BY NICK MACMAHON | 7 MAY 2019
Fresh Mackerel Season: JAN FEB MAR APR MAY JUN JUL AUG SEP OCT NOV DEC
Mackerel is the name used for about 21 different species of fish around the world, but in Britain, the fish we know as mackerel is scomber scombrus, the Atlantic Mackerel. It’s affordable, delicious, easy to cook and really good for you. A classic weeknight dinner fish. It's oily and a very fishy fish that works so well with acidic ingredients like lemon or vinegar.
The sustainability of mackerel has been of concern recently with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) suspending sustainability certification, but current EU quotas are now in line with the scientific advice regarding sustainability.
The best option for buying sustainable mackerel in London is buying mackerel that is caught in Cornwall. Cornish mackerel stocks are protected within an area around Cornwall called ‘the mackerel box’ that prohibits industrial-scale fishing. A majority of the mackerel caught in Cornwall is caught by handlines from small boats, a super sustainable, low-impact fishing method. The yearly catch for Cornish mackerel is approximately 900 tonnes, an amount a ‘supertrawler’ could catch, process and freeze in just a few days. The current (as of 2020) total catch quota for the EU, Norway and Faroe Islands is 922,064 tonnes.
Mackerel is usually sold whole or as fillets. If the mackerel are sold whole, ask your fishmonger if they can fillet the fish for you. Fillets are the easiest way to deal with mackerel, so try to get fillets when you can. The most important thing with mackerel is making sure your fish is as fresh as possible. Mackerel doesn’t hold up well sitting in the fridge too long, so always try to cook it the day you buy it.
Mackerel, like most fish, will have bones, unless you specifically buy boneless fillets. These bones run lengthways, through the middle of the fillet. For hassle-free eating, do your best to remove the bones. You can do this by hand, or with household tweezers, but proper fish bone tweezers are the best. They are cheap, and a worthwhile investment if you enjoy cooking fish.
Cooking mackerel doesn't have to be a messy or difficult task. Unlike other finicky, delicate fish, mackerel has firm flesh and is pretty straightforward to prepare and cook. The way I like to think about cooking mackerel is to focus on browning the skin. However you cook it, pan-fried, oven grilled or BBQed, a mackerel fillet can be cooked all on the skin-side. Since mackerel fillets are fairly thin, once the skin has browned and crisped, usually 5-7 minutes, the rest of the fish will be cooked or close to cooked. Once removed from heat, the residual heat will keep cooking the fish for a few minutes, so working out that perfect timing is the key to perfectly cooking fish. But also, not crucial with mackerel, there's a lot more room for error with oily fish. And if you are not sure it's fully cooked or prefer to cook it both sides, you can absolutely flip it and cook it for another minute or two.
The key to crispy skin is making sure the skin is dry. Moisture is the enemy of crispy skin. Get some paper towels and pat the skin as dry as possible. Mackerel don't have scales, they have smooth, leathery skin and it should not feel wet to the touch before cooking. Don't worry too much about drying the flesh side, just make sure the skin side is dry. If you have the time and space to spare, keep the fish uncovered, skin-side-up in the fridge, this helps a lot to dry the skin.
With all methods of cooking mackerel, I highly suggest rubbing oil on to the fish first and then cooking, rather than adding oil to the pan. This makes the fish cook better and you have a lot less oil splatter to clean up.
In my opinion, a charcoal bbq is definitely the best method for cooking mackerel. That smokey charcoal flavour is perfect with oily fish like mackerel. Obviously, a charcoal bbq isn't the most practical device for cooking, so let's look at the other options.
Usually reserved for making cheese on toast, the oven grill setting is perfect for cooking fish.
Line a baking tray with foil. Place the fillets skin side up, dab with a paper towel to get the skin dry as possible and then sprinkle with salt and rub the skin with olive oil. Place in the oven, about 10cm below the grill. Depending on how big your fillets are, it should take about 5-7 minutes to cook. The skin will blister and crisp up. Check the underside of the fish to see if it is cooked. If the skin is well-browned and blistered, the rest of the fish should cook through even after it has come out of the oven.
Some chefs recommend scoring the mackerel skin to prevent the fish skin contracting and curling, but I think that’s more of an issue of chefs needing to create a consistent aesthetic rather than practicality for the home cook.
The biggest problem people have with pan-frying fish is the fish sticking to the pan. The skin sticks to the pan, the fish falls apart and you end up with an ugly dinner. There are a few things you can do to prevent this.
1. Don't fiddle! Once the fish hits the pan, don't try to rearrange it, just leave it to cook. The skin will stick to the pan to begin with, it just needs time to crisp and then it will become unstuck. Sticking will happen, you just need to leave it alone.
2. This period of 'being stuck' to 'not being stuck' requires first; the boiling off of all water between pan and skin and only then the browning and crisping of the skin can begin. It's the same principle as licking your fingers before putting out a candle. Removing as much of that moisture on the skin is key to making the browning happen quicker. So make sure you get the skin as dry as possible before cooking.
3. Don't start with a cold pan. Make sure your pan is preheated over medium-high heat for 3 minutes before cooking. Not smoking hot, but pretty hot. Once the fish is on the pan, a lot of that heat will go into the fish and drop the overall temperature of the pan.
Now that you’ve cooked your mackerel, you can now work out how you want to eat it.
To balance the fishiness and oiliness of mackerel, you need to cut through with something acidic like lemon juice or vinegar. Then to round out those elements, the addition of gentle sweetness helps bring it all together. This could come in the form of sweet vegetables, like onions, corn, capsicum or cooked carrots. Or you could even incorporate fruits, that’s why lemon works so well with fish, it combines sour and sweet. Try another citrus like lime, orange, or even grapefruit. From then you can add other gentler flavours, soft herbs like dill, coriander, or oregano are a good match. There are so many flavour combinations possible which make this fish incredibly versatile and a lot of fun to cook.
Here are some of our Mackerel recipes.