It isn’t really Christmas without the pickled herring

Homemade Swedish Pickled Herring

Homemade Swedish Pickled Herring

People often take me for being either French or Italian, which I am, but they often don’t realize that I’m actually half Swedish as well. So Swedish that my maternal grandmother (Mormor to me) was born in Sweden and didn’t come to America until she was almost 8.

Having Scandinavian blood means that (if you’re lucky) you’ll spend Christmas Eve opening presents and enjoying a serious smorgasbord of goodies — from homemade headcheese and potato sausage to spritz butter cookies and rice pudding. If you’re not so lucky, there will also be lutefisk and pickled herring present.

I’m (kind of, sort of) kidding on the last one. Half of my family seems to love the pickled pieces of fish while the other half — myself included — glad pass over it for another slice of ham instead. The lutefisk seems to have an even smaller following — I think the taste for that ended with my grandparents. I certainly have never seen my mother try a piece.

But just like most edible family traditions, the older you get, the more curious you become at the process of making them. This is the first year that I was able to spend the weekend before Christmas with my grandparents, and I asked if my grandma would wait until I arrived to make the herring.

She happily agreed. Maybe she thought that if I helped to make it, I’d be more willing to eat it. (Just between us, that will never happen. Ever. Sorry Mormor!)

Regardless of whether I enjoy eating it, I did enjoy watching her prepare it.

The first thing to do is secure your herring. My grandma used to buy whole fish and would have to gut them and clean them herself. These days, around late November she makes calls to fishmongers looking for Icelandic herring fillets. This year she found a small fish shop that promised to have some for her the week before Christmas.

When I arrived, the fish had been soaking in cold water overnight — unrefrigerated, though in a cool place.

Herring Fillets

Herring Fillets

The next day, we set to work on gathering spices:

Spices for Pickled Herring

Spices for Pickled Herring

We got a large jar and began by mixing white wine vinegar with sugar and spices.

Pickling Mixture for Herring

Pickling Mixture for Herring

Pickling Mixture for Herring

Then we took the fillets and cut them into pieces about 2-inches wide.
Cutting the Herring for Pickling

Cutting the FilletsOnce they were all cut, we added them to the jar and shook it vigorously for a few minutes to get everything well-dispersed. The jar went into the fridge where it will sit in the brine for at least 24-hours, thought it’s best (according to my grandma) after two full days.

Putting the herring in the brine

Putting the herring in the brine

If you’re feeling brave, or if you simply enjoy pickled fish, consider giving this a try sometime. I won’t make you decipher my grandma’s handwriting — which is notoriously difficult to read — since she apparently just uses the cookbook for the basic recipe.

Recipe for Pickled Herring

Recipe for Pickled Herring

Mormor’s Pickled Herring:

10-12 Icelandic Herring Fillets — soaked overnight in cold water before being cut into 2-inch pieces.

  • 1 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 12 each whole cloves
  • 12 each whole allspice
  • 15 each whole black peppercorns
  • 1.5 tsp mustard seeds
  • 3 bay leaves
  • dash of pickling spice for good measure
  • dash of ground ginger (optional)

Mix all the ingredients together in large glass jar with a well-fitting lid. Add your herring, shake well and brine for 2 days. Enjoy!


16 thoughts on “It isn’t really Christmas without the pickled herring

  1. Thank you for this post which brings back such happy memories of the Swedish grandma who lived across from us on Long Island. Grandma Tillie (Olsen) made delicious pickled herring at Christmastime. It looked just like yours. Have strange taste buds for a kid, I liked it. Especially the onions. But I like the creamed herring even better. Merry Christmas! Thank you for your wonderful blog!

    • Oh my god — even a kid you liked pickled herring? I’m very impressed! One year my cousin and I got drunk and dared each other to try the pickled herring and the lutefisk. The herring was MUCH better in comparison, but still nothing I’d like to eat again. =) Hope you all had a great and merry Christmas! Hope to see you soon!

      • I dont know what lutefisk is. Would I like it? I have to admit that I preferred the onions tat she added more than the herring itself. Texture!
        And I agree with another poster: I really like seeing your grandma’s hands. Merry Christmas to her too!

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