, pepper, butter, and a squeeze or two of lemon. This way, the mackerel in all its buttery, salty glory is the star of the show, and the tang of the lemon pleasantly cuts into the creaminess of the flesh.

Simple Sauteed Mackerel

This is about as easy as it gets. It takes less than 10 minutes to prep and cook (and possibly even eat, if you’re hungry enough), and mackerel is often the cheapest fresh wild fish you can find, so there are really no excuses not to try it. You’ll need:

2 mackerel fillets, about 1/2 pound each

Apply liberal amounts of salt and pepper to the fleshy side of your fillets.

At the same time, heat a pan (cast iron, skillet, whatever) over medium high heat. Rub that salt and pepper into the flesh, then slather it in butter – use enough to completely coat the fillet, around 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons. Place the fillets, buttered side down, skin side up, into the pan.

Cook for 3 minutes and flip over; the meat should be crusty and golden. Continue cooking skin side down for 3 additional minutes.

Remove from heat and serve with a slice of lemon and some sort of green vegetable.

Nutrition Analysis:
(for one 1/2-pound fillet)
516 calories
Fat: 37 grams
Carbs: 0 grams
Protein: 42 grams

Not bad, eh?

What would you serve as the side? Hit me up with a comment!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I’m really trying to eat more fish. I force myself to eat it once a week. But, I have a hard time getting over the gag reflex.

    I found a way to eat it that wasn’t too bad (taste wise), but it was deep fried, so no good as part of a healthy lifestyle.

    jpippenger wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  2. Thanks Mark! I’ve recently added more salmon and shrimp to my diet to improve variety but haven’t considered mackerel.

    Are there any good places to buy it from online for those of us who aren’t so fortunate to live in California? I buy my seafood from Vital Choice, but they don’t sell mackerel.

    Vin | wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  3. Cool. Ever since seeing these little critters chilling next to the salmon and herring at the supermarket I’ve been on the verge of trying them. This article is gunna push me over that hump.

    Michael wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  4. Hey Vin, I see fresh Mackerel available in MN. It should be almost everywhere. If you can get fresh fish somewhere there is sure to be mackerel too.

    Michael wrote on June 2nd, 2009
    • website? where can i buy a mackerel at zip 29303?

      j wrote on September 3rd, 2015
  5. As as side I immediately thought of the fiddle head ferns or a nice mixed greens salad.

    grok-star wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  6. Fatty fish are definitely the best. Atlantic mackerel and sardines are surprisingly great in cans, whereas tuna and salmon are best (yum) raw. Thanks goes out to the cuisine of Japan for introducing me to THAT concept. :)

    Icarus wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  7. Looks good. I might try a spinach salad w/slice almonds on the side. Thanks Mark.

    erstad17 wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  8. I used to prep bluefish like this- it’s also a “stong” tasting fish (I prefer the term “gamey”) Sadly bluefish is too high in mercury to enjoy nowadays- but mackeral should do nicely. You can also wrap it in foil packs & grill it.

    marci wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  9. Mackerel is probably my favorite fish ever. More than salmon!

    If you’re feeling lazy (and not cheap), head to your fave sushi joint and get “saba sashimi”. Yum.

    Andrea wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  10. I had a off-topic question. Mark mentions a cast iron pan in the post above. I have and love cast iron pans, but Lodge, the manufacturer,recommends wiping them down with vegetable oil after cooking anything on them to maintain the seasoning of the pan . Is this ok given that I am trying to avoid vegetable oil as much as possible? If I don’t use vegetable oil, what should I use instead to keep the pans seasoned correctly?

    Suggestions, comments would be greatly appreciated.


    Girish Maiya wrote on June 2nd, 2009
    • You can use lard for seasoning your pans, Girish. Thanks for the question!

      Mark Sisson wrote on June 2nd, 2009
    • Just a quick note on cast iron. you can use just about any oil you wish (I’d avoid car oil…doesn’t taste too well!! – jk of course).

      But I’m serious about any oil. The only real purpose of it is to keep the pan from rusting. The “seasoning” they talk about is a micro-think layer of carbon that builds up over time, resulting in an improved finish on the bottom (i.e. sticks less). this film is pretty tough…leaving it un=oiled won’t kill it, but rust will. butter, coconut oil, lard, olive oil…i’ve used them all, and they all work. since i use mine multiple times daily, I rarely worry about what oil i have in it.

      Also don’t wash with soap, and don’t put in dishwasher. warm water to clean, and use a non metallic scrubby to polish off the noticeable uneven clumps and such. you don’t want to scrub too hard…you will remove the layer of carbon your building up! be gentle on the scrubbing.

      There are plenty of sites that go into detail on the science and behaviors, but im lazy. i cook with it, rinse out with warm water when im done, and wipe on a gentle bit of oil afterwords. it just needs to look “wet”, thats all. keep that up, and you’ll have an almost stick-free cast iron pan for life!

      Oh, one more thing: if your serious about cooking cast iron, dont buy lodge stuff, its junk…go to ebay or another site that has Griswold cast iron…the pre-WW2 stuff. I have an 8″ griswold that was made in 1918, and it looks great, and I use it every day, and I expect to give it to my son when I move on. They’re worth the price, trust me. I didn’t know what the whole hubbub of cast iron was about until I got a griswold…now I understand.

      Malachi wrote on June 15th, 2015
  11. I’d serve a pile of spinach, kale, or mustard greens, sauted with garlic, onion, S&P, and then hit it with balsamic vinegar just before leaving
    the pan. That or a pile of nice cole slaw.

    Note on cast iron: I use a 10″ cast iron pan religiously. We keep it lightly oiled with olive oil, only because we use it constantly. This pan is used at least 5 days a week in our home, usually twice a day. Once a month I will give it a true seasoning with lard in the oven Here are some good basics:

    cc40 wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  12. Hey Mark! Great article about Mackerel. I’ve always loved that fish and I even like smelts. I thought for some reason the mercury was high in there so great on the edification. Question though, butter? Really? Why not olive oil? Curious? I am awaiting for my PB book so I guess I should wait, but I’ve cut dairy out of my diet well just because! Thoughts? Thanks sir!

    Daniel Merk wrote on June 2nd, 2009
    • What’s wrong with butter, Dan?

      Mark Sisson wrote on June 2nd, 2009
    • Saturated fats are superior when it comes to cooking, use olive oil cold.

      George wrote on June 3rd, 2009
    • The fish browns better with butter.

      joe wrote on June 6th, 2009
  13. Bitter greens are definitely the way to go for the side. Dandelions would be great. Forage for your own — very primal (stay ways from treated lawns).

    rob wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  14. I love mackerel! Japanese-style broiled on a bed of salt (shioyaki) it’s my absolute favorite. And the skin is so pretty. :)

    Kim wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  15. I’ve been trying to eat more fish lately. In fact we grilled out some steelhead trout for the first time this weekend. Tasty! Never eaten mackerel though. To be honest I don’t even know if it’s available here in Ky. Need to look though.

    Greg at Live Fit wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  16. Some other people mentioned spinach, which was immediately came to my mind. Sauteed with some garlic and walnut oil. :)

    Althaur wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  17. I love this fish, is practicaly together with fresh anchovies, where I get the omega 3, as I cant stand salmon , neither sardines.

    Here in Spain is very common to eat mackerel for dinner, the most typical way is as you make it.

    But I also make mackerel tandoori, and broile it. yummy. The lime juice goes well with blue fish.

    thania wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  18. I love Mackerel and Spanish Mackerel sashimi. I don’t find it to be overly “fishy”. In my opinion, high quality sashimi is fish in its purest form.

    Melanie wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  19. Having a dad from a coastal area I have had really no choice in my upbringing about how much fish I eat. He still talks about the mackerel he used to catch as a kid, fry up, and enjoy with friends. This is definitely something I need to work on, the community aspect, along with the ingestion of healthier protein sources.
    Quality article.

    Jhound wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  20. Girish, I use butter for my cast iron pan. Coconut oil works well, but since I mostly cook eggs in my Lodge pan, I don’t want it to taste like coconut.

    prairiegirl wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  21. As a Norwegian I can attest to being raised on Mackerel. Nothing beats pulling up multiple (6 or 7) 1/2lb mackerel on a late summers day and then eating them fresh with butter, salt and pepper.

    Martin wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  22. Mark,
    :) I guess that is where I need to be quiet and read the book. Waiting patiently until its arrival! :)

    Butter, at least the way I understand it from my current philosophy is that its an animal by product made form cow’s milk. My thinking is that cow’s milk is not necessary in a human’s diet therefore I stopped eating dairy. I also know its pretty high caloric and has saturated fats.

    I’ve been pretty overweight and stumbled across a fitness program I do 7 days a week. I follow the nutritional guide religiously yet I’ve been eating as much organic and local as my wallet allows. I grow my own veggies. I stopped buying anything packaged and gave up dairy to keep clean. I’ve been eating clean for months and feel amazing. Because of a short clip of you at the end of the fitness program I’ve been doing I googled your name and fell into this website. Love it.

    I’ll read the book and learn why butter is ok I guess.

    Thanks again Mark!

    Daniel Merk wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  23. Was just on my way to the market Mark. The Mackerel above certainly looks good so I’ll give it a try tonight. The chicken’s going back in the freezer.

    Michael Ezell wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  24. Go to your nearest Sushi Bar and say “Saba”…it is the best, right after salmon I mean.

    Greg Hinrichsen wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  25. I love canned mackerel and mackerel sashimi. Pretty well impossible to fresh mackerel fillets around here (West Texas).

    However, if I could get a hold of some, I’d probably give it the same side-treatment I give salmon. Steam broccoli w/ butter or bacon wrapped asaragus.

    Mr B wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  26. I like sliced tomatoes and asparagus served with fish, i think that goes well together.

    Donna wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  27. Another benefit of Mackerel? Now that cigarettes have been banned in their facilities, the greasy little fishes have become the gold standard for black market trade amongst Federal prisoners!

    Grant Williams wrote on June 2nd, 2009
    • How the hell does that work? They spoil after a day or 2

      some person wrote on May 12th, 2012
  28. Well, you may just have convinced me to try Mackerel again. Maybe cooked IS better.

    My only experience with Mackerel was uncooked in the form of sushi (Saba). It didn’t sit well and kept repeating on me the rest of the day; it was like tasting cat food over and over again. Yuck!

    harleysgirl wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  29. I’ve never tried Mackerel before, but it looks really good! I would probably serve it with sauteed spinach.

    Tyler wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  30. I like my mackeral (or bluefish) with a dijon vinaigrette with fresh herbs (oregano, thyme, rosemary) marinade. We did this with an avocado and tomato salad and braised broccoli rabe. The creaminess of the avocado was a nice counterpoint to the assertive fish.

    rts wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  31. I love mackerel. I typically bake it in parchment paper, stuffed with shallots, thyme and salt. Thanks for the recipe.

    Stephan wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  32. My office mates hate when I have mackerel! :-)

    Meeses wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  33. Mmmm smoked mackerel….wonderful!

    Spring Girl wrote on June 2nd, 2009
    • I tries smoking a mackerel once ……….

      I couldn’t keep it lit ba-dum-pump

      Sounds good — I might inflict this on the family this week (minus the sugar)

      I say “inflict” because this is the kind of experimentation that the will be skeptical of.

      rob wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  34. love the new look of the site.

    regarding what fat to use on your cast iron pan:

    butter works but due to the dairly content its not the ideal, especially if you use the pan infrequently it can gather some unwatned bacteria.

    lard is preferred, but this can adversely affect some delicately flavored dishes if done daily,

    a light olive oil or grapeseed oil is a safe bet. (light olive oil has a higher smoke point than extra virgin oil and less costly)

    best bet to keep the pan seasoned is to always heat to a smoke point before using it, then pour out any of the blackened oil that has liquified in the pan. turn the heat down to the desired temp then add your cooking fat.

    clarified butter is my preferred cooking fat becuase butters got a great nutrient profile and a high smoke point.

    coba wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  35. Last weekend I bought some fresh sardines. I cleaned them, left the heads on and grilled them whole. They were really good, the skin peels right off, if you want you can just pull the head off easily, and munch the whole body down to the tail, you can chew the bones, they crunch really nicely.

    This was my second time of gutting fish (first was a catfish on the same day) and because they were so small it was hard to get everything out. I think I ate some livers in my sardines, but it all tasted good together.

    Liana wrote on June 2nd, 2009
    • oh yeah, and next time I ever have a whole fish I want to try eating the head too (especially on a small fish) There’s perfectly good meat on the head that gets thrown away, and the brain should a good source of extra fat.

      Liana wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  36. Mackerel is a common staple over here in Japan and my family eats it regularly. I think my wife grills it with some soy sauce. It’s cheap and tasty – just the bones I hate. I’m British and used to eat them frequently as a child as well. I’m glad to hear they are low in mercury.

    John wrote on June 2nd, 2009
  37. Thanks for the push to get on with eating good healthy fish Mark – and while I’m at it thank you also for the autographed (!!) book, which arrived last week, and all the wonderful resources and the supportive community you’ve gathered around this site.

    I wish I could enjoy mackerel more personally, and posts like this goad me in the right direction. Like John I live in Japan, and as he says, mackerel is a cheap and healthy staple here and as I had read in a number of English sources that it’s relatively uncontaminated I cook it regularly for the kids and my husband. I also cook another oily Japanese favourite, Pacific saury, regularly (the ubiquitous sanma of late summer and autumn) but always wonder about the heavy metal contamination issue, so I just searched around a little.

    “Here’s a Japanese government document, “Advice for Pregnant Women on Fish Consumption concerning Mercury Contamination” that might be of use to others living in this part of the world. I need to investigate this a whole lot more, but just going by this data, the Pacific Saury actually look like a better bet than the mackerel, mercury contimation wise, and yet another oily Japanese favourite, hokke (“Arabesque Greeling”) looks better still, and luckily it’s also cheap and ubiquitous.

    whitecap wrote on June 2nd, 2009
    • Oops, spotted a typo, so in the interests of ichthyological accuracy: hokke is translated as “Arabesque Greenling”.

      whitecap wrote on June 2nd, 2009
    • Interesting table whitecap. Looks like eel is around the same average content as mackerel. Love the stuff and cant get enough of it.

      John wrote on June 3rd, 2009
  38. I too adore mackerel. I like it simply grilled or “salt broiled” Japanese style, and with a side of shredded daikon and a bit of lemon. Salad to accompany it would be great too.

    Cynthia wrote on June 3rd, 2009
  39. I live in Korea and mackerel and the aforementioned pacific saury are all staples here. We just grill em on a little electric grill, with hardly any salt, and it tastes great just wrapped in some whole lettuce leaves (the really green and crinkly kind).

    the sterile banana wrote on June 3rd, 2009
  40. Wow I was just thinking about getting mackerel specifically the other day… hah. I’d been buying wild caught haddock because it’s local and therefore fairly cheap, but I’d rather start eating fattier fish, like those you mentioned.

    I bought wild caught herring recently because it’s also oily, but unfortunately it ended up being salted (I hadn’t noticed when I bought it) and after taking one nibble I couldn’t imagine ever eating it. It was like a piece of rock salt that smelled like fish. Gross.

    I usually eat my fish raw (so I don’t wreck the fats at all) but when I get hold of some mackerel I will definitely try out this recipe at least once :)

    Candace wrote on June 3rd, 2009

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