Gettin’ Pickled

My grandma used to make pickled fish, or “sour fish” as she calls it. My family loved it so much, we’d fly through the little jars of it. But I was never one for fish, neither from the lake or ocean, until recently.

My friend Cody caught a whack of pike on his travels and had it filleted and frozen, so we decided to try our hand at pickled fish. Cody knew he liked pickled fish in general, but had never canned it himself before. He had an idea of how the texture and taste should be, however I only remembered not liking it years ago when I was a kid. I had also never tried canning it before. Basically we were trying to recreate something that neither of us knew much about.

I got the recipe from Grandma, and found out that it is a written version of what she learnt from her grandmother. It is a hilariously typical grandmother recipe, with no real measurements, and instead obscure references to certain pots she once had in her kitchen. Things like “less than 5 tablespoons of salt for a small pot of fish”. What pot is this? How small is small? Why is it less than 5 tablespoons, is it 4? Is it 2? And things like “salt it well, but don’t use too much…or too little”. What does that even mean!? At one point she references “spice”. That’s it. What spice Grandma?! There’s literally thousands! When I asked her she looked at me like “Duh, it’s pickling spice.” Obviously.  It’s like all grandmothers have a depth of experience and wisdom I can’t even grasp. I can only aspire to be half the cook/baker/creative genius she is.

Needless to say, I didn’t have high hopes for this endeavor. I don’t have any meat canning skills and Cody only knew how it should taste after its been pickled, so we were pickling blind. Cody prepped the fish into small chunks and salted it to his liking, trying to keep in mind the mysterious “less than 5 tablespoon” rule. Then the salted fish had to sit in the fridge for 24 hours. The next day, I brought some jars and some “spice” over and we got to it.

The bowl of fish didn’t look like much but thankfully I brought extra jars because it turned out to be a lot.

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We prepped a brine of straight white vinegar and pickling spice, boiled for a few minutes until fragrant, and then cooled it. There was no measurements for the spice, so we guessed about 1/3 cup spice for 4 cups of white vinegar. We ended up making a few batches of brine as the 4 cups didn’t go very far, it only did maybe about 6 or 7 jars. The recipe also calls to add 1/4 teaspoon sugar to each jar if fish is too sour. We had zero clue how to identify if it was going to be too sour. We also chopped white onion into bite sized strands to go into the jars. Some people like the pickled onions better than the actual fish.

We sterilized the jars and lids, and then Cody packed in a few pieces of fish, I layered in some onions, then more fish, and more onions. Then we poured the spiced brine over the fish and secured the hot lids. I was concerned that the jars weren’t going to seal so we put them in a hot water bath for 2 minutes. I was paranoid about the fish being too raw and there being bacteria, but that’s because I’m used to canning, not pickling. So I think we may have overcooked the fish with the hot water step, and in the end only 3 of the 18 jars ended up sealing, so really it didn’t help much, but it didn’t seem to hurt either. Next time I’ll skip it altogether, you just have to get used to the fact that the jars don’t seal, and they will spoil quicker than other canned goods.

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I also asked my grandma how long the jars last in the fridge, and she shrugged and went “I don’t know, we always eat it so fast, I’ve never seen it go bad” which seems like the most logical solution to that problem.

So we packed 18 little jars worth of sour fish and then let them sit for 3 days in the fridge to cure. We made five different mini recipes, just to try all our options and test what we liked the most. We made:

  • 8 jars of straight white vinegar brine with NO sugar added
  • 4 jars of straight white vinegar brine WITH sugar added
  • 2 jars of straight white vinegar brine with NO sugar and 6 cloves of garlic in each
  • 2 jars of apple cider vinegar brine with NO sugar added
  • 2 jars of apple cider vinegar brine WITH sugar added

We made the apple cider vinegar brine with 2 cups of white vinegar and 1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar.

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They’re only in the oven because we didn’t have a cooling rack to put them on. 

After the three days, Cody taste tested a few jars he brought with him on the road to work. He loved it! Said it was a success, consistency was good, flavor was great, and all his coworkers liked it as well. I took home the straight white vinegar with NO sugar, straight white vinegar WITH sugar, and ACV with NO sugar, and I preferred the one with sugar, as well as the ACV one. I love anything with apple cider vinegar in it though. Chris’ vote was for the straight white vinegar with NO sugar, but then a few days later he changed his vote to ACV with NO sugar.

My mom and brother both tried multiple kinds, but their favorite was the straight white vinegar with NO sugar (which would be the standard recipe, most close to how my grandma would have made it). I was concerned the fish would be too flaky but my brother said it was the exact same as Grandma’s used to be, which means Cody nailed the mysterious salting process. So this turned out to be a successful pickling experience! And Cody has much more fish so I’m sure we’ll be pickling again soon!

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