What Are Kippers?

I had the good fortune to travel to London once with my family on a jolly holiday when I was in fifth grade. I remember doing all the typical touristy things—visiting Big Ben, going to the Tower of London, riding a double decker bus—but one thing I don’t recall is almost any of the food we ate. The United Kingdom has many great things going for it, but famously, food might not be one of them. Now, this reputation is perhaps a bit unfair, but nonetheless, you don’t see Americans going out for British food in the same way they do Mexican, French, Italian, Indian, or Thai cuisine. 

However, there are certain iconic British food items: shepherd’s pie, fish and chips, and, of course, kippers. Today, we’re talking about that final item. Maybe you’ve heard of kippers, but you might never have eaten them, and you might not even know quite what they are. So, what are kippers? How are you supposed to eat them? Let’s tuck into some answers. 

What are kippers?

If you’re as enormous a fan of the musical Sweeney Todd as I am, you will no doubt recall the lyrics to “By the Sea,” in which Mrs. Lovett describes to Sweeney her dream scenario: “With the sea at our gate we’ll have kippered herrings / What have swum to us straight from the Straits of Bering.” Sondheim would never steer us wrong, so, yes, kippers are indeed herring. 

To get more specific, a kipper is a herring (a small, oily fish) that has been split in half, pickled or salted, and smoked—typically, “cold smoked,” which gives food a smoky flavor. Canned kippers (aka kipper snacks) are salt-cured, cooked (typically smoked), and canned.

How to eat kippers? 

While this might be slightly surprising to Americans, Brits usually consume kippers for breakfast (though they’re no longer as popular as they once were). Fish for breakfast may be unappealing for those more used to bacon and sausage, but the salty savoriness of the fish can be a delicious way to start your day once you get used to it. 

So what’s the best way to eat them? Cold-smoked kippers—those that aren’t canned—should be heated in some capacity before serving. Lightly grilling them is a popular method. Canned kippers can be consumed right from the tin, technically, but they could still benefit from some added heat. 

After prep, kippers are often served with buttered toast, lemon wedges, and an egg dish on the side, though people have gotten very creative with their kipper dishes as well. 

Kippers vs sardines: What’s the difference?

Kippers are quite similar to sardines; they are both small, oily fish that people find either delicious or disgusting. And, confusing things further, it turns out that both of these are members of the herring family. 

But there are differences between kippers and sardines. Kippers are almost always Atlantic Herring, while sardines are usually Pilchard (though not always). Kippers are split in half in a butterfly cut, while sardines are typically served as a whole fish. And, generally speaking, kippers have a milder flavor. 

About the Author

Matt Crowley

Matt Crowley is a comedy writer living in Los Angeles. He likes maple-flavored snacks, loves every kind of cheese, and is slowly learning to accept mushrooms.

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