Mackerel is the common name for members of the family Scombridae, which includes many species of open-sea fish, including the bonito and tuna. All fish in the mackerel family are swift swimmers, traveling in schools that feed mostly on herring and squid. What we consider mackerel, however, is a small member of this larger family known as the Boston, common, or Atlantic mackerel. It is found in cold waters off of Europe and North America.
Most of the commercial catch of mackerel is canned and offers a tasty alternative to canned sardines, tuna, or salmon. Fresh mackerel is also available, although it is certainly less common than other types of fish such as flounder or halibut.
An oily fish related to tuna, mackerel has outer layers of red meat and lighter interior meat. The proportion of red meat and light meat varies with the species, as does the percentage of fat. However, all types of mackerel are higher-fat fish, rich in the healthful polyunsaturated fats known as long-chain omega-3s, which may help boost heart health.
According to the USDA, mackerel is among the top fish on the list for omega-3 content. Just 3 ounces of cooked Boston mackerel contains 1.1 grams of omega-3 fatty acids.
Like tuna, mackerel is also an important source of protein and B vitamins, particularly vitamin B12. A 3-ounce serving provides nearly 700 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin B12. And mackerel offers tremendous amounts of selenium, a mineral that helps to protect our cells against damaging free radicals.
For a full listing of nutrients, see Atlantic Mackerel in the National Nutrient Database.
Types of mackerel
Atlantic mackerel (Boston, common): With their brilliant blue-and-green coloring and their distinctly patterned backs, Atlantic mackerel are easily identified if you are buying them whole. They average 1 1/2 pounds and range from 10 to 18 inches. These mackerel have somewhat darker flesh than Spanish or jack mackerel (see below), and a slightly stronger, oilier flavor.
Jack mackerel: Generally ranging in weight from 8 to 16 ounces, the flesh of raw jack mackerel is creamy-tan. Once cooked the color is white, and the texture is soft, moist, and flaky. Like Spanish mackerel (see below), jack have a sweet, mild flavor. Jack mackerel is commonly canned.
King mackerel (kingfish): Similar in taste to Atlantic and Pacific mackerel, king mackerel has a firm texture and a rich, savory flavor.
Pacific mackerel (chub, blue): These are similar both in flavor and in texture to Boston mackerel. Chub mackerels have spots or broken wavy lines on their bodies and grow to about 20 inches.
Spanish mackerel: These dark-greenish fish with silver shading and golden-yellow spots are similar in taste and texture to king mackerel. Their average weight is about 2 pounds. Like king mackerel, these are relatively light-fleshed and mild-flavored. They have less fat than other types of mackerel (two-thirds less than Atlantic mackerel).
How to choose the best mackerel
Because of its high oil content, fresh mackerel is very perishable, so shop for it with particular care. This fish is usually sold cut into fillets or steaks. The flesh should be firm and appear moist.
When shopping for whole mackerel, choose ones with shiny, smooth skin and clear eyes. Like all fish, they should not have a fishy odor, but a pleasant smell of the sea.
How to store mackerel at home
The most important thing about storing mackerel is to do it briefly. It’s best to eat the fish the same day you buy it, or no more than 24 hours after purchase. Keep the fish well inside the refrigerator, away from the door where the temperature fluctuates each time the door is opened.
8 mackerel recipe ideas
- Broil mackerel fillets with some minced garlic and lemon juice.
- Marinate mackerel fillets in a soy-ginger sauce and broil or grill.
- Bake whole, dressed mackerel or fillets on a bed of parboiled Yukon gold potatoes.
- Rub mackerel fillets with a spice mixture of curry, cumin, coriander, and salt. Broil or grill.
- Roast mackerel fillets topped with a garlic-paprika paste in a 400°F oven for 8 to 10 minutes.
- Top grilled or broiled mackerel with a tomato salsa.
- Make mackerel burgers or patties the way you would tuna or salmon burgers.
- Substitute cooked mackerel for tuna in your favorite tuna salad.