The most abundant and economically important herring, this fish figures prominently in the cuisines of Northern Europe, Scandinavia, Russia and the Baltic States. A round bodied fish, it can grow to nearly 18 inches and 1.5 pounds but the photo specimen was 13-1/2 inches and weighed 15 ounces.
The photo specimen is salt pickled, heads, guts and feathers intact,
which is how herring is normally sold - and the way most herring
recipes expect it. It is eaten raw in Holland, and fresh is sometimes
specified in recipes from Northern Europe, particularly Poland, but
fresh herring is not likely to be found here in California. Marine
ecologists classify Atlantic herring as a sustainable harvest with
proper fisheries management.
Herring are oily fish, which makes smoking an option. The photo specimen
was first salt pickled, then smoked, so it was fairly salty. This
specimen was 14-1/2 inches long and weighed 11-1/8 ounces. Smoked herring
have a lot of tiny bones and a skin too tough to eat, and are quite
salty, but it's all manageable. Smoked herring is also called for in
See also Herring - Pickled, Canned,
Kippered and Dried
More on the Herring Family.
Many recipes I have encountered from Poland, the Baltic States and Russia call for "herrings" - just that, no further information. I could tell they were talking about a fairly large herring, but how large, why would I need to soak them, and where could such herring be found?
Fortunately I found good shopping advice in one of my Lithuanian cookbooks. Unless "fresh herring" are specifically called for they are presumed pickled entire, "heads guts and feathers", in salt brine. You buy them from a barrel where they should be very tightly packed and of uniform size (if mixed size they are probably remnants of the catch and may be poor quality). The liquid in the barrel should be pale yellow, if dark brown the herring will be off flavor. Good quality herring has white flesh but it will be pink in poor quality fish. Herring that do not contain milt or roe are fattier and have better flavor, but some recipes call for using the milt and/or roe.
Buying: These fish can be found in specialty markets serving a community heavy in people from countries around the Baltic Sea. I buy them from the Jon's Marketplace in Glendale, CA. They are large herring, pickled whole and are in excellent condition, just as one would expect from reading the recipes.
Scales: Both brine pickled and smoked herring have already been scaled.
Cleaning: The body cavity is very long, like on a trout. Just slit it from under the head back to the vent and pull the guts out. With both brine pickled and smoked herring they are soft and easy to pull. Then cut off the head and tail. Rinse out the body cavity well.
Skin: First make shallow cuts through the skin down the backside on both sides of the fin and under the tail. Peel the skin off. On brined herring the skin is thin and delicate. I find it best to start at the top about one third back and peel downward and in both directions. On smoked herrings the skin is tough and inedible. It peels easily.
Fillet: Cut downward to the backbone as usual, and over the backbone at the tail end to free the fillet. At this point I find it easiest to use your fingers to peel the first fillet off the backbone and ribs for the length of the body cavity. This will leave most of the fine bones attached to the backbone, but some will need to be pulled from the fillet. Next pull out the backbone from the tail forward which will take out most of the bones from the second fillet. Use your long nose pliers to pull out any remaining bones that are stiff enough to be worth pulling. Note: on a particularly firm fish pulling the backbone won't be possible and you'll have to deal with it like a regular fish.
Prep Salted: Most recipes call for soaking fillets in water
or a mixture of milk and water for 12 hours or more to reduce the saltiness.
I fillet the fish first and soak the fillets in water, refrigerated overnight.
Yield Salted: An 11-1/4 ounce fish yielded 6-3/4 ounces
skinless fillets (60%).