Swedish Pickled Herring
March 08, 2011 | Updated June 06, 2022
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Herring spoils so fast it is almost always eaten salted, pickled or smoked. I’ve eaten (and made) herring in all these forms, but there is something special that makes pickled herring so popular, especially in Northern Europe.
I think it’s because the acidic twang of the vinegar and lemon counteract the rich fattiness of the herring fillets — these fish are among the foods highest in healthy omega-3 fatty acids. The addition of spices, sugar and onion add a personal touch.
This particular recipe is for Swedish glasmastarsill, or glassblower’s herring. Why it is called that I have no idea. Best I can tell it is because this pickle is always put up in glass jars, with the silvery skin of the herring facing outward. Let’s face it, folks: For a pickled little bony fish, this is as pretty as it gets.
Most pickled herring recipes start with pre-salted herring — the kind that come in cans. If you use these, skip the salt in the initial brine and soak the fish in fresh water overnight. They’ll still be plenty salty.
Having some salt in the fish is important: I once made this recipe with fresh herring that I failed to brine, and they turned to mush within 2 weeks. A disaster. You need the salt to extract extra moisture from the fish and keep them firm.
I like these just as a snack, with pumpernickel or rye bread, potatoes of any kind, hard-boiled eggs — or just on a cracker.
If you are so inclined, here is a good primer on food safety when pickling fish, from the University of Minnesota.
Swedish Pickled Herring
- 1/4 cup kosher salt
- 5 cups water, divided
- 1 pound herring fillets
- 2 cups distilled or white wine vinegar
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon mustard seed
- 2 teaspoons whole allspice
- 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
- 3 bay leaves
- 3 cloves
- 1 lemon, thinly sliced
- 1 medium red onion thinly sliced
- Heat 4 cups of water enough to dissolve salt. Let this brine cool to room temperature. When it does, submerge the herring fillets in the brine and refrigerate overnight, or up to 24 hours. Meanwhile, bring the sugar, vinegar, the remaining cup of water and all the spices to a boil. Simmer 5 minutes, then turn off the heat and let this steep until cool.
- When the herring have brined, layer them in a glass jar with the sliced lemon and red onion. Divide the spices between your containers if you are using more than one. Pour over the cooled pickling liquid and seal the jars. Wait at least a day before eating. Store in the fridge for up to 1 month.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.
glass masters herring is called that because it looks so nice in a tall relatively narrow jar, the kind of jar a glass master might create
Herring flooding Crescent City harbor right now…beautiful fish , limit is 2 – 5 gal buckets a day about 70 lbs! 3/2/2023
We got two 5 gallon buckets at Newport, Oregon on 3/12/2023 in 3 hours.
caught some small herring and tried the process.Superb result.
clearly tried and tested before published!
Can you can this recipe so you can keep it out of the fridge? Would you use a waterbath canning process since it is so acidic?
Josh: No. You can’t.
I thought that there was a nationwide closure on herring!
The mid-Atlantic area have not been allowed to keep herring for years.
Marty: Not at all. Pacific herring are very abundant.
Hi Hank. Pacific herring? Really? I’m a Bay Area native and haven’t seen any herring around here in DECADES. I even called all around to seafood markets and purveyors a while back, and NO one had ’em. Where are you getting yours? Do tell!
Sharon: You throw cast nets for them from the docks.
No closure but tightly regulated. We use it for lobster bait here in Maine
If I don’t use the sugar, do I need to add more salt, or is the sugar just for flavor?
Tuffy: The sugar is there to offset the harshness of a pure salt brine. So in a way it is there for flavor, but sugar also extracts moisture from meat and fish. No need to add more salt, though.
I have some pacific smelt caught in San Juan islands. How do you think this will work as a substitute for the herring?
Paul: Worth a try.
After you soak the herring filets in the brine solution,do you soak them again in plain water? When I’ve looked at other recipes for pickled herring using commercially salted herring filets, they say to soak the salted filets in plain water for 12-24 hours changing the water twice before pickling them. Do you need to do that after brining your own fresh-caught herring?
Can I use frozen herring for this recipe?
Jeanne: I wouldn’t.
I grew up in a Scandinavian community in Washington State and smelled a lot of pickled fish, This brings back memories, Including lutefisk. The smell of THAT will chase the dogs off. ?
I live in the PNW where herring is abundant. I can catch quite a haul in little time. Can you describe the process from catching to brine? Do you scale them? Bone them? Some recipes have you kind of cook them…but your method is completely raw, right?
Mike: Sure. I catch and scale, then gut and remove the fillets, which will have little bones in them. The vinegar will take care of this in time. I do rinse well in salty water in the cleaning process, before I start this recipe.
I’ve used this recipe for a few yeR now, works really well.
You can salt whole herring and fillet them before soaking. I often buy 4-5kg chuck them in a bucket with a lid with plenty of course sea salt. Pour off the liquid after 24-36hrs and add a little more salt. They’ll keep in the fridge for about 6 months no problem.
Help. I’ve fallen in love with the pickled herring in Scandinavia. But I can’t get fresh herring in my backwater town…except possibly on line. The only stuff in local stores comes in a jar and is usually mushy.
Do you have a source?
Can I buy one already brined? If so, what do you recommend, and where can I get it?
Sharyn: Alas, no. That is the hardest thing about this recipe — finding nice, fresh herring. Online (and expensive) is pretty much your only option. But if you are near the Great Lakes, smelt is a great alternative.