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!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

81 thoughts on “The Simple Beauty of the Mackerel”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  5. 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. 🙂

  6. Looks good. I might try a spinach salad w/slice almonds on the side. Thanks Mark.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

    1. This too is my favorite fish but we find it hard to get where we live. I like it better than salmon.

  9. 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.


    1. You can use lard for seasoning your pans, Girish. Thanks for the question!

    2. 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.

  10. 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:

  11. 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!

  12. 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).

  13. I love mackerel! Japanese-style broiled on a bed of salt (shioyaki) it’s my absolute favorite. And the skin is so pretty. 🙂

  14. 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.

  15. Some other people mentioned spinach, which was immediately came to my mind. Sauteed with some garlic and walnut oil. 🙂

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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!

  22. 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.

  23. Go to your nearest Sushi Bar and say “Saba”…it is the best, right after salmon I mean.

  24. 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.

  25. I like sliced tomatoes and asparagus served with fish, i think that goes well together.

  26. 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!

  27. 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!

  28. I’ve never tried Mackerel before, but it looks really good! I would probably serve it with sauteed spinach.

  29. 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.

  30. I love mackerel. I typically bake it in parchment paper, stuffed with shallots, thyme and salt. Thanks for the recipe.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

    1. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

    1. Oops, spotted a typo, so in the interests of ichthyological accuracy: hokke is translated as “Arabesque Greenling”.

    2. Interesting table whitecap. Looks like eel is around the same average content as mackerel. Love the stuff and cant get enough of it.

  35. 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.

  36. 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).

  37. 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 🙂

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

  40. 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.

  41. What do you think about smoked mackerel? Is smoked fish bad cause it contains more salt?

    1. 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!

  42. 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.


  43. 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.

    1. 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.

  44. 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

  45. 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..

  46. 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.

  47. 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?

  48. 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.

  49. 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

  50. 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…

  51. 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.

  52. 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

  53. 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.

  54. my favorite way to eat these is steaming them by far… it preserves the most taste and nutrients too

  55. 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.

  56. 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.

  57. i love smoked mackerel. the skin especially is gorgeous and fatty. i sometimes end up eating only the skin and fatty bits!

  58. 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 😉

  59. I mentioned smoked salmon, but I meant smoked mackerel offcourse! And just found out there were more reactions 😉

  60. 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.

  61. 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!

  62. This is an excellent video from the BBC on how to fillet a mackerel: