Curing, pickling, smoking and ‘cooked’ fish

Fish and shellfish are always delicious freshly cooked, whether pan-fried, baked, steamed or deep-fried in batter. But what about other ways to enjoy seafood? Caroline Rye, The Urban Fishwife, shares advice and a recipe for ceviche. You’ll find more from Caroline on Instagram (@urbanfishwife) and Twitter (@urbanfishwife).

Smoked salmon, a delicious classic, on chewy rye bread. Photo by Caroline Rye, The Urban Fishwife.

Smoked salmon, a delicious classic, on chewy rye bread. Photo by Caroline Rye, The Urban Fishwife.

Fish have been preserved by pickling, curing and smoking around the world for thousands of years; before modern methods of refrigeration and distribution a bountiful catch would be preserved to see communities through leaner times. Today we can still enjoy the taste and flavour of fish prepared in these traditional ways and techniques, even though the days of preservation out of necessity are behind us.

Pickling fish has been a staple method of preserving across northern Europe since olden times to handle the catch from the North and Baltic seas. Salting or brining and then submerging in acidic pickling liquid helped to limit the growth of the bacteria that caused fish to decay and made it last longer. Aromatics such as herbs, peppercorns, spices, onions and other vegetables all provided extra flavour and taste with many regional variations. Think of pickled herrings atop a table groaning with a Scandinavian feast, or a simple supper of rollmops from Poland and Germany, eaten with gherkins and chewy dark rye bread. Today, small, oil-rich fish like herring and mackerel still respond especially well to being preserved in a vinegary pickling solution. For an easy pickling recipe check out this one at Peter’s Yard.

Home-made rollmop herring. Phot by Caroline Rye, the Urban Fishwife.

Home-made rollmop herring. Phot by Caroline Rye, the Urban Fishwife.

Smoking fish is another method of preservation and smoked salmon is one of Scotland’s most famous exports. Lots of seafood can be hot or cold smoked beyond the typical salmon or trout, including haddock and shellfish. Nowadays we enjoy the lovely smoky taste, flavour and texture of smoked fish but originally the smoking process was employed to help limit the growth of mould and harmful bacteria in the food to preserve it for longer. After being dry salted or brined to draw out the moisture in which bacteria grow, fish can be either hot or cold smoked. Hot smoked food (above 55 degrees centigrade) uses smoke created within the smoking chamber and cooks the fish during the process. Cold smoking (between 10 and 30) passes cooled smoke from an outside source over the fish in a longer process. The smoked fish then requires further cooking.

Some of Scotland’s well known traditional, regional products and dishes came out of this historical need to preserve the catch in this way before it deteriorated. The traditional Finnan Haddie (haddock) from the East Coast of Scotland is smoked overnight and then used as the star ingredient in Cullen Skink with cream and potatoes. Further down the coast in Arbroath the famous Arbroath Smokie is a hot smoked haddock, traditionally cooked and smoked over wooden barrels.

As mentioned fish are often cured by dry salting or by soaking in brine before the main preserving process to help inhibit the growth of bacteria. A simple cure can still preserve fish for a time without the need to continue the process by pickling or smoking, although the results will not last as long. One of the most well know examples comes from our Scandinavian neighbours with gravlax (or gravadlax) where a side of salmon is well coated in a dry cure of salt, sugar and dill and left to develop for a few days until the fish is cured by the resulting briny liquid enough to eat without further cooking. Traditionally served with a mustard sauce, this way of preserving fish can be easily tried at home without any special equipment (such as this Rick Stein version here). Variations including a beetroot or a citrus cure can bring colour and flavour, especially in the depths of winter as a starter for a Christmas or Hogmanay feast.

Scallop Ceviche with Citrus Salad

Further afield, fish has been traditionally cured or ‘cooked’ in citrus juice in the Peruvian dish ceviche. The acid in the juice ‘cooks’ the fish, leaving a zingy, clean tasting flavour. Commonly lime juice is used but with many citrus fruit at their best in winter, it’s a great time to combine their colour and zest with seafood fished from our icy waters. Oil-rich and white fish can be prepared in this way but for a special starter, this recipe uses plump juicy scallops that are easily to tackle and offer something a bit more special. Make sure the scallops are the freshest you can get from a reliable fishmonger or supplier.

Scallop ceviche by The Urban Fishwife, Caroline Rye.

Beautiful scallop ceviche. Recipe and photo by The Urban Fishwife, Caroline Rye.


Scallop Ceviche with Citrus Salad
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An easy to make and luxurious ceviche using some of Scotland's best seafood. The end result hinges on the quality of the ingredients, especially the scallops.
Recipe type: Starter
Cuisine: Peruvian
  • 6 really fresh plump scallops (with or without the corals depending on your taste)
  • Juice of a lime
  • 1 segmented pink or red grapefruit with the juice reserved (do this over a bowl)
  • 1 segmented small orange
  • 1 carrot, peeled and carved into ribbons with a peeler
  • Half a cucumber, carved into ribbons using a peeler
  • Freshly ground salt and pepper
  • Pinch of caster sugar
  • Small bunch of flat leaf parsley
  • Seeds of half a pomegranate
  1. Slice the scallops very thinly with a sharp knife, as thin as you can by hand
  2. Combine the lime and grapefruit juice. Toss the scallops gently in the citrus juice in a plastic or non-metallic bowl. Cover and leave in the fridge for an hour.
  3. Carefully mix the scallops with the rest of the fruit and vegetables. Season slightly with a pinch of salt, pepper and sugar.
  4. Serve the ceviche in scallop shells or a starter-sized plate, garnished with parsley and pomegranate seeds.

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About Caroline von Schmalensee

Cooking, eating and drinking is fun as well as necessary. I do food for fun and I write for a living. Good food makes the world a more delicious and satisfying place. Good writing, meanwhile, can make the world a less confusing place.

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