Species Spotlight on Mackerel

There are about 30 fish that are sold as various types of mackerel. Among these are the so-called “true mackerels” like the Atlantic (scomber scombrus), the Spanish, king (Scomberomorus cavalla), and many other unrelated fish with similar characteristics. Mackerel are smaller and slimmer than tuna but have similar streamlined bodies, forked tails, silver or white bellies and darker, often spotted backs. They often swim in enormous migratory schools and depending upon their size, can act as a predator or prey.

Mackerel of all types have been important food fish wherever their schools show up. Like herring, they feed the oceans as well as humans. The people along the North Sea and the Mediterranean coast have awaited the springtime arrival of these fish for centuries. When abundant near the British Isles, it was second only to herring in importance. However, the abundance was inconsistent. When Europeans began fishing in American waters, they noticed the same boom and bust cycles on this side of the Atlantic.

How They are Caught

The historically important Atlantic mackerel is still a major food fish, but only make up a small portion of the total catch. The 2021 assessment by NOAA states that Atlantic mackerel are currently overfished but are part of a rebuilding program so current quotas are low. Most commercially caught Atlantic Mackerel are harvested by mid-water trawl nets but some are caught using jigging systems or gillnet.

Spanish mackerel have been caught more in recent years, but is still about half of the Atlantic catch. The related Atlantic chub species is also an important food fish throughout its wide range but usually caught with bottom trawls. Meanwhile two Pacific species, the Pacific chub (Scomber japonicus) and Chilean jack (Trachurus murphyi) are today some of the most important food fishes worldwide. American fishermen catch Pacific mackerel mainly using round haul nets.

Buying Mackerel

Fresh Chub Mackerel

There is no hiding an old mackerel, they lose firmness and brightness pretty quickly unless handled well. Look for whole fresh fish that are firm and stiff, with a shiny skin and unclouded eyes. If they were not freshly taken out of the water, then they need to be on lots of ice. Flash frozen mackerel can also be found, but quality depends upon how fast the fish was frozen. They are delicate, and should look pristine, unless you are using them for bait.

The larger mid-water trawlers can usually freeze them at sea to ensure freshness. If choosing “previously frozen” mackerel from a fish counter, the same rules for firmness and color apply. Like other small oily fish, they spoil quickly, which can lead to a serious bacterial infection known as scombroid poisoning if not properly handled.

Eating Mackerel

Mackerel species have fatty, oily flesh that ranges from whitish to dark red with a rich flavor that is not overpowering. There are many ways to prepare it fresh, from very basic to high-end gourmet, but are perfect for grilling or broiling, either whole or in fillets.

Due to mackerel’s quick spoilage, they were traditionally pickled, salted or smoked if eaten beyond the immediate coast. Smoked is still a great way to enjoy the fish and can be used just like smoked salmon. These fish are often loaded with Omega-3s, all are wild caught and most species are low in mercury.

A major reason mackerel is not more popular is despite its health benefits and taste, is the numerous fine bones. These can be intimidating when preparing mackerel since bones in fish seem to be a major hang up for consumers. The most accessible way of trying the fish is also one of the most affordable: canned or tinned conservas. Most supermarkets have at least one major brand of boneless, skinless mackerel (usually chub) fillets in olive oil or other sauces. They are very tasty, sustainable and a healthy, low-mercury alternative to canned tuna.

Substitutions When Cooking

When substituting, look for an oily fish with relatively thin fillets. Herring, large sardines/pilchards, even a light fleshed trout could work as substitutes. Tail or end sections of salmon or steelhead could make a tasty twist on recipes that call for mackerel fillets. The reverse is true as well, mackerel makes for a good alternative to various other oily fish, from salmon to tuna.

Historic Recipe: Mackerel Broiled Whole (1852)

[An excellent receipt]. Empty and cleanse perfectly, a fine and very fresh mackerel, but without opening it more than is needful; dry it well, either in a cloth, or by hanging it in a cool air until it is stiff; make with a sharp knife, a deep incision the whole length of the fish, on either side of the back bone, and about 1/2 an inch from it, and with a feather put in a little Cayenne and fine salt, mixed with a few drops of good salad oil, or clarified butter.

Lay the mackerel over a moderate fire upon a well heated gridiron, which has been rubbed with suet; loosen it gently should it stick, which it will do unless often moved; and when it is equally done on both sides, turn the back to the fire. About 30 minutes will broil it well. If a sheet of thickly-buttered writing paper be folded round it, and just twisted at the ends before it is laid on the gridiron, it will be finer eating than if exposed to the fire; but sometimes when this is done, the skin will adhere to the paper, and be drawn off with it, which injures its appearance.

This is one of the very best modes of dressing a mackerel, which in flavor is quite a different fish when thus prepared, to one which is simply boiled. A drop of oil is sometimes passed over the skin to prevent its sticking to the iron. It may be laid to the fire after having been merely cut as we have directed, when it is preferred so. Large, 30 minutes; 25, if small.

A recipe included in From Head to Tale by Justin Demetri