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:

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  1. I grew up on the Atlantic coast of Canada and had tons of fishermen as neighbors. It’s kind of depressing that just about the only fish I ever ate growing up was fish sticks (barf). Fish just wasn’t my thing though, I can’t fault my parents because although they tried I’d rather have starved than eat it.

    Now I frigging LOVE fish.

    Jack wrote on June 3rd, 2009
  2. I grew up on the South coast of England, one of my favourite meals was freshly caught (by me) mackerel that I cleaned, gutted and barbecued on the beach, from the water to my belly in under an hour! The taste is completely different to the vacuum packed mackerel we get in the supermarkets.

    Coma wrote on June 3rd, 2009
  3. Mackerel is amazing. I’ve grilled it (seasoned with salt and garlic powder) for people who don’t generally eat/like fish, and they love it.

    Mackerel is also a good environmental choice. It’s a fast-growing, well-populated fish and generally a sustainable choice for eating. Too bad my local markets in upstate NY don’t stock mackerel because demand is too low. I’ll generally go to the coast (Maine, preferably), catch a bunch, and freeze some.

    Dave B wrote on June 3rd, 2009
  4. What do you think about smoked mackerel? Is smoked fish bad cause it contains more salt?

    Michael wrote on June 3rd, 2009
    • Smoke it yourself. Salt isn’t necessary if you’re smoking for flavour as long as you’re not trying to preserve the fish for longer storage. Just use as seasoning to taste. Not really tricky, (of coure there are several ways to do it) but my easy favourite is just closing the lid on the barbecue. Yum!

      Kirst wrote on December 30th, 2014
  5. Mark,

    Love the post on mackerel and omega-3. People also overlook the fact that the oily, wild fish like mackerel and wild salmon have much higher levels of Vitamin D.


    John Martinez wrote on June 3rd, 2009
  6. I grew up on the Jersey Shore, and I love seafood. But, I have never liked the strong fishy flavored fish. My perception is that most fish that humans eat are mild tasting, with the fishy ones being the exception. With respect to your saying fish should taste fishy, I think it would be far more accurate to say that fish should NOT taste fishy. The only time I ever eat mackerel is when it comes on a sashimi platter, and I eat it first, bolting it down as quickly as possible, just to get that bit of vileness out of the way.

    Alex wrote on June 3rd, 2009
    • Then WHY bother??? Fish should taste like Fish. Jersey Shore Bluefish is one of the best fish to cook and enjoy its ACCURATE rich fish taste. Light flovered fish like flounder, Halibut or Cod is fine but they don’t pack the health punch like the oil rich fish do.

      pjnoir wrote on August 16th, 2009
  7. LOve canned Mackerel straight from the can and I sometimes cook it as well.

    I have never cooked fresh mackerel mainly because I don’t trust ‘fresh’ fish from a supermarket or fishmonger.

    Perhaps I will now try it because your receipe seems to be worth the effort.

    Noel Victor Comley

    comley wrote on June 3rd, 2009
  8. I got really inspired by this post, so I bought a fresh mackerel on my way home from work yesterday. Since I had all the ingredients for spinach bread, I made that as a side dish, even though I think other options mentioned here may work better.

    Anyway, the mackerel was great and I have left-overs for lunch today. Mmmm..

    Anne Siri wrote on June 4th, 2009
  9. I grew up eating fish a lot. I recently bought a deep pot, a small wire rack and a stainless steel dish. I put some water in the bottom of the pot, the fish in the dish and then on the rack. I steam the fish (about 10 min. per inch) and it’s always perfect, never overdone. Then I drain the water from the fish dish. The key to getting rid of the “fishy” taste/smell is to put a few slices of ginger in with the fish as it steams. Then in a separate small pot, I add soy sauce (there is also a brand of soy sauce especially for fish that works very well), water, a bit of olive oil and a touch of sugar and bring it to a boil. Pour that over the fish and it’s perfect.

    Personally, I think every fish tastes good when done like that or grilled with oil like Mark’s recipe!

    I’m also glad that the levels of mercury are low.

    Stephanie wrote on June 4th, 2009
  10. Wow, I’m interested. I used to catch mackerel when I was young and we would “try” and eat them or toss them to Andre the Seal when he was cruising Rockport Harbor. Always a bit too oily for me, although I love any other fish, especially raw. This has awaken my interest to dust off my rod and hit the breakwater to catch a few this summer. I would love to prepare sashimi but am not sure of a proper brine recipe to marinate it in, anyone help?

    Mainer wrote on June 6th, 2009
  11. Agreed, mackerel is yummy BUT needs to be really fresh. There’s a classic description of what happens when it isn’t by Richard Brautigan, quoted here

    Failing that, peppered mackerel or canned mackerel is acceptable if eaten quickly.

    As you say it’s difficult to find things to go with it, my favourites are toasted almonds, watercress and spinach. Or more mackerel. Definitely not the rice I used to use.

    Trinkwasser wrote on June 22nd, 2009
  12. Mark, thanks for great mackerel dish pics. I have served it over baked, cubed potatoes with some curry and fresh jalapeno sasoning and mixed with spinach.
    BTW – the best mackerel for me is the smoked one – no fresh one can compare to it..:)
    Hugs from Spain, Magdalena

    Mag wrote on September 21st, 2009
  13. I can’t believe that no-one has mentioned how good grated horseradish is with mackerel – I can’t personally eat pepper, so tend to spice with ginger and horseradish instead and mackerel is truly fabulous with horseradish…

    Doris wrote on October 19th, 2010
  14. I was at my local Chinese market in San Francisco. The guy in the fish section kept pushing the mackeral. “$1.99! $1.99 a pound!” Okay, okay, The eyes were clear and the gill was a bright red color. I caved in.
    Brought it home to my wife. With her postgrad in biology and Japanese background, she just salted and broiled it, a few minutes on each side. Fish was so fresh. Tasted so great. This is an easy, cheap (here in San Francisco, anyway) meal and a fantastically nutritious one as well.

    Joe wrote on September 17th, 2011
  15. It is delicious smoked. Big fillets of smoked mackerel are a common and very inexpensive product in all the supermarkets in the United Kingdom. Makes a delicious, healthy and cheap snack for on the go sightseeing! I wish it was sold so readily in the USA

    wacky wrote on October 4th, 2011
  16. I love mackerel! Also, living in Japan, it’s quite inexpensive when compared to beef, pork, or other meats. I like to dust it heavily with cumin and fresh coarsely chopped garlic. Sometimes I add a dash of thyme with balsamic vinegar.

    Alicia wrote on December 5th, 2011
  17. my favorite way to eat these is steaming them by far… it preserves the most taste and nutrients too

    some person wrote on May 12th, 2012
  18. Thanks Mark for the great cooking instructions. Just finished eating a half a mackerel for my breakfast. Wonderful rich flavor and the skin was very tasty.

    Melinda wrote on July 28th, 2012
  19. it is very yummy…………..

    sara wrote on September 13th, 2012
  20. I like sardines and I like salmon, but I don’t know if I like mackerel. I’ve never had it. I didn’t like herring. I’ve had it fresh and pan fried and I’ve had it pickled and in cream.

    Perhaps when people say fishy, they just mean unpleasant? I think of venison as gamey and unpleasant without lots of brine/soaking in beer or vinegar or wine/or in a sauce, but I love elk, which is also game.

    It does not follow that just because a person likes one fish, even a strongly flavored one, that he will like another. I love cabbage and broccoli and all sorts of vegetables, but strongly dislike fennel and mushrooms. I love brie and camembert, but really can only tolerate gorgonzola dolce in the bleus. Maybe the stronger taste is of one that is disliked.

    Ranee @ Arabian Knits wrote on September 13th, 2012
  21. i love smoked mackerel. the skin especially is gorgeous and fatty. i sometimes end up eating only the skin and fatty bits!

    Dill wrote on November 1st, 2012
  22. Hi Mark! Wow, the last reply was in 2009… I was searching for a paleo recipe with mackerel in it. That’s how I found this entry. I have smoked salmon, I love the taste of this, I had it cleaned at the fish seller. I was inspired and I got a plate, spread kale on it, spread the fatty fish above that. I added herbal sea salt, sesame oil, pepper and lemon juice. It tasted awesome! Just a simple meal 😉

    Mariska wrote on November 3rd, 2013
  23. I mentioned smoked salmon, but I meant smoked mackerel offcourse! And just found out there were more reactions 😉

    Mariska wrote on November 3rd, 2013
  24. I know this post is old but thought I’d comment. For me mackerel should ALWAYS be cooked skin side down so the skin turns golden brown. Actually best is skin side up, under a over head grill ( that’s a salamander to USA’ers). You don’t even need to turn the fillet over, it will cook through. Little olive rubbed over the skin, little salt to help it crisp, Under a maximum heat over head grill ( about 2 – 3 inches below the heat) for about 5 mins until the skin is crispy and golden brown. Then when you serve make sure the fillet is skin side up or the skin will steam. Seriously, marks recipe sounds OK but it would be so much better with crispy skin.

    Greg wrote on November 9th, 2013
  25. Mackerel in a can is a third the price of salmon. Can’t buy it fresh around here but patties are a great lunch. I’m going to eat it with some fresh celery!

    Luke wrote on November 18th, 2013
  26. This is an excellent video from the BBC on how to fillet a mackerel:

    keithy wrote on October 18th, 2014

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