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5 Ways To Cook The Kippers Sir Laurence Olivier Craved

Kippers demand to be eaten with hot toast and butter and gallons of hot, strong Assam tea.

Kippers demand to be eaten with hot toast and butter and gallons of hot, strong Assam tea.

Tonight’s the night. It’s kippers for tea. I eat them about once a year, usually in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness when I am consumed by a deep craving for the gently smoked herrings that were one of the mainstays of the British Empire. I thoroughly enjoy their succulent, salty sweetness, but I usually have to lie down afterward, while the kitchen is impregnated with their particularly pungent, unmistakable aroma.

Kippers demand to be eaten with mountains of toast and butter and gallons of hot, strong Assam tea — never coffee, which fails to provide the right touch of astringency to offset the oily richness. They also need silent concentration to avoid stuck bones; indeed, your only companion should be a copy of “The Times” (as long as you don’t choke over the letters page).

With its mineral flashes of pewter, gold and amber, and bronzed flesh, the kipper is a magnificent beast but not for those who faint at the sight of a fish bone. Yes, you can buy fillets but that is like listening to a Spotify compilation of Mozart “hits” instead of watching “Figaro” at the Met.

Kipper dyes were introduced during World War I to compensate for reduced smoking times brought about by cost-cutting measures. Scottish smokehouses invented the commercial coal tar dye Brown FK (for kippers). The habit stuck and many kippers are still treated with colorants, which give them a brassy Hawaiian tan or radioactive glow.

Where the best kippers are produced

The best undyed artisanal kippers, glossy and plump, are produced in Scotland (Loch Fyne, Mallaig or Stornoway, in particular); the Isle of Man (their famous Manx kippers are small and delicate); Craster in Northumberland; and Whitby in Yorkshire (split through the back rather than the belly).

Alas, in Britain, the humble herring no longer commands the everyday popularity it once had, as captured in the words of an old Scottish folk song, “Of all the fish that swim in the sea, the herring is the fish for me.” Pardon the pun, but the tide is starting to turn and they are expecting large numbers for the annual Herring Festival that takes place in Clovelly, Devon, in mid-November.

Once, herring, or “silver darlings” as they are also known, swam in shoals as large as armies. By 1913, more than 6,000 Scottish girls migrated south to England’s east coast each season, following the catch in a kind of fishy transhumance. The fishwives slept in tumbledown shacks known as kip houses — from which the British slang term, “having a kip” derives.


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Kippers on the bone are usually sold in pairs (for example, two herrings each split and "butterflied" flat, the flesh side of one placed on top of the other). Credit: Clarissa Hyman

As the century progressed, a price was paid for overfishing. Changing tastes also caused a decline, perhaps because of the herring’s association with poverty. Good management has since increased stocks, and herring is back on bistro tables, especially now that the health benefits of oily fish are widely recognized.

How a herring becomes a kipper

To turn the herring into a kipper, it is gutted, split along the backbone, opened out and lightly salted, and hung on wooden pegs or “tenterhooks” while it is cold-smoked over oak or beech wood. Surprisingly, the kipper in its present form dates back only to the early 19th century, when a Northumbrian curer launched his “kippered” herring on the London market, borrowing the term from a technique used with salmon. The best kippers are a skillful blend of smoke and salt, with gentle but lingering flavors and buttery moist textures.

In its state-owned heyday, first-class travelers on British Rail used to be able to enjoy their legendary breakfast kipper, served on starched tablecloths by smartly uniformed stewards as the train chugged through a green and pleasant land. The Brighton Belle rail line was particularly renowned for its grilled kippers, which were much loved by the actor Lord Laurence Olivier who campaigned in 1972 to save them when British Rail tried to drop them from the menu. Olivier would have them for high tea when rehearsing in London and traveling home to Brighton — accompanied  by a bottle of Champagne.

Oh, you long-lost railway kipper, resplendent amidst the rattling china and silverware … I must stop before I come over all poetical … but somehow I fear no verse will ever be written about the vegetarian sausage or bacon baguette.

Cooking your kipper

Broil: Dot with butter, place in a foil-lined pan under a medium-high broiler and cook for a few minutes, flesh side up (you are really just re-heating the kippers rather than “cooking”). Serve with freshly ground black pepper and lemon wedges.

Jugging: Remove the heads (if you prefer), fold the fish sides together. Place into a large jug. Fill with boiling water and cover so the kippers are immersed except for the tails. Leave for five minutes then pull out by the tails. Serve with a lump of butter on each. Perhaps the least odiferous of the techniques.

Steaming: This variation originated at a Blackpool seaside boarding house landlady, quoted by Sheila Hutchins in “Grannie’s Kitchen” (1979). Stand a colander over a pan of boiling water and spread a piece of foil in it. Place the kippers onto the foil and cover with the pan lid. Steam for 5 minutes.

Baking: Wrap the whole fish in a foil parcel, and bake in a moderate oven for 15-20 minutes. Serve in the parcel.

Uncooked: There was a fashion in the 1960s and ’70s for uncooked kippers. They were boned, sliced thinly and marinaded in oil and lemon juice. Jane Grigson, in “Good Things” (1971), suggested thinly sliced raw fillets should be “arranged in strips around the edge of some well-buttered rye bread with an egg yolk in the middle as sauce” and served with vodka or schnapps.

Kipper Pate

Kippers on the bone are usually sold in pairs (for example, two herrings each split and “butterflied” flat, the flesh side of one placed on top of the other).

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 5 minutes

Yield: 4 servings, as an appetizer

Ingredients, per person:

1½ cups cooked kipper flesh (This recipe also works well with other smoked fish.)

¼ stick of unsalted butter, softened

8 ounces cream cheese

juice of 1 lemon

Cayenne pepper or paprika (to taste)

2 tablespoons fresh-chopped parsley


1. Blend or mash the kipper with the butter, cream cheese, lemon juice, cayenne and parsley.

2. Press into a ramekin or one larger pot, cover with plastic wrap and chill for a few hours.

3. Serve with crackers or buttered toast and a lemon wedge.

Main photo: Kippers demand to be eaten with hot toast and butter and gallons of hot, strong Assam tea. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Zester Daily contributor Clarissa Hyman is an award-winning food and travel writer. She is twice winner of the prestigious Glenfiddich award among others. A former television producer, she now contributes to a wide range of publications and has written four books: "Cucina Siciliana," "The Jewish Kitchen," "The Spanish Kitchen" and "Oranges: A Global History." She is based in Manchester, England, and is the vice president of the UK Guild of Food Writers.

  • DUDLEY 10·4·15

    I do enjoy a well cooked kipper, but I limit myself to the white flesh. What is the difference with the brown flesh and am I therefore missing out on what is actually about 50% of the flesh? Perhaps it may be best to eat both together?

  • Clarissa Hyman 10·4·15

    Hi Dudley,
    I tend to eat just about everything in the kipper apart from the skin and bones but it’s really up to you. There’s nothing wrong in eating the darker parts of the kipper but sometimes they have a slightly stronger taste, so it’s a question of personal taste.
    Happy kipper eating!
    Clarissa Hyman

  • sky 2·12·16

    The only thing i avoid on the kippers is the head and bones (but even those are good for fish stocks)
    the skin if you can get it off in one peice can be laid flat and dried then crumbled and used for all kind of things to add that bit of extra flavour.bit loke how youd use an anchovie
    as for the flesh dudley, its a bit like crab meat the browner meat is a little bit sweeter than the white, but not by very much,best is just to flake the 2 together and spinkle over scrambled eggs on toast, and if you want to be really decadant also spinkle some smoked salmon and finely chopped coriander over it, i do this for xmas day breakfast with a glass of champers

  • Russell Popham 3·19·16

    Hello Clarissa, I’m a Yank but am very fond of all things British. Being a Popham, the roots of my family tree are firmly planted in your lovely country, so I’m always up for experiencing a bit of the old family heritage.

    So this morning started out with a craving for a typical bacon, eggs and hashbrowns breakfast, but soon realized I was fresh out of bacon (no sausage or ham either) and making hashbrowns (the right way ;?) seemed like too much trouble. I did have a very small piece of pork chop that I’d grilled/smoked on the barbecue the night before, but it really was too small for what I needed.

    I was about to resign myself to cold cereal and milk when I remembered that I had just bought some nice tins of kippered herring (yes I know, but in my neck of the woods that’s as close as you’ll get without making your own, lol) and simultaneously recalled that “kippers and eggs” was a thing that you English do, so I thought I’d have a search which is how I found this post.

    Long story short, I “felt” that cold kippers would be best (but still doubted whether or not this was a good choice to go with eggs and toast, lol), and so hedging my bets, lol, I took out the smoked pork chop and sliced into thin pieces. So breakfast consisted of fried eggs over easy, toast w/butter and cold kippers and pork. At the last minute I decided to replace my usual glass of milk with a glass of a nice white wine I’d also picked up (’13 Albarino), inspired by your account of Sir Olivier’s preference for a glass of champagne ;?)

    Well it was not only delicious, but strangely the cold smoked pork went amazingly well with the kippered herring (although I had an inkling that it might). The fairly mild flavor of the pork paired nicely with the kippers, and overall it’s one of the better breakfasts I’ve eaten in a while! I know I’ve rambled on a bit, but I just want to thank you for your informative post which inspired me to take a chance on kippers for breakfast, and now I have a new staple to change up the often boring morning meal. Now if I could only find some proper kippers I’d be in hog heaven ;?)

    • Rob Ettey 9·15·17

      That is mad my friend

  • Bev 6·16·16

    Also a canned kipper fan here in MinnePolis, MN USA. Wanted to do something different with fishies. Had some leftover onion and orange zest. Mixed a hearty amount of each with the mashed kippers.. That tasted pretty good, but I wanted a little something more. Intending to shake a drop or two on a forkful, I accidentally dumped a liberal amount of white balsamic over everything. Low and behold, I like it! Thank goodness. Probably not at all what one should do with kippers, but I intend to serve it to guests as a light summer appetizer and see what happens. Thanks for sparking some ideas!

  • Clarissa Hyman 6·17·16

    What a good idea, Bev – sometimes the best recipes are serendipitous.
    This could work well also with canned mackerel, methinks!

  • Rustie 7·5·16

    What in God’s name is a “medium, high broiler” ????

  • enter namTony 7·9·16

    Google Devereu, Manx kippers, they will POST to you!

  • sueeve 7·28·16

    A broiler is a grill. Mine is out of use, so I am mulling between baked and jugged for tea today. ” lovely Craster kippers as sold in a certain widely found ‘upmarket’ supermarket

  • Sue 3·4·17

    Just a tad late to the party here, New England is lucky to have the odd transplanted Scot here and there along our coastline so lucky me gets to purchase wonderful smoked fish from them.I have just purchased smoked kippers from a purveyor in Maine that is new to me. Looking forward to breakfast with my homemade wholegrain bread and maybe a whisker of cream-thinned horseradish sauce. Hoping the house doesn’t stink to the high heavens.