A kipper should be a seasonally fat herring that has been split through the back, gutted, opened flat, salted or brined to reduce its water content and then cold-smoked, that is without any effect from the heat of the fire creating the smoke. Traditionally made and smoked kippers are a gorgeous, pale-golden colour but modern commercial practice artificially colours them and might even add the smoke as a ‘flavouring’ as well as producing ‘kippers’ from herrings that are lean, possibly because they have recently spawned.
Freshly made kippers from British waters are best from May to September. At other times of the year they will be frozen in their prime, available vacuum packed or made from herrings from other seas. The prime British manufacturers will send you kippers by post. Sources are easily discovered online but it’s only worth doing this to buy naturally smoked and coloured kippers.
Choose the best
The balance of the oily herring flavour, salt and smoke is undoubtedly best in freshly made kippers from one of the few remaining centres of excellence – from the Isle of Man or Craster particularly. Provided the herrings have been naturally smoked and are a pale colour they can be excellent at other times of the year if frozen or vacuum-packed in season.
Kippers which have a black lining to the stomach cavity are likely to have been made out of prime season, as this effect usually indicates they have recently spawned and thus will be in lean condition.
Fresh kippers that have been chilled are best eaten within a week, less if they have not been so stored; you can of course seal and freeze them yourself for future pleasure. Vacuum-packing greatly extends their life safely and also avoids the problem of them tainting everything else in your refrigerator.
First check your ventilation. If yours is not super-efficient forget any idea of grilling your kippers as you will live with the smell for the rest of the day – or more. Grilling must be done to the second or you'll dry the succulent flesh by losing the essential oils. You will also concentrate the flavour, which is not to everyone’s taste.
Kippers need very little cooking and their moisture content is best preserved by gently poaching for not more than a few minutes and then letting them sit off the heat but in the water until needed. The method that creates the least invasive smells is to boil a large frying pan of water, remove it from the heat, add the kippers and then leave for five or more minutes, drain and serve. If there are just a few of you, jugging is the most impressive way. For this you pour boiling or very hot water into a suitable deep jug and then add the kippers head down. Take this to the table and after ten minutes or so, withdraw them, drain on a warm plate and then serve.
Soft, creamy and very buttery scrambled eggs make a great accompaniment, but so do softly poached eggs, especially if cooked in the kipper water.
To avoid constant mouthfuls of irritating small bones (some people eat these), start eating at the tail end and pull each forkful of flesh slightly towards you, which should release the flesh but leave the bones behind.