Sometimes I get frustrated that I have to even write an article on how to cook bonito fish — after all, this little tuna’s name means “pretty” in Spanish, and it is as delicious as it is lovely. How it got to be classified as a trash fish is beyond me.
Actually, it’s not. I know exactly how it happened.
To start with, there is a lot of confusion about exactly which fish we are referencing. In general, when we say “bonito” we are talking about the Atlantic bonito, Sarda sarda; striped bonito, Sarda orientalis; or the Pacific bonito, Sarda lineolata. There is also a very similar fish called a false albacore, Euthynnus alletteratus.
And all of these are reasonably similar to skipjack and blackfin tuna. What ties them all together? They’re all considered lesser fish to the glamour tunas, the bluefin, yellowfin, bigeye and albacore. And yes, I would rather eat those last four than the rest.
But that doesn’t mean that bonito is a trash fish. But here’s how it and its cousins got that reputation.
First, you almost always catch them while looking for other fish. The last time I caught bonito I was trying to catch yellowtail, a highly sought-after species of jack. So when you catch a bonito, you are often inherently frustrated that you did not catch what got you out on the water that day.
Second, all these micro-tunas are darker, and often have more prominent blood lines, proportionally speaking, than their glamorous cousins. And that dark, blood line meat is indeed fishy and, well, not even to my liking, and I love Boston mackerel. But the rest of the meat is wonderful.
Third, because they are often not the targeted species, they are treated poorly on deck. This is the main reason for their undeserved reputation. Imagine catching an albacore or yellowfin and not bleeding it on deck immediately? And imagine then not getting the fish on ice as soon as that process is done?
If you can imagine that, you know why people hate on bonito fish. Unless you bleed and ice them on board, they will get mushy and stinky in a hurry. Worse than sharks even.
But if you do treat them well, they will treat you well.
All these fish are sustainable, barely touched by commercial fishing. They are the tuna you can feel good about eating. And beyond that, they nearly as good as Glamour Four. And cheaper and easier to catch.
Once you have bonito, you fillet them like any other fish. I usually skin them (unless I am smoking them) and cut the top and bottom “loins” away from the dark blood line, which I either give to the cats or dig into the garden for fertilizer.
Here are some recipes that work well with bonito to get you started.
General Cooking Tips
Bonito is best served raw, and while there is a risk to picking up a parasite, it is extremely unlikely. One study showed only 24 cases in the United States from 1973 to 1986, and a 2017 news report quoted the Centers for disease Control and Prevention as saying that cases are rare in the United States.
Alas, bonito does not freeze well raw, as it gets very mushy upon thawing, so you will have to either be OK with the risk, or not. I don’t know anyone and have never read of or heard about any case of anyone getting ill from eating raw bonito in the United States.
If not raw, I’d highly recommend either grilling or smoking bonito, and I will give you a recipe for smoked bonito below.
You grill bonito as you would any tuna, albeit smaller. Bonito benefits from high, hot cooking, and since it is more delicate than yellowfin, make sure your grill is clean and the fish is well oiled.
Pan-seared bonito is also very good, and again, use high heat and a high smoke-point oil (canola, sunflower, grapeseed) to just sear the outside, leaving the center pink.
I’ve also pressure-canned bonito, which gives you something very similar to “chunk light” tuna, which is skipjack. Pack pieces into pint jars, add a pinch of salt and a spoon or two of olive oil, then pressure-can at 10 psi for 90 to 100 minutes.
Finally, there is smoked bonito, my favorite way to eat bonito other than raw.
This method will work on any small oily fish, so any of the bonito or bonito-like fish discussed here, as well as Spanish mackerel, king mackerel, really larger regular mackerel, and small skipjack or blackfin tuna.
- 2 pounds bonito fillets, skin on
- 3 quarts water
- 3/4 cup kosher or sea salt
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
Dissolve the salt an sugar in the water. Soak the bonito fillets in this brine, in the fridge, for 4 to 12 hours; 8 hours is my sweet spot.
Remove the fish from the brine and set on a rack over a tray, skin side down. Let these rest, uncovered, in the fridge up to a day or two, but at least 1 hour. You can also let them rest at cool room temperature in a breezy place, like under a ceiling fan or near an open window, for an hour or two.
Get your smoker ready. I prefer alder wood here, but any fruit wood is nice, too, apple and cherry especially. Slick the skins of the bonito with some oil and lay them on the smoker grates. Smoke over low heat, as low as you can go, for up to 3 hours, or until they are nicely bronzed. I set my Traeger at 165F for this.
Remove the fish from the smoker and let cool to room temperature before vacuum sealing and storing. They will keep in the fridge a week, and up to a year in the freezer. Or, eat them hot!