Northern German Herring Salad

Renate's Herring Salad in Northern German Style with a yellow potato

Renate’s Herring Salad in Northern German Style

My Mom just came back from a long trip to Germany, where she’s from, and has been raving about one of her favorite dishes:  herring salad.

I miss herring salad.  To make it properly in the US borders on impossible, though.

Herring, a fairly strong, oily (and Omega-3-rich!) fish from the North Atlantic and North Pacific oceans and the Baltic Sea, is a way of life in Northern Europe.  Not so much here.  Much of the herring consumed in the US is of the appetizing variety that’s part of (Ashkenazi) Jewish cuisine.  You know what I mean:  herring in cream sauce, herring in wine sauce, chopped herring.  If you’re not connected to a hard-core herring eating community, chances are you don’t know Matjes from Buckling.

For the record, Matjes herring are young, mild herring that run once per year in early summer.  A Buckling is a hot-smoked herring.  The head and insides are removed, but not the roe.  My Oma (Grandma) loved these, and used to talk about them all the time, describing their savoriness in full glory.  Loosely like a kipper.

If you hear Germans talking about “green” herring (grüne Heringe), they mean herring straight out of the water – nothing done to them yet.  These are often fried whole in butter.  Fried herring are called Bratheringe.  The German language is famous for producing compound words from multiple nouns, verbs and adjectives.  Here, a form of the verb “to fry,” or “braten,” is simply now part of the noun.  You may not care, but I figure I’d mention it, along with Straßenreinigungsgebühr, or “street cleaning fee.”

Among the ways Europeans deal with herring, a popular one is simply curing and preserving with salt in a barrel.  The fish are then soaked in water to rid them of excess salt and used in various recipes, like herring salad.  They are not cooked – just cured.  It may rock your world to know that the jarred Vita Herring you’ve been buying at the supermarket all your life are not cooked….by heat, anyway.  If you eat this stuff, go ahead and have ceviche.  Hell, go ahead and take the next little leap to sashimi.   Many things, both good and bad, are arrived at incrementally. 

It is very difficult to find the aforementioned salt herring in the US.  The only place I know of in the SF Bay Area that carries the real deal is Nordic House, in Berkeley.  They actually dig the herring fillets out of a barrel in front of you.  Another option is an on-line outfit, like GermanDeli.com, but the shipping and handling charges are outrageous.

Most of the Euro and Euro-style herring sold in the US  is pickled and in jars or canned and in some kind of mustard or tomato sauce.  You don’t want any of that stuff for this herring salad.  Try to come as close as possible to the right thing.  Keep reading.

To further complicate matters, I like my herring salad made with young, tender, Matjes herring – which are impossible to come by here in a salted state.  When you see them at all they are in a marinade.  When looking for neutral-tasting Matjes herring for this salad, be especially careful with that sold in a marinade – such as the 1 kg containers of Swedish Matjes herring available at Nordic House — because there is often lots of dill present.  Although you may be told you can “soak” the dill flavor out, you can’t.  Plus, there is sugar that will remain after soaking.

After trial and error I found a great product that is available in many US cities and via mail order – much easier to come by than barrel-cured herring:   Richter Matjes herring fillets in canola oil.  There is no marinade.  This is just salted Matjes herring packed in oil.  All you need to do is rinse and dry, which will cut down on the salt.  It may still be too salty for you, but you’ll never know if you don’t try it.  If you live in the SF Bay Area, you can get this at Berkeley Bowl West, across from the meat counter.  UPDATE on 1/29/13:  I have not seen the Richter Matjes at Berkeley Bowl West for a few months now.

The salad I make from these herring passes muster with my Mom, so you know it’s good.  Not only has she eaten a sea of herring in her lifetime, she’s also brutally honest about what she likes and doesn’t like.  Feelings don’t always seem to factor in.

richter Matjes herring in canola oil
In Germany, your basic herring salad includes only a few ingredients, and you can even make the “salad” with whole fillets, which are then served, sauce and all, with little steamed or boiled yellow-fleshed potatoes.  Sometimes the sauce will be made a bit runny when prepared this way.

If you make the salad with chunks, you can serve it on little crusty rolls or with said potatoes.

richter matjes herring in canola oil
In Southern Germany, beets are added.  We hail from North Germany, so we don’t include them.

chopped apple and onion for herring salad on white cutting board
Forget the Sauerbraten, which I never saw any of my relatives eat and I’ve only had once or twice, and try this.  This is what Germans really eat at home all the time.  Believe you me, this will be interesting to you if you never had anything but Vita.

If you hate it, send me a recipe from your homeland that you think an American won’t eat and I’ll try it.  I eat everything but kidneys and custard.

Renate’s Herring Salad (Renate’s Heringssalat) 

500 grams Matjes herring (a little over a pound/2 Richter 250 gram packs)*
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup good mayonnaise
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and cut into small dice
1 small red onion, chopped (not too fine)
Black pepper
Perhaps a little heavy cream or half and half

1).  Open containers of herring in sink and transfer fillets to colander.  Rinse under cold water well and dry very well before transferring to cutting board.
2).  Cut herring fillets into chunks (something like 4 - 6 pieces per fillet, depending upon size).
3).  Whisk sour cream and mayo together in a glass or earthenware bowl with a couple grinds of black pepper.
4).  Fold in apple and onion.
5).  Fold in herring.
6).  Cover and place in fridge for an hour.
7).  Check sauce situation.  If too thick, you can fold in a little heavy cream or half and half, but don’t thin too much.
8).  Serve or set back in fridge until you do.

Allow to sit to marinade a bit.

*If you use salt-cured, barrel herring, you’ll need to soak it at least a day in a goodly quantity of water, changing the water often.  Dry it well.  Action here will depend upon what you buy.  If you are lucky enough to find salted Matjes herring in bulk, it most likely won’t be as salty as mature barrel herring, but your mileage may vary.

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60 Responses to Northern German Herring Salad

  1. Elisabeth says:

    I love how you make your herring salad. Never had it with apples. I will try it this way. Sounds, and looks delicious. Your companion dog is beautiful…certainly huge!

    • admin says:

      Thanks :-)

      The apples are good in here. My Mom puts an even greater quantity in. Any tart, crisp apple works – Granny Smith, Pippin. The hard part is finding the herring! Glad you like the recipe and I hope you like the way it tastes.
      Thanks for the nice words about Berry. He’s over 11 now, but a force of nature, still!

  2. Friedl Koeberlein says:

    It was interesting to read your write up about Herring Salad, I have every once a day I have two Matjes Herring. I buy them in Fresh markets in the Chicago area. The herring come in 1Kg. Package imported from Lithauania they are not salty. and good to eat right out of the package.

    You Herring Salad is just the way I make it.

    greeting

    Friedl K. born in Northern Germany

    • admin says:

      Thanks so much! What’s the brand of the herring you buy? I’d love to be able to look for it here or order it on-line. I love Matjes herring, and I wish it were more popular and readily available. It’s always so hard to get this kind of thing around here and it’s expensive, when you can find it.

  3. suzanne says:

    we get them from russ and daughters in nyc — delicious!

  4. Margot Helquist says:

    Hi to you, and thank you for your herring salad recipe,

    Obwohl wir vom Sueden sind, we also ate and make Herringsalat. My mother had a different recipe and included various other ingredients, which all blend into a fabulous Herringsalat. I also make herring salad using herring in wine sauce by Ma Baesches, onions, apples, potatoes, and beets. That is simpler than my mother’s recipe and goes faster. I do not use sour cream or saturated fats, but a vinaigrette as a substitute also tastes good. I do that for health reason.

    Thanks for the info on Matjes, but here in Arizona, it seems that we cannot buy them or even herring fillets in tomato cream sauce, latter of which I was looking for. Do you know where I could purchase herring fillets on the internet?

    Best regards from 111F degrees here in AZ today.

    Margot

    • admin says:

      Thanks for your comment! I will email you some information. If you have a Costco, they usually have herring in cream sauce. Do you have one near you? Matjes are very difficult to get in the US, and I have only been able to get the Richter brand I talk about in the post. Yes, it is hot in Arizona!!! But it’s a very nice place. You just have to slow down to deal with the heat :-)

  5. Sandy K says:

    My husband’s late mother who was from northern Germany (Oma to all of us) made the best Herring Salad I’ve ever tasted. It was herring in wine sauce, cooked and cooled pork roast, beets, granny smith apples, boiled potatoes, boiled eggs, pickles, lemon juice – all cut up into the same sized cubes. She tossed it all together, refrigerated it overnight and served it with a dollop of mayo and hot crusty bread. Just delicious! I wonder if anyone could help us with a recipe that we were not able to find after she passed away. She made a yeast bread dough which was only slightly sweet and had little bits of candied fruit in it and golden raisins and a little bit of something like mace or nutmeg. She made a filling of ground hazelnuts, sugar, cocoa and egg whites, spread on the dough, rolled it up and baked it. After it was cool, she sliced it about 1″ thick and we had it for breakfast. I cannot find anything that comes close to the texture and taste of that bread dough. Does this sound familiar to anyone? No one in her family back in Germany remembers this so it is something she learned to make apart from her immediate family.

  6. Werner Diersch says:

    Born, raised and immigrated from Wilhelmshafen, Germany, on the North Sea. My Father a German Chef, often made Herring Salad, especially for the holidays. Somewhere I have his recipe, but will try your’s for an upcoming wine club. Our theme is foods a Wine or Beer from our heritage, this will be perfect. I will let you know our results.

    Werner

    • admin says:

      Thanks for the comment, Werner, and hope you have a great party!

    • horst dieter schmidt says:

      werner ich bin auch von wilhelmshaven,aber ich wohne in newfoundland canada.yes it is hard to find matches hering.so i use pickelt herring bites from nova scotia canada.i even use the pickelt onions with it some roasted tomatoes,very little ,a little pickelt red peppers salt and pepper to taste some mayo,beets slice fine hard boiled egg. some sandwich picles cut up real fine just a little pickle juice.oh it is ever so good on a german broetchen.

  7. Michael Diedenhofen says:

    I always have been wondering what to do about herring salad. I had it quite often, growing up in Frankfurt, Germany. But there is just nothing really available in the middle of nowhere in this county. We do have a Whole Foods Market that carries fresh herring once in a while, but I don’t know if I can use that for herring salad or not.
    There is a store in Cincinnati ( about 2 hrs. away) “Jungle Jims”, where I have seen Matjes in brine. I also saw matjes from sweden, as there is also an IKEA.
    I have a jar of matjes in brine from Bremen in my refrigerator. I am wondering, if I were to rinse them well, then keep them in water refrigerated for another 24 hours, do you think I could use them to make herring salad?

  8. Pingback: Northern German Herring Salad | Akitachow.com: A food site and a … | Salat rezepte.

  9. Jutta says:

    I am lucky to have a formerly German butcher nearby that is now under Polish management but still carries German specialties as well as Polish. I buy the Richter Matjes there. They even sell it in two sizes and the salad prepared. Theirs is pink from beets as is mine. My family and recipe hail from the sea stadt Bremerhaven — we enjoy our herring! I think Richter even comes from Cuxhaven a neighboring city. My recipe includes hard boiled eggs, beets, gherkins, granny smith apple, onion — all diced — capers, a little chicken broth and vinegar. No fat but good herring fat. We serve it with potato salad and knockwurst. My very American husband has even come to enjoy it after 20 years. Frohe Weihnacten!

  10. Tom says:

    To make salt herring (as commercial fishermen in Ireland did):

    Put water in a barrel and throw in a potato. Add salt until the potato floats. Fill barrel with herring.

  11. Arthur Schneider says:

    I love your recipe and the subsequent comments. I have good deal of german ancestry from the north and the south of Germany however most of the recipes handed down through the generations has been the baking on my fathers side. Unfortunately I live in Indiana and it’s a long way from any decent international markets of fish for that matter. If I were to try using the Vita pickled herring to make a salad, I could try your recipe, but maybe you have some suggestions?

    • admin says:

      Hi, Arthur -

      Thanks for your comment! Note that I sent this to you via email, but I’ll post it here, too.

      I think the Vita herring are too sweet and mushy. You might want to try mail order, which I know is a drag, but I think you might be better off with that. The Richter matjes in oil used to be available at GermanDeli.com, and I would think you may be able to get them from other places by mail. GermanDeli also has other good brands of plain matjes (and salt) herring, like Larsen and Ruegenfisch. The shipping is crazy high, but this stuff lasts awhile, so you can order in bulk, which is what I do when I have to.

      Also try Nordic House (http://www.nordichouse.com/detail.aspx?ID=267). They will ship salt herring. This is the place I buy them — near where I live. The shipping is high (this is always a drag), but the cost of the herring is not high, so it may be a good option. Much of their matjes is loaded with dill, so just be aware of that. That’s why I go for the salt herring there. They fish it out of a barrel and pack it up.

      My Mom loves matjes herring, so that’s what I tend to like, too. Just try to avoid anything sweet and with added herbs & spices.

      Good luck!

  12. Dagmar says:

    This is very close to my family recipe – but Mutti added cooked cubed beef and chopped pickles – and back in the day we were able to get barrel -cured salzheringe for our local German butcher – I use the Matjes now also. Instead of sour cream,I use an emulsion of a little pickle juice and the oil that comes with the fish – but I still add a little mayo for creaminess. My husband loves it – in fact, I’m making some tonight – who says it just has to be for New Years?

    • admin says:

      Dagmar, that sounds good. I know some folks also use cubed pork, which I may just try one of these days. There are so many regional variations — and all good! -Renate

  13. Walter says:

    Growing up we had Herring Salad often. My mothers recipes included pickles, and only occasionally would she include the apples. I’ve since started adding capers as well, and find it an excellent addition. We always had the salad poured like a suace over boilded and cubed potatoes that we would smash lightly with a fork. Reminds me of another taditional dinner, pureed and cooked spinach poured over the same style potatoes, and then a fried egg on top. Anyway, if you live in the San Diego theirs a German butcher/deli/restaurant/food market that has a great selection of imported German (and other European) items where you can get traditional imported pickled herring (http://www.tiptopmeats.com). They are in Carlbad at Interstate-5 and Palomar Airport Road. It’s worth the trip.

  14. Walter says:

    And I also forgot to mention, if you ever find yourself in the cenrtal coast of California, near Santa Barbara, there’s a little village named Solvang that has a restaurant (The Red Viking) that server a pickled herring saldad that’s pretty yummy… admittedly it’s not German, however, Dutch is not that far off. My family makes this a stop every year as we drive from San Diego to Folsom the day after Christmas to visit my brother in-law.. we spend the night in Solvang and it’s something we really look forward to, OK, I look forward to the herring salad, my boys haven’t learn to love it yet! But they will, oh yes, they will!!!

    • Renate Valencia says:

      Walter, thanks for all the tips! I love the spinach dish with the potato and egg, by the way. My “Oma” used to make it all the time. In terms of Solvang, I really need to get down there because it makes sense that there would be herring there :-)

  15. Alexa says:

    Great to know that oyu can get the Matjes at Berkeley Bowl! I have been craving herring salad since I left Germany two years ago… and found the exactly same ones as in your picture at Dittmer’s in Los Altos recently. Since I live in Oakland, BB is of course much closer for my herring fix. Oh how I love these! I make my herring salad almost exactly like you do. Only I use whole milk yoghurt instead of mayonaise and add a few diced dill pickles for crunchiness. I also add some of the oil from the herring package. My salad is in the fridge right now for two days until I can eat it. With ‘Pellkartoffeln’. What a feast!

    • admin says:

      Alexa – thanks for your comment! I’m not sure if Berkeley Bowl still carries this because I have not seen it my last couple of visits, but I will ask the buyer what the story is. I don’t know if you can get this at The Junket (a British/German deli) in El Cerrito, but I will check on that, too. -Renate

  16. Caro says:

    Hi there, love your site! Ich vermisse diese Fische sehr und ja, sie sind sehr schwer zu finden. Wie Alexa oben sagte, Ditmer’s in Los Altos, wo erst vor kurzem das neue Gebaeude aufgemacht hat (das alte Geschaeft brannte ab vor ca. 2 Jahren) hat viele deutsche Waren. Ich finde diese Fische ab und zu auch mal in kleinen arabischen und russischen Supermaerkten hier in meiner Gegend (San Jose, CA). We just eat them with plain potatoes and cut up raw onions!!! Soooo good. I love it.

    • admin says:

      Thanks, Caro! I have not been back to Dittmer’s since they reopened, and have been meaning to drive down there. They have a very good Teewurst there, and also excellent Grobe Leberwurst — two things I love — and I’m happy they make many of their own products. I’m so tired of the same old brands. I’ve resigned myself: some things I just can’t get in the area (or even in the US) and I have to make do. Smoked eels and Matjes. Hackfleisch zum roh essen. I order on-line when I can, but it can be costly, so I do it during the holidays. I will take your advice about the other groceries and check them out. I have not had good luck with Russian or Polish stores in terms of German sausages and fish, and find that products are often a near-miss. Similar, and good, but not exactly right, and an inch is as good as a mile in those cases. Thanks again for visiting the blog!

      • dries says:

        The only places to buy matjes in NJ are Polish delis. Not all carry it, but odds of finding herring are better than visiting a German store ( whatever is left of them here). Mine has both Richter (packed in Czech Rep) brand as well as Lisner, fished off Norway & packed in Poland. I prefer Lisner; tastes great & it’s $2 cheaper than Richter. I scored some dorsch leber in dorsch leber ol at my Polish butcher :-)

  17. Jasmin Horst Seiler says:

    Recht schoenen Dank, Renate, eine gute Erinnerung.

  18. admin says:

    Danke sehr, Jasmin!

  19. Manfred Sroka says:

    Finally I found the right recipe for the real German heringsalat, thanks to your mom, and thanks to my Mom, we used to have it at home very often. I will be making it as soon as I pick up matjes in our favourite German store here in Toronto!

    Brigitte – I do not do custard either but – kidney – it is a delicacy, surely your mom can prepare it for you! Guten Appetit, Fred.

  20. Judith says:

    My son and husband recently bought some salted herring (from a barrel) in a big Polish neighborhood in Toronto (Roncesvalles), but I have not known what to do with it. Thanks for the ideas!

  21. Todd says:

    I must admit that herring salad sounds grim at best. However, I have never refused to try (with an open mind…and palate) at least one bite. I have eaten chicken heads, dried snails, fish crackers and every organ in a cow/pig. Perhaps I will give it a try. I am sure it is fine once I get over my cultural bias. Thanks for introducing me to my next food adventure.

  22. annemarie east says:

    I too come from northern Germany
    My father always ordered a larger tin 100 hearings in salt with roe for the winter time from a company in Hamburg. I have found memories if our. Meals together.Just made rote herings salad with beetroot and some mayo.I can only say it’s delicious . Other times I eat hearings with bratkartoffeln..fried slices potatoes.I live in England now and carry on the tradition.Cant get hering roe. Must try the internet and search

    • Renate Valencia says:

      Thanks for sharing your memories! When my Mom made herring salad in Germany, she used to mix the roe into the salad. They got the roe from whole herrings, and here I think that would be very hard to find. Let me know if you locate the roe in the UK. It has to be easier there than in the States!

  23. Nikki Schmidtke says:

    I am from Germany, a town called Schwelm near Duesseldorf. Just got back from a month long trip and I have missed the Herring very badly. I live in Chico and cannot find anything even close here, to the Matjes I had in Germany. I will try to Google the stores I found here on your site and or e-mail to see if they will send them. Thank you for the recipe, I will try it when I get the fish. They sound “Wunderbar”. Nikki

    • Renate Valencia says:

      Nikki, thanks for your comment. Yes, most likely mail order will be your best bet until Costco carries them — as long as you have one nearby.

  24. Louise says:

    My husband is from Northern Germany and finds the Costco herring in wine sauce perfect for herring salat. It’s in the chilled area in a glass jar. Rinse and drain the herring first. Use pickles from Germany to make it taste authentic. I’ve found German brand pickles at CVS, Safeway and world market.

    • Renate Valencia says:

      Thanks for your comment, Louise. I find jarred Acme herring (this is what Costco carries) too sweet, and no amount of soaking can get that sweetness out. That said, for those who don’t have a problem with it, it’s a great solution.

  25. Ania Stiebrs says:

    I am so happy to find this recipe! My Dad is from Latvia and he spent a few years in Germany as a child before coming to the us. He talks about herring salad all the time and I have always wanted to try. At a recent trip to Costco I found a brand of matjes herring called Santa Bremor. The only ingredients are oil and salt, and it was in the cold section. I think it might be perfect for this recipe! My Dad has cancer now, and I’ve been trying to find fun nutrient dense foods to cheer him up. I hope this recipe does the trick!

    • Renate Valencia says:

      Hi, Ania! So sorry to hear about your Dad’s illness, but the herring salad will cheer him up! I will look around the Bay Area to see if any of our Costcos have the matjes, which should be perfect. This is exactly what you want: no sugar and no spices added. My Mom’s recipe is the real deal, so he should love it.

  26. Steve LaMaster says:

    You speak of the impossibility of getting proper herring, yet you do not reference the Larsen Matjes Herring that you can get in the refrigerated section of some specialty stores. It is salt-cured and ready to be incorporated in your recipes after a brief soak.

    • Renate Valencia says:

      It is difficult to find the kind of herring one needs for herring salad. That product sounds wonderful, and there are a number of Euro companies that produce it, but finding it in local stores is a problem, and mail ordering is expensive due to shipping costs.

      If you are able to point out stores in the Bay Area that carry Larsen salt herring/matjes products, that would be very helpful!

      Thanks for your message — I appreciate it.

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