Gefilte Fish: The Myth, the Challenge, and the Recipe You Can Actually Make (2024)

If anything betrays my Ashkenazi Jewish heritage—besides the Casper-the-friendly-ghost-like skin tone—it’s my love of fishy fish. Heaven is a bowl of creamed herring and onions. Ditto whitefish salad. But the real object of my desire for all things gilled is gefilte fish. As a kid I’d hungrily look forward to Passover, when my mom would buy jars of the lumpy beige fish loaves and doctor it up on the stove with some onions and carrots. I’d eat it any and all ways: warm, on matzoh with horseradish, or cold straight out of the fridge.

My love for store-bought gefilte fish continues to this day, but the gefilte lore of my childhood has been calling out to me in adulthood. My grandmother made it at home, chopping the fish by hand in a huge wooden bowl and tasting the mixture raw to adjust seasoning. The house would smell of fish for a whole day, my mom recalls. Then there’s Harold Closter, my Dad’s grade school pal, who wrote an oft-remembered essay in the second grade about a Jewish Eskimo who left home to hunt the mighty gefilte fish—sort of a Jewish Moby Dick, apparently.

All of this family lore compounded in my mind to elevate gefilte fish to near mythical status. But how complicated could it really be to make? Stripped down, gefilte fish is basically a dense fish mousse poached in stock made from the fish bones. I set out to make it myself, confident that a homemade version would help me defend and promote the reputation of this deeply unpopular dish that I hold so dear.

The hardest part of the recipe is actually sourcing the fish that you need. Traditionally—and for the best balance of flavor—gefilte fish is a mixture of three freshwater fish: pike, carp, and whitefish. If you can only find two out of three that’s okay, but around the Passover holiday some stores will stock all three. Buying whole fish is essential. You’ll need 7-8 pounds including the bones, because the bones are for the poaching liquid. It’s a lot of work breaking down the fish, so ask your fishmonger’s help. He or she can remove the filets, skin them, take out the numerous tiny pinbones, and then hack up the remaining bones. At that point, you’ve got a considerable head start.

The required equipment is fairly minimal. You’ll need a food processor for the fish mixture, a large stock pot for the fish stock, and a large straight-sided skillet for poaching. If you don’t have a straight-sided skillet that’s large enough (12” is ideal), then you can use a large Dutch oven. The basic method is this: For the stock, blanch the fish bones first and rinse them, which helps eliminate impurities and will make a less fishy stock. The bones are then simmered with leek, onion, carrot, celery, and a bouquet garni. When the stock is lightly golden and perfumed, it's done—about 45 minutes is all it takes. Straining the stock through cheesecloth will give you a beautiful clear broth, which gets set aside at a simmer while you make the mousse. The fish gets cut into pieces and pulsed in batches in the food processor until it's finely ground. To that you add eggs, lots of sweated aromatics, and seasoning.

How you want to shape the mousse is up to you. Forming the mixture into the traditional loaves (quenelles) between two spoons makes serving individual portions simple. The recipe makes a lot of mousse, so ask a friend or two to help you shape the quenelles. For a more informal, whimsical approach, you can form the mousse into 4 large fish-shaped pieces and poach them whole. These fish can be sliced and set out with various accouterment on a platter as an appetizer. You can make everything ahead of time and just reheat the gefilte fish for your guests.

The end result? Delicious. It even managed to convert a few life-long gefilte fish haters in my midst. I still love the store-bought stuff, but nothing compares to the subtle complexity of homemade. The fish is aggressively seasoned with salt, white pepper, onions, and parsnip for an overall savory slant, but this is well-balanced by a measured amount of sugar and nutmeg. Most importantly, it’s not overly fishy. This is not quite the mighty gefilte fish of family legend, but it does justice to the Passover staple and then some.

Get the recipe: Homemade Gefilte Fish

Gefilte Fish: The Myth, the Challenge, and the Recipe You Can Actually Make (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Terrell Hackett

Last Updated:

Views: 5713

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (52 voted)

Reviews: 83% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Terrell Hackett

Birthday: 1992-03-17

Address: Suite 453 459 Gibson Squares, East Adriane, AK 71925-5692

Phone: +21811810803470

Job: Chief Representative

Hobby: Board games, Rock climbing, Ghost hunting, Origami, Kabaddi, Mushroom hunting, Gaming

Introduction: My name is Terrell Hackett, I am a gleaming, brainy, courageous, helpful, healthy, cooperative, graceful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.