The herrings are a family of related schooling fish that occupy the Atlantic and Pacific oceans as well as the Baltic Sea. There are three species of “true” herrings: the Atlantic (Clupea harengus), Pacific (Clupea pallasii), and the Araucanian herring, (Clupea bentincki). There are other similar species also called herrings as well as subspecies of true herrings. Within the larger herring family are the closely related shad and alewives, the freshwater herrings that spawn in lakes and ponds.
The herrings are smallish, streamlined fish with dark blue backs, silver bellies, and thin easily removed scales. These bountiful fish, eat plankton and live in schools composed of hundreds of thousands or even millions of similar sized fish. The name herring originates from Old English and Germanic roots. Either from words describing their gray color, or from an Old High German word for “host” as in their enormous schools.
A compelling argument can be made that herring, and their close relatives are the most important fish species. European fishermen have been harvesting herring for centuries. What was not eaten by the local population became a valuable trade item. But the oily meat is very soft, so salting and pickling were used to preserve herring. Smoked herring begins to appear in records around the 13th century and in the days before refrigeration, preserved herring had a distribution system second only to cod. An oft-quoted anecdote states how in the Middle Ages, preserved European herring could be found in markets as far away as Constantinople.
Herring species are intensely fished by humans besides being a forage fish for many species. Populations have historically gone through boom and bust cycles but overall remain robust. Atlantic herring, are sustainably harvested off the US East Coast from the spring through the fall. Much of the catch is exported to Europe, but is also a vital source of bait for the lobster fishery. (Because of this, I personally associate herring with bait instead of food…the very sight of a half-rotten herring transports me back to the days of hauling traps with dad.)
Because of the delicate and oily flesh, herring do not last very long, only a few days under ideal conditions. In not so ideal conditions they deteriorate right before your eyes. Herring is not a common sight in American fish markets, it is a fish that we should eat more of, but the strong flavor is not popular with the general public. When you do encounter herring at a fish market, make sure to only choose fish that look like they were just caught. Unlike some other species, there is no way to mistake an old herring, they go limp and get so soft they start to fall apart. When in doubt, opt for flash frozen whole fish and prepare immediately after thawing.
Fresh or frozen herring can be baked, broiled, grilled, even fried. But the oily flesh of herring is perfect for smoking or pickling. Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic countries all enjoy pickled and smoked herring served in various ways. Tins of smoked herring -kippers – and jars of pickled herring are often found in American supermarkets and specialty shops.
Soused herring is still very popular in the Netherlands today. The fish is very close to being raw, with just enough salt to preserve the fish, which undergoes fermentation with help from enzymes in the pancreas. The Dutch enthusiastically await the arrival of the first herring of the spring. The first barrels of “Hollands Nieuwe” are given to the king. (Even after several trips to the Netherlands, I have still not tried their “haring.” The sight, the smell, and the fact that you are expected to eat it like a seagull all reminds me of lobster bait.)
Herring is a small, oily fish with a lot of flavor, so any similar fish would work as a replacement. Shad, a member of the herring family, could easily takes its place. Trout is also a good, flavorful substitute. Mackerel would be another good alternative with a lighter flesh and slightly milder flavor.
To Pickle Herrings or Mackerel (1725)
Take the Fish, and cut off the Heads and Tails, gut them wash them, and dry them well; then take two Ounces and a half of Salt-petre, three Quarters of an Ounce of Jamaica Pepper, and a quarter and half quarter of White Pepper, and pound them small; an Ounce of Sweet Marjoram and Thyme chopp’d small: Mix all together and put some within and without the Fish; lay them in an Earthen Pan, the Roes at Top and cover them with White wine Vinegar; then set them into an Oven, not too hot for two Hours This is for Fifteen; and after this Rule, do as many as you please.