Recipes for Pacific Herring

Ken Jones

Staff member
McClane’ s Fish Buyer’s Guide: Pacific Herring — (A) Flavor: intense or robust (B) Texture: soft (C) Flake: small (D) Fat Content: moderate/winter, high/summer (E) Odor (Raw): moderate (F) Color after Cooking: red (G) Cooking Methods: broil/bake

Posted by Ken Jones

From Pier Fishing In California, 3rd Ed. — Pacific herring are a commonly caught fish in both Central California (mainly the Bay Area) and in Northern California. My first exposure to them was while living in the Bay Area in the '70s. Later, when I lived in Mendocino County, I caught them from the wharf in Noyo Harbor (Fort Bragg). Still later, I caught some from the Santa Cruz Wharf and the rocks and piers in Crescent City. Most of the herring were used for bait but I had learned over the years that they are also good eating (although considered inferior to Atlantic herrng and Pacific sardine). Given the fact that they are a somewhat strong flavored and oily-fleshed fish they're generally baked, broiled, or bar-b-cued, all methods that tend to decrease the oil. Of course, pickled herring is considered a delicacy by many. Nevertheless, when I asked PFIC members their thoughts of sardines versus herring most chose the sardines and most limited their methods of preparation for the herring to the BBQ. I must admit I've always loved kippered herring in the can but that's a little different than cooking it yourself.

It's a different story in northern Europe. There, the herring seem to retain an exalted rank somewhere above “normal” foods. In 1996 my wife Pat and I took a trip to Scandinavia to celebrate our 30th anniversary. While in Copenhagen, Denmark, my Danish (foreign exchange) son Martin insisted that I try some of the herring that was part of a smørrebrød (open sandwich) lunch. I did try a couple of varieties of the herring and thought they were OK but I’m sure my appreciation paled in comparison to the love expressed by the Danes. Then, while in Stockholm, Sweden we went to the Prinsen Restaurant, a historic and somewhat famous place, that had several appetizers featuring herring. I decided to try the recommended dish—“Herring our way ala (Nordin).” Several different forms of herring accompanied by various sauces, creams, etc. Again, I could take it or leave it—but perhaps the problem was that I did not follow the herring with an ice cold drink of aquavit (water of life); it seems aquavit is “de rigueur” with herring. I didn’t have the guts to try one of the Swedish summertime specialties—surströmming—fermented Baltic herring, a dish usually eaten with raw onions and cheese. Smoked herring, yes/ja/ja, fermented herring no/nej/nei. I must admit that I loved the Danish ham and pastries, the Swedish mashed potatoes, and the Finnish char and reindeer. And, we did bring home a couple of bottles of Finnish liqueur — Lakka (cloudberry liqueur) and Puolukka (lingonberry liqueur). But, I think I’ll pass on the more exotic forms of herring.

I was given a cook book as a parting gift when we left Europe. The book, Scandinavian Cooking by Sonia Maxwell, contains recipes from Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland. Naturally there are several herring recipes in that book.

The first three recipes are variations of marinaded herring.

Glass Blowers' Herring — Lasimestarin Silli (Finland)


• 4 medium herring
• 3 medium red onions, sliced
• 2 carrots, sliced


• 1 1/4 cup pickling vinegar
• 1 1/4 cups sugar
* 2 1/2 cups water
• 20 whole allspice
• 20 white peppercorns
• 4 bay leaves


• Gut and clean the herring, then soak in cold water overnight. Drain and dry the herring. Cut across in 1 1/2-2-inch thick slices.
• For the marinade: mix the vinegar, sugar, sugar, water, allspice, white peppercorns, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, then allow to cool to room temperature.
•Put the herring and vegetables in layers in a glass jar. Pour in enough marinade to cover completely. Refrigerate at least 24 hours.

Another recipe for marinaded (pickled) herring but with a different, more tangy flavor.

Herring With Leek and Lemon — Sill Med Purjolök Och Citron (Sweden)


• 2 salt herring (4 fillets)
1 leek, cleaned and sliced
• 1 small bunch of dill, coarsely chopped


• juice of two lemons
• 2 tbsp pickling vinegar
• 1 cup water
• 1/2 cup sugar

• 1/2 tsp whole allspice
• 1/2 tsp white peppercorns
• 1 bay leaf


• Fillet the salt herring and soak in water overnight.
• Mix all the ingredients for the marinade in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Leave it to cool.
• Slice the herring into 1-inch strips. Layer in a glass jar with the sliced leak and dill.
• When the marinade is cold, pour enough liquid to cover the herring. Leave in refrigerator for 24 hours before serving.

Matjes Herring With Tomatoes and Olives —Tomatsill (Sweden)


• 2 Matjes herring fillets (canned in brine)
• 4-6 shallots or small pickling onions
• 12-14 olives with pimento


• 4/4 cup tomato catsup
• 1 tbsp pickling vinegar
• 2 tbsp sugar
• pinch of salt
• 1 tsp crushed white pepper
• 3 tbsp oil


• Slice the herring into 2-inch strips
• Slice the shallots into fine rings
• Layer the herring, shallots, and olives in a glass jar
• For the marinade: mix the catsup, pickling vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper together. Stir and add the oil slowly.
• Pour the marinade over the herring to cover and leave in refrigerator for 24 hours

The final Scandanavian recipe that I've used from that cookbook is one for baked herring.

Fried Baltic Herring With a Taste of France — Stekt Strömming Med Fransk Doft (Sweden)


* 2 pounds whole herring or 1 1/r lbs. herring fillets
• 1 tsp salt
• 7 tbsp breadcrumbs
• 2 cloves garlic
* 1/2 tsp salt
• 3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
• 2 tbsp chopped fresh thyme and rosemary
• 2 tbsp olive oil


Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
• Clean and fillet the herring
• Sprinkle the flesh side with salt, and fold with the skin outward
• Place the fillets in rows in a greased ovenproof dish
• Mix the breadcrumbs, garlic, salt, herbs, and oilive oil together.
• Sprinkle the mixture over the herring
Bake for 20 minutes

Three additional Scandinavian recipes merit mention.

The first is yet one more picking recipe, this one from Saveur at

Pickled Herring — Inlagd Sill (Sweden) — "Sweet-sour pickled herring, soaked in vinegar spiked with sugar, spices, and aromatics, is one of the crowning glories of the table at Midsummer celebrations in Sweden. Piled atop crispbread and garnished with minced red onion and chives, it's the ideal foil for shots of aquavit."


• 2⁄3 cup sugar
• 1⁄2 cup white vinegar
• 12 whole black peppercorns
• 10 allspice berries
• 10 whole cloves
• 3 bay leaves
• 2 small red onions (1 thinly sliced, 1 minced)
• 1 carrot, diced
• 1⁄2 small leek, white part only, halved and thinly sliced
• 12 oz. salted herring fillets, rinsed, soaked in water overnight, and drained
• 1⁄2 cup minced chives

Horseradish and mustard sauces, for serving, optional


Boil sugar, vinegar, and 1 cup water in a 2-qt. saucepan until sugar is dissolved, 1–2 minutes.
• Remove from heat; stir in peppercorns, allspice, cloves, bay leaves, sliced onion, carrot, and leek; let cool.
• Add herring and cover with plastic wrap; chill for 72 hours.
• Remove fillets from vinegar mixture and pat dry using paper towels; cut into ½"-thick slices and transfer to a serving platter; garnish with minced onion and chives and serve with sauces, if you like.

How to eat the pickled herring? One simple way is the following recipe, also from Saveur, that takes the pickled herring and uses it to make the famous Danish open-faced sandwiches that I had tried while in Denmark.

Open-Faced Sandwich with Herring — Smørrebrød (Danish) — "This classic Danish open-faced sandwich features pickled herring with rich butter and dense, tangy sourdough rye bread. Note: If you cannot access rugbrød, substitute bread with a dark, whole grain rye."


• 1 slice rugbrød (dense Danish sourdough rye bread), about 1/3-inch thick
• 1/2 teaspoon unsalted butter, slightly softened
• 5 pieces jarred pickled herring
• Thinly sliced red onion, for garnish
• 1 tablespoon dill, roughly chopped


• If not already trimmed, cut rye bread to a 3- by 5-inch rectangle.
• Spread butter evenly all over top side of bread.
• Arrange pickled herring on butter, covering the surface evenly. Tuck red onion between the pieces

A final Scandinavian recipe is one that I thought my wife Pat would like since she loves both lingonberry sauce and mashed potatoes. it comes from the Swde & Savory blog —

Pan-Fried Herring with Mashed Potatoes and Lingon Sauce — (Sweden) —"The prep for this is simple, and it is a relatively inexpensive dish. Swedes will usually make this with a caviar paste between the fillets, which I am aware is not to everyone's taste so I have an alternative for you! Lingon sauce can be purchased at Ikea or Scandinavian stores, or else substitute with a cranberry sauce for a similar tart and sweet flavor. "


• Herring fillets with the skin on
• Cream Cheese
• Bread crumbs
• Parsley, a chopped bunch
• Chives, a chopped bunch
• Egg


• Prepare by cracking the egg onto a plate with raised edges, and scatter a cup or so of the bread crumbs onto a separate plate. Season the bread crumbs lightly with salt and pepper.
• Combine pepper, the chopped parsley and chives with the cream cheese. Tip: do this straight into the container to avoid a mess, and you can always spread it on a bagel if you have some left over.
• Take the fish fillets and begin to pair them by size, place skin down on a cutting board. Add a dollop of the cream cheese mixture to the flesh side of the fish, and then combine the two fillets to create a fish sandwich.
• First, dip the fish into the egg coating the skin sides then place the fish on the bread crumb plate and turn once. Pat off any excess bread crumbs.
• Fry in frying pan on medium high heat with a tablespoon or so of cooking oil until browned.
• Place fish on the mashed potatoes and serve with lingon sauce on the side, feel free to garnish with a sprig of parsley

By now it's clear that people in the Scandinavian countries eat a lot of herring. But what about locally? I have always loved cooking and eating fish and through the years have acquired quite a library of books on the cleaning, preparation, and cooking of fish. Most have at least one recipe concerning herring.Then again sometimes you don't need books (or today the Internet). An early recipe for pickled herring came from my days in Mendocino County.

When we owned the Horn of Zeese restaurant in Boonville, a couple of our specialties were fish and chips (with cod) and clam chowder every Friday. Boonville is 28 very winding miles from Cloverfdale and for people headed to the coast it is basically halfway to the ab region (the coast in Boontling). For many people a stop in Boonville was very welcome since it gave those with queasy stomachs a chance to relax. But it was also a great place to make first contact for people headed to the coast. One day a commercial fisherman from Fort Bragg (about 50 miles away) approached me at the Horn and asked to make a trade. He had salmon that he had smoked and a variety of pickled fish (salmon, herring and sablefish) that he had prepared himself. If I would let him use my parking lot to sell his products he would supply me (personally) with smoked and pickled products for myself. It seemed reasonable and he would show up every Friday for quite some time. He made some money and I enjoyed the smoked and pickled fish. I did ask him for a couple of recipes and one is the following.

Pickled Herring — Fort Bragg version


• 1/4 cup salt
• 5 cups water
• 1 pound herring fillets
• 2 cups wine vinegar
• 1/4 cup sugar
• 1 teaspoon mustard seed
• 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
• 3 bay leaves
• 3 cloves
• 1 lemon, thinly sliced
• 1 medium red onion thinly sliced


• Heat 4 cups of water enough to dissolve salt. Let this brine cool to room temperature. When it does, submerge the herring fillets in the brine and refrigerate overnight, or up to 24 hours. Meanwhile, bring the sugar, vinegar, the remaining cup of water and all the spices to a boil. Simmer 5 minutes, then turn off the heat and let this steep until cool.
• When the herring have brined, layer them in a glass jar with the sliced lemon and red onion. Divide the spices between your containers if you are using more than one. Pour over the cooled pickling liquid and seal the jars. Wait at least a day before eating.
• Store in the fridge for up to 1 month.

In the fall of 2013, I was at the Trinidad Pier for a kid's fishing derby and while there had lunch with Ed Roberts of the Department of Fish and Wildlife in Eureka. He is in charge of the department's "fish counters" for Northern California and happened to mention the herring counts. Although I had often caught herring in the Bay Area, I had never traveled north to Crescent City to catch them, a city famous for its large, wintertime runs of herring. I told him I wouldn't mind testing it out some time and he said he would let me know when they showed up. Sure enough, he called in January 2014 and said, "Ken, the herring are running in Crescent City," I agreed to travel north with my friend Mike Granat and Ed agreed to come up and fish with us for a while during our visit. The result was a cooler packed with ice and herring. I returned home with herring to be bagged for later use as bait and herring to be eaten.

I wound up pickling and broiling some of the herring but later, when I ran across this recipe, I wished I had tried it at that time. I can now say I have tried it and it's good. This is basically another pan-fried fish recipe (herring) but it's good and a little different with the mustard making a good compliment to the herring. This recipe is from a blog called Hunter - Angler – Gardener – Cook. It's found at and has many excellent fish recipes.

Scottish Oat-Crusted Fried Herring — from Hank Shaw


• 1/2 pound herring fillets
• Salt
• 1/2 cup smooth prepared mustard
• 1/2 cup cream or milk
• 1 1/2 cups oats
• 1/4 cup vegetable oil, butter or lard


• Wash the herring fillets and salt them well. Set aside at room temperature for 15 minutes.
• Mix the mustard and cream in bowl and submerge the herring in the mixture. Let this stand for at least 10 minutes, and as long as an hour.
• Put the oats in a food processor or blender and buzz until mostly broken up. You want some of the oats to be flour, and some to be still recognizable as oats. Put the oats in a large bowl.
• Heat the oil or butter in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Set out some paper towels nearby to allow the finished fish to drain. Dredge the herring in the oat mixture and fry until golden, about 2-3 minutes per side. Drain on the paper towels.
• Serve hot with beer and mashed potatoes, champ (Irish mashed potatoes mixed with chopped onions, butter, milk and cheese), colcannon (Irish mashed potatoes mixed with cabbage), or just simple boiled potatoes.
I tried the Pan-Fried Herring with Mashed Potatoes it was excellent. we did not have the Lingon Sauce .
But did have some cranberry which we mixed with pomegranate juice this worked very well.
We had chioggia beets, and broccoli with a vinagrette which also fit well.