They have a mild, gamy, smoky taste, and pale, soft, tender flesh. They are much milder than red herrings.
To make them, the herring are first soaked for a few hours in brine. A bunch of them are then skewered through their gills on long sticks or metal rods. The rods are then suspended in a kiln house to dry the fish for 24 hours, with smoke from a smouldering oak fire being allowed to permeate them for the last few hours of drying time.
The brining, drying and smoking time can vary by producer. If they are for export, and therefore require a longer storage life, they can be brined for five days and kiln-dried for two days.
After the processing is finished, they are then packed and sold on.
You can also buy them gutted from some producers.
Bloaters are best broiled (aka grilled in the UK) and served with butter.
To cook, cut off and discard head and fins. Make slashes along either side of the fish, brush with oil or melted butter and place under broiler (aka grill in the UK) for about 5 minutes until crispy, turning once. Or, instead of broiling, simmer gently in water for 3 to 4 minutes.
Per 18 pounds (8.2 kg): 81 to 120 small-sized ones OR 61 to 80 medium-sized ones OR 61 or under large-sized ones.
Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England, was known up until the mid 1900s as a centre of bloater production. They weren’t made from the very first catches of the season — those were deemed too scrawny, and so were used for pickling. Bloaters were instead made from the fatter fish later in the season. When holidaying in Yarmouth, you could have a small wooden box of Bloaters sent as a present to the folks back home for just half a crown.
In the 1950s, small-scale production of them, for export to the Caribbean, was undertaken at Cap Pele, New Brunswick, Canada by a man named Arthur Leger .
Literature & Lore
“And at night Sir W. Pen and I alone to the Dolphin, and there eat some bloat-herrings and drank good sack.” — Samuel Pepys. Saturday, 5 October 1661.
Vincent van Gogh painted at least two pictures of bloaters: “Still Life with Bloaters and Garlic” (spring 1887) and “Bloaters on a Piece of Yellow Paper” (January 1889.)
Some say the name “Bloater” comes from a swollen appearance; some think it might actually harken back to the Norse word “blautr”, meaning “soft.”
People sometimes referred to them as “Digby Chicks.”
“Bückling” in German.