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Food & Drink

Holy mackerel: A delicious, cheap, sustainable fish for World Ocean's Day

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Mackerel can easily be baked in foil with lemon and rosemary. (iStock)

On the grill or in a sauté with spring vegetables, fish is a versatile protein-for-all-seasons. And if there's one fish we really like when the weather's warm, it's mackerel. 

For today, World Ocean’s Day, why not try a fish that’s actually sustainable? It’s delicious and so easy to prepare in a variety of ways.

What's the deal with mackerel?

Mackerel is a saltwater fish in the same family (scombridae) as bonito and tuna. The fish's flesh is a darker pink hue while the fish scales are like a work of art. The River Cottage Fish Book calls out its “blue-black-green tiger-striped back and disco-shimmering silver belly.” 

And for such a beauty, it tends runs pretty cheap.

Other names for mackerel include caballa or saba. The Atlantic (or Boston) mackerel is the most common variety, but you'll also come across the King and Spanish mackerel varieties.

Is It Sustainable?

This is a fast-replenishing fish, meaning it takes around 2—4 years for it to reach breeding maturity. Ranked a best choice by the Environmental Defense Fund, it is almost always in season. Mackerel from Newfoundland is in season from August and into November; along Nova Scotia, they’re in season from May through July. In the US, Spanish mackerel from the Chesapeake Bay thrive in the warm water during the summer. Their season is June through October.

They’re caught using a purse seine system, a set of nets dropped once a large population is located. This method doesn’t impact the ocean bottom.

Steer clear of trawl-caught mackerel—the ones caught using midwater trawls often damage the ocean floor and have some bycatch involved. Ask your fishmonger for guidance or look for fish labeled wild-caught.

How do I shop for this like a genius?

You don’t like the fishy taste, you say? You can fix that by shopping judiciously. We asked Peter Molinari, manager of seasonal fish counter at Eataly in New York City, for some advice. He said the fishy flavor comes from a fish that's not straight out of the water. “The fresher it is, the more you get of that ocean taste,” says Molinari.

Molinari wants you to check out the skin of the fish. Is it brown and slightly dried-out? Has the speckling on the fish’s skin faded? These are both signs of a less-than-fresh fish. The longer a filet sits out, the fishier it’s going to taste. Look for a blue tint to the skin, which should be tight, not wrinkly. Velia de Angelis, chef of La Champagneria in Orvieto, Italy, says to “look for lively protruding eyes, rosy-red gills, and resilient-textured flesh." (Which is a pretty good tip for any kind of fish.)

And if you can’t find it fresh at the fishmonger, there are also some nice canned ones available. We like the ones from Les Mouettes d'Arvor, certifiably sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Check out more mackerel facts.

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