Mackerel as Food: A Complete Guide to Taste, Nutrition, and Safety

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  May 28, 2022

Always the latest smoking tips & tricks?

Subscribe to THE ESSENTIAL newsletter for aspiring pitmasters

We'll only use your email address for our newsletter and respect your privacy

I love creating free content full of tips for my readers, you. I don't accept paid sponsorships, my opinion is my own, but if you find my recommendations helpful and you end up buying something you like through one of my links, I could earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Learn more

Mackerel is a common name applied to a number of different species of pelagic fish, mostly, but not exclusively, from the family Scombridae. They are found in both temperate and tropical seas, mostly living along the coast or offshore in the oceanic environment.

Mackerel is a nutritious and tasty fish that is unfortunately not very popular in the US. Despite its benefits, many people are put off by its name.

However, mackerel is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, and it can be delicious when prepared correctly. Additionally, it is affordable and easy to find.

In this article, I will provide you with all the information you need to know about mackerel and why you should consider giving it a try.

What is mackerel

In this post we'll cover:

Get to Know the Mackerel: A Deep Dive into This Oily Fish

Mackerel is a type of fish that belongs to the Scombridae family, which includes other popular fish like tuna and bonito. There are different species of mackerel, but they generally have a distinct feature of a deeply forked tail and a slender, elongated body. They are pelagic fish, which means they live in the open oceanic waters and are found in both tropical and temperate regions.

What Does Mackerel Look and Taste Like?

  • Mackerel has a deep blue-green hue on its back with irregular stripes and silver bellies, making them a striking sight.
  • The flesh of mackerel is oily, which gives it a rich taste and a soft texture.
  • Mackerel has a distinct taste that is often described as meaty, strong, and slightly sweet.
  • The taste of mackerel can vary depending on the species, the size of the fish, and the location where it was caught.

Why is Mackerel Important as a Food?

  • Mackerel is an oily fish that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for the body.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids are known to benefit the heart and significantly increase the body’s ability to fight inflammation.
  • Mackerel contains higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids compared to other fish species, making it an excellent source of this essential nutrient.
  • Mackerel is also a good source of vitamin D, which is essential for bone health.

How is Mackerel Consumed?

  • Mackerel is a popular food fish that is consumed worldwide.
  • Mackerel can be served in different ways, including grilled, smoked, fried, or baked.
  • Mackerel is also commonly used as bait for game fish like marlin and tuna.

What Should You Check for When Buying Mackerel?

  • When buying mackerel, it is essential to check for freshness and quality.
  • Mackerel spoils quickly, especially in warm seawater, and can cause scombroid food poisoning.
  • Look for mackerel with firm flesh, bright eyes, and a shiny skin.
  • Also, check for any signs of discoloration or a foul smell, which could indicate that the fish is not fresh.

Discovering the Flavor Profile of Mackerel

The way you prepare mackerel can significantly affect its taste. Here are some tips to prepare mackerel to enhance its flavor:

  • Buy fresh mackerel: Whenever possible, buy fresh mackerel from a reputable seafood market. Fresh mackerel has a shiny appearance and smells like the ocean.
  • Remove the skin and dry it gently: Mackerel’s skin can cause a fishy taste, so it’s best to remove it before cooking. Dry the fish gently with a paper towel to remove any excess water.
  • Cover it with a mixture of soy sauce and ginger: A traditional way of preparing mackerel is to cover it with a mixture of soy sauce and ginger. This adds a sweet and spicy flavor to the fish.
  • Grill it preferably: Grilling is an excellent method of cooking mackerel. It creates a crispy and smoky flavor that enhances the fish’s taste.
  • Add some lemon or lime juice: Squeezing some lemon or lime juice over the grilled mackerel can provide a lighter taste to the fish.
  • Save the pure mackerel oil: Mackerel oil is a heart-healthy oil that can increase your omega-3 fatty acid consumption. Save the pure mackerel oil to use in other dishes or as a supplement.

Why Mackerel Is Worth Having in Your Routine Diet

Mackerel is an affordable and excellent source of heart-healthy nutrients. Here are some reasons why mackerel is worth having in your routine diet:

  • Lower in mercury: Mackerel is a low-mercury fish, making it safe for regular consumption.
  • Provides heart-healthy benefits: Mackerel is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower your heart disease risk.
  • Offers multiple preparation options: Mackerel can be prepared in different ways, making it a versatile ingredient in various dishes.
  • True value for your money: Mackerel is an affordable seafood option that provides a lot of nutritional value.
  • Increasing in popularity: Mackerel is becoming more popular due to its health benefits and delicious taste.

Exploring the Different Types of Mackerel

Blue mackerel, also known as slimy mackerel, is a small variety of mackerel that is commonly found in the Pacific Ocean. It has a similar taste to other types of mackerel but is often considered to be less flavorful. Despite this, it is still a popular choice for sushi and sashimi in Japanese cuisine.

Japanese Mackerel

Japanese mackerel, also known as saba, is a larger variety of mackerel that is commonly found in the waters around Japan. It has a stronger flavor than other types of mackerel and is often used in grilled or broiled dishes. It is also a popular choice for sushi and sashimi.

Atlantic Mackerel

Atlantic mackerel is a smaller variety of mackerel that is commonly found in the waters around Europe and North America. It has a similar taste to other types of mackerel but is often considered to be less flavorful. Despite this, it is still a popular choice for smoking and canning.

The Popularity of Mackerel: From Traditional Preservation Methods to Global Consumption

Mackerel has been consumed for centuries and has a rich history in folklore and traditional preservation methods. It is believed to have originated in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and was commonly consumed by people in the UK, Spain, and Japan. In Kyoto, Japan, mackerel was regarded as the best fish to start the day with due to its high vitamin and fatty acid content. In folklore, it was suggested that mackerels were fed on corpses of dead sailors, which resulted in their oily flesh and slightly sweet taste.

The Positive Health Benefits of Mackerel

Mackerel is considered an excellent food for health benefits due to its high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are connected to a significantly lower risk of heart disease. Mackerel also contains higher levels of fat than other white fish, which means it is more filling and can help with weight loss. Additionally, it is a good source of vitamin D and B12.

The Popularity of Mackerel in the Market

Mackerel is a key food fish that is consumed globally, and the mackerel market is expected to reach $1.3 billion by 2028, rising at a market growth of 4.5% CAGR during the forecast years. It is commonly sold fresh or pickled and is widely available in supermarkets and fish markets. In a survey undertaken by the UK Food Standards Authority, housewives indicated that mackerel was one of the best fish to stock up on due to its availability and affordability.

The Connection Between Mackerel and Mercury Levels

While mackerel is an oily fish that contains high amounts of beneficial fats, it is also known to contain higher levels of mercury than other types of fish. However, according to the FDA, consuming mackerel in moderation is safe and can provide significant health benefits.

Get Cooking: Preparing Mackerel Fillets

Step 1: Heat Up the Skillet

Before you start cooking, make sure your skillet is heated up. Add two tablespoons of oil to the skillet and let it heat up for a few minutes.

Step 2: Prepare the Mackerel Fillets

While the skillet is heating up, prepare the mackerel fillets. Rinse them under cold water and pat them dry with a paper towel. Season them with salt and pepper to taste.

Step 3: Cook the Mackerel Fillets

Once the skillet is hot, add the mackerel fillets skin side down. Cook for about 3-4 minutes on each side or until the fish is cooked through. Use a spatula to flip the fish over and cook the other side.

Step 4: Transfer to a Platter

Once the fish is cooked, transfer it to a platter and let it rest for a few minutes. This will allow the fish to cool down slightly and the juices to redistribute.

Step 5: Prepare the Bell Peppers and Wine Sauce

While the fish is resting, prepare the bell peppers and wine sauce. Cut the bell peppers into thin strips and set them aside. In the same skillet you used to cook the fish, add the remaining oil and sauté the bell peppers until they are soft. Add a splash of sherry or any other wine of your choice and let it reduce until it becomes a thick liquid.

Step 6: Serve and Enjoy!

Once the bell peppers and wine sauce are ready, spoon them over the cooked mackerel fillets. Serve immediately and enjoy your delicious and healthy meal!

Keeping Your Mackerel Fresh and Safe: Tips for Storage and Handling

  • When buying fresh mackerel, choose fish with clear eyes and firm flesh.
  • Avoid fish with a strong fishy smell or slimy texture.
  • If buying frozen mackerel, make sure it is tightly sealed in a plastic bag and has not been thawed and refrozen.
  • If buying canned mackerel, check the expiration date before consuming.

Transporting and Storing Mackerel

  • Transport fresh mackerel in a cooler with ice to keep it cold.
  • Store mackerel in the coldest part of the refrigerator at a temperature of 32-38 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • If storing mackerel for a long time, freeze it in a sealed plastic bag immersed in ice water before placing it in the freezer.
  • When thawing frozen mackerel, plan ahead and thaw it in the refrigerator overnight or under cold running water for a few seconds.
  • Do not thaw mackerel at room temperature or in warm water, as this can promote the growth of bacteria.

Additional Tips for Safe Handling

  • Use sanitizers or hand sanitizers to prevent the spread of bacteria.
  • Use plastic cutting boards instead of ceramic or wooden ones, as they are easier to sanitize.
  • Pack coolers with ice or ice packs to keep mackerel cold during transport.
  • When in doubt, throw it out! If mackerel smells off or has a slimy texture, it’s best to avoid it.

Preserving Mackerel: Keeping the Quality Fresh

Preservation is an essential aspect of keeping mackerel fresh and maintaining its quality. Mackerel is a widely consumed fish, and its preservation methods have evolved over time. In this section, we will discuss the different methods of preserving mackerel and their effects on the fish’s quality.

Historical Preservation Methods

Mackerel preservation has a long history, and different methods have been used to preserve the fish. Some of the commonly used methods include:

  • Salting: This method involves covering the fish with salt to draw out the moisture and prevent bacterial growth. The salted fish is then dried, and the resulting product is known as salted mackerel.
  • Smoking: This method involves exposing the fish to smoke to dry it out and add flavor. The resulting product is known as smoked mackerel.
  • Canning: This method involves packing the fish in cans and sterilizing them to prevent bacterial growth. Canned mackerel is a popular product in many parts of the world.

Effects of Preservation Methods on Mackerel Quality

The preservation method used can affect the quality of the mackerel. Some of the effects include:

  • Freezing: Freezing can cause the formation of ice crystals, which can damage the fish’s muscles and affect its texture. However, freezing is still the best method for preserving mackerel for a long time.
  • Refrigeration: Refrigeration can slow down the deterioration of the fish, but it is not suitable for long-term preservation.
  • Pickling: Pickling can affect the taste of the fish and increase its salt content.

Mercury in Mackerel: What You Need to Know

Mercury is a naturally occurring element that can be found in the air, water, and soil. However, human activities such as burning coal and mining have increased the amount of mercury in the environment. When mercury enters bodies of water, it can be converted into methylmercury, a toxic form that can accumulate in fish.

Mackerel, like many other fish species, can contain varying levels of mercury depending on where they are caught and their size. While mackerel is a healthy and nutritious food, it’s important to be aware of the potential risks associated with consuming high levels of mercury.

Who is at Risk?

Pregnant and nursing women, as well as young children, are at the highest risk of mercury exposure. This is because mercury can harm the developing fetus and young children’s developing nervous systems. However, anyone who eats fish regularly should be aware of the potential risks and take steps to minimize their exposure.

How Much Mercury is in Mackerel?

The amount of mercury in mackerel can vary depending on the species and where it was caught. Generally, larger mackerel species such as king mackerel and Spanish mackerel found in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean tend to contain higher levels of mercury. On the other hand, smaller species such as herring, sardines (here’s how to cook them), and tilapia contain lower amounts of mercury.

Comparative Risk of Other Fish

While mackerel can contain mercury, it’s important to note that there are other fish species that contain even higher levels of mercury. These include tilefish, swordfish, bigeye tuna (here’s the best wood for smoking it), and shark. However, many popular fish such as salmon, catfish, and flatfish like plaice and sole contain only trace amounts of mercury.

How to Minimize Mercury Exposure

If you’re pregnant, nursing, or have young children, it’s recommended to avoid or limit your consumption of high-mercury fish such as king mackerel and swordfish. Instead, choose lower-mercury options such as salmon, sardines, and tilapia.

If you do choose to eat mackerel or other fish that may contain mercury, here are some tips to minimize your exposure:

  • Eat no more than 2-3 servings of fish per week.
  • Choose smaller fish species that are lower in mercury.
  • Avoid fish caught in areas with high levels of mercury contamination.
  • Trim away fat and remove the skin, where mercury tends to accumulate.
  • Cook fish thoroughly to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.

Mackerel: A Nutrient-Dense Superfood

Mackerel is a fatty fish that is packed with essential nutrients. A 100-gram serving of raw Atlantic mackerel provides:

  • 305 kcal
  • 18.6 g of fat
  • 30.5 g of protein
  • 0 g of carbohydrates
  • 0 g of sugar

In addition to being an excellent source of protein, mackerel is also rich in vitamins and minerals, including:

  • Vitamin B12
  • Selenium
  • Niacin
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium

Comparing Mackerel to Other Foods

Mackerel’s nutritional profile is particularly impressive when compared to other foods. For example:

  • A 100-gram serving of raw mackerel provides more than twice as much protein as the same amount of raw chicken breast.
  • Mackerel is also a complete protein, meaning that it contains all of the essential amino acids required for optimal health.
  • While mackerel is high in fat, the majority of this fat is unsaturated, including both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
  • Compared to other fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel has a lower calorie content and is a better source of vitamin B12 and niacin.

Preparing Mackerel

Mackerel can be found in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and is usually sold whole or in smaller fillets. When preparing mackerel, it is important to:

  • Clean and gut the fish thoroughly before cooking.
  • Remove the skin and bones before eating.
  • Cook the fish using a low-heat method, such as grilling or baking, to preserve its nutrient content.


Mackerel is a delicious fish that’s great for your health. It’s an affordable option that’s perfect for your routine diet. You can enjoy it prepared in so many ways, and it’s a great way to get your daily omega-3 fatty acids. Plus, it’s a great way to get some vitamin D. So don’t be shy, give it a try!

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.