Upper Great Lakes Fish Boil: A Tasty Tradition

The Tradition

The fish boil has been a Great Lakes tradition for more than a hundred years. Legend has it that Scandinavians brought the custom to the early settlements around Lake Michigan. Whitefish and lake trout were plentiful, and it was easy to preapare a meal outdoors by boiling fish, potatoes, and onions together in a large pot.

Today, if you visit any number of quaint coastal villages on the Upper Great Lakes on a summer or fall evening, you may see a traditional fish boil taking place. The fish boil is the Great Lakes’ answer to the New England clambake. There is a festival atmosphere as guests mingle in line and share picnic tables. Often guests are treated to live entertainment or music.

Whitefish and lake trout are normally used for the fish boil. With the fresh fish, potatoes, and onions, the fish boil is a culinary delight. A blackened cast-iron kettle remains the standard cooking utensil, but stainless steel and aluminum pots are becoming more popular because they are so readily available.

A fire of logs or slab wood is kept burning under the kettle. The less adventurous may prefer to use a propane torch. When the salted, seasoned water comes to a boil, the potatoes are lowered into the pot in a wire basket and boiled; then the onions are added and they are boiled together (see cooking instructions below for detail about timing). Finally, the fish is placed in a second wire basket and lowered into the pot. The second basket fits precisely into the first basket without touching the potatoes and onions.

About 10 minutes later, the fish is done and the overboil is performed. A pint of kerosine is added to the fire. As flames shoot skyward, the flash of heat causes an overboil, flushing the froth from the surface of the churning water. The flash and roar of the overboil announce that food is ready. When the fire subsides, the baskets are removed and drained. Coleslaw and bread are typically served with the meal.

Preparing the Fish

Although lake trout and whitefish are traditional choices, other trout or salmon may be used. You will need about three-fourths of a pound of fish chunks per person. Remove the large scales on salmon and trout. Slit the whole fish from vent to gills, and remove the internal organs, including the kidney (the dark material along the backbone).

The fish is now ready to be chunked or steaked. Remove the head and fins. Cut the fish into cross-sectional peices two to three inches thick. Fresh fish is preferred, but frozen, dressed fish may also be used. Cut it into chunks before it thaws completely.

To use fish fillets instead of chunks, keep the skin on and cut fillets three to four inches long. Fillets have more of a tendency to fall apart. This may be caused by a strong boiling action, a vigorous overboil, or overcooking.

Preparing Other Ingredients

Potatoes: Allow two potatoes (preferable new red potatoes) per person. Select or cut potatoes so they are uniform size. Wash but don't peel them. Remove a slice from each end so the seasoning penetrates better.

Onions: Allow one medium-size whole onion, peeled, per person.

Salt: Use about a quarter cup of salt per pound of fish (one pound of salt for every six pounds of fish). Add half the salt before the potatoes go in; add the rest along with the fish.

Seasoning: Use cheese-cloth to make a seasoning packet containing bay leaves, whole allspice, and peppercorns in roughly equal proportions. You may want to add herbs or spices of your own choosing. To feed 10 people, the seasoning packet should be about the size of a golf ball. Add the seasoing packet when the potatoes go into the boiling water.

Water: There should be about a gallon of water for every two and a half to three pounds of fish.

Condiments: Have drawn butter and fresh parsley available for use on the potatoes. Have lemon wedges for use on the fish.

For 10 people:

  • 7 ½ pounds chunked fish
  • 20 new red potatoes
  • 10 medium onions
  • 3 gallons of water
  • 4 to 5 gallon (16 to 20 quart) pot with two baskets
  • 1 ¾ cup (1 ¼ lbs.) of salt
  • 1 bag of seasoning (golf ball size)

Serve with:

  • 3 lemons
  • 1 pound of butter
  • 15 rolls or slices of bread
  • 3 pints of coleslaw

For 100 people:

  • 75 pounds chunked fish
  • 200 new red potatoes
  • 100 medium onions
  • 30 gallons of water
  • 40 gallon pot with two baskets
  • 18 ¾ cup (12 ¼ lbs.) of salt
  • 1 bag of seasoning (soft ball size)

Serve with:

  • 30 lemons
  • 10 pound of butter
  • 150 rolls or slices of bread
  • 30 pints of coleslaw

Cooking Instructions

Add half of the salt to the water and bring it to a rolling boil. Each time you add ingredients, let the water return to a rolling boil and then cook for the recommended amound of time. Place the potatoes and seasongs in the larger wire basket and lower it into the water; boil for eight to 10 minutes. Add onions; boil for another two to four minutes. Add the rest of the salt; lower the fish, in the smaller wire basket, into the water and boil for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the fish flakes easily.

To do the overboil, add a pint of kerosene to the fire. (You can omit the overboil if you skim the froth off before removing the baskets). Remove and drain both baskets. Serve the meal with bread and coleslaw, with the drawn butter, parsley, and lemon wedges. To eat the fish, peel off the skin and lift out the bones.

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This page last modified on March 06, 2009     © 1996 – 2014 Regents of the University of Minnesota     The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.
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