A hearty smoked fish chowder filled with potatoes and onions, this cullen skink recipe is sure to be a new family favorite. Today you will learn how to make this traditional Scottish soup which is adapted for American kitchens and is so simple to make.
The first time I ever heard of Cullen Skink, I was in Aberdeen, Scotland at a church social. Many church members from all over Scotland and England were in attendance.
All kinds of Scottish dishes like Mince & Tatties and sausage rolls were sprawled out on the table. Then I heard a commotion followed by the exclamation, “Cullen Skink!” as people quickly grabbed a bowl.
In my naive hesitation, I arrived to the soup pot late and only one spoonful remained. To this day, it may be the best spoonful of soup I’ve ever tasted. So of course, I had to recreate it — and I’m having an ENTIRE bowl this time!
Here’s a bit of history behind this unique smoked fish stew, plus the easy method for making it authentic – even in the good old US of A.
What is Cullen Skink?
Simply put, Cullen Skink is a traditional Scottish smoked fish chowder. The recipe originates from a village on the northeast coast of Scotland, Cullen of Moray.
The last part of it’s name, skink, is a bit tougher to nail down. If you’re thinking, “What does skink mean?”, I felt the same way! Apparently, the word skink is a pottage or soup made from a boiled joint of beef or other ingredients (source).
Although the name doesn’t sound particularly appetizing, don’t let that fool you! This is tasty, unforgettable comfort food.
Although authentic Cullen Skink uses a special type of smoked fish (more on that below), it can also be made with various kinds of smoked fish. This version has been simplified for the typical American cook with limited access to specialty fish. It’s still just as cozy and satisfying!
More yummy soup recipes to try:
What is Finnan Haddie (or Finny Haddy)?
You might see the term “finnan haddie” if you start researching Cullen Skink. This is simply the ‘olde’ Scottish Gaelic term for a special type of smoked haddock made in Findon, a small fishing village near Aberdeen. It’s one of the tastiest pieces of fish you can find!
We were blessed to taste smoked haddock (simply called a “Smokie”) in Arbroath, Scotland where the recipe had not changed for over 300 years. Its flavor immediately tied us to the land and its incredible people and culture.
How was finnan haddie discovered? Legend says that as fisherman caught fresh haddock and hung it in the fish shed overnight before selling at market, a worker named Ms. Craig awoke one morning to a surprise. Sawdust on the shed floor had caught fire, creating a smoky, smoldering environment for the fish.
To her great mortification, that half the precious catch of fish had been ‘damaged’ by smoke and they were now golden yellow in color. She decided they were still edible, however, and as she set out on her journey, her creel was filled with fresh white fish. But on her arm she carried a basketful of the smoke‐damaged haddocks. As she walked along the country roads, she offered each of her customers a gift of the smoked fish. In those days of hardship, there were few to refuse such bounty. To her astonishment, when she returned to these customers a few days later, she was repeatedly beseeched for fresh supplies of the smoked yellow haddocks.– New York Times Food, Craig Claiborne, 1978
Thus, Finnan Haddie was born!
What type of fish should I use to make Cullen Skink?
While it may be tough to source true Finnan Haddie if you’re not a Scottish native, one person has successfully reproduced it in the U.S. – Richard Penfold of Stonington Seafood in Deer Isle, Maine. He even uses a historic kiln shipped from Scotland to make it authentic.
It is a bit pricey, but worth it for a special occasion. You can order it online at Stonington Seafood.
Today, my husband Richard is the chef, and is taking a uniquely American approach to this dish. Before you think this is unacceptable, we’ve had several recipes sent to us — one from Scottish friends and one from Cullen of Moray itself. Here’s a fun one we received:
Scottish friends – can you translate? 😉
Since each cook has their own unique slant on the traditional dish, it variations just as unique, and therefore a part of the tradition. So creating our own recipe (with American bass, no less) is fitting with Scottish tradition! Use what you’ve got.
Tips for DIY Smoked Fish
The American slant on this recipe is due to necessity. While we’re unable find haddock in the deep south of Alabama, we have a lake in the front of our house. Richard is using freshly smoked bass he caught and smoked himself as a substitute for smoked haddock.
- The wood for the smoke is from our pear and cherry trees he pruned for the fall season. You can smoke any type of mild-tasting white fish for this purpose smoked with wood from any fruit bearing tree.
- Wonderful fish options include tilapia, cod, grouper, or snapper. It is KEY to this soup’s flavor that the fish is smoked. The smoky taste is a vital element to the final result of the soup and shouldn’t be skipped over.
- If you have any type of smoker, you can smoke the fish yourself. If you attempt to use bass, make sure to smoke the fish at 150 degrees F for 3 hours consistently. Any hotter and the fish will be fall-off-the-bone tender. That is wonderful for anything but fish, as it will be hard to separate the fish bones from the meat.
- Smoke the fish whole, so the skin protects the meat from drying out. The traditional way to smoke fish is hanging them from their tails. Richard hung them in the smoker from their mouths, just like a fishing stringer using an oak dowel rod he whittled from a tree.
If you’re too busy to smoke fish and want to skip this step, check out your local fishmonger or grocery store for different varieties of smoked fish. Most stores at least carry smoked salmon, and you may find other options as well. Smoked salmon chowder sounds lovely, although it will have a bit of a different flavor than haddock.
How to Make Cullen Skink
This version of cullen skink is quite simple once you’ve obtained smoked fish. All you need is onions, potatoes, fish or vegetable stock, milk, herbs/spices and most importantly – smoked fish!
First, heat some butter in a large soup pot on medium heat. Chop onions and potatoes. Size doesn’t matter too much, as you’ll be using an immersion blender to partially blend the soup later.
Add onions to pot and saute for 5 minutes or until fragrant and translucent. Add broth, potatoes, salt, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to simmer, cover pot and allow to cook until potatoes are soft, around 10-15 minutes.
When potaotes are soft, add milk and use an immersion blender to blend the soup to desired consistency. I like keeping it a bit chunky to give it a rustic texture.
Flake smoked fish, taking care to remove any bones that may remain. Add fish, heavy cream, and chopped fresh parsley to soup. Heat soup gently for several more minutes to allow flavors to meld together. Serve hot with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese if desired.
How to Make Cullen Skink in the Instant Pot
It’s also possible to make Instant Pot Cullen Skink if you so desire! The recipe is much the same but even faster to make.
For the IP version, simply use the Saute mode to cook the onions until translucent, then add broth, potatoes, and bay leaf to the pot. Lock the lid and set vent to sealing, then cook on Manual, High pressure for 5 minutes.
Quick release pressure, remove bay leaf, add milk, then use a stick immersion blender to blend soup to desired consistency. Add flaked fish, parsley, and heavy cream. Season to taste and serve hot.
Cullen Skink Cooking Tips & Variations
- Although this soup tastes best with fish stock, feel free to use vegetable stock (or water) instead if you don’t have any.
- The heavy cream added at the end is optional too, but it finishes off the soup with such a nice rich flavor.
- Don’t add too much salt at the beginning, since smoked fish is already pretty salty. Check the seasonings after the soup is fully cooked to see if more salt needs to be added.
- See the section “What Type of Fish Should I Use?” for detailed instructions on what fish to use for this recipe.
Please leave a star rating on the recipe if you enjoy it!
American-Style Cullen Skink (smoked fish chowder)
A hearty, creamy smoked fish chowder filled with potatoes and onions, this cullen skink recipe is sure to warm you on any chilly Scottish (or American) day. This traditional Scottish soup is adapted for American kitchens and is so simple to make.
- 2 Tbsp. butter
- 2 onions, diced
- 4-5 potaotes, peeled and diced
- 2 cups fish stock (or vegetable broth)
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tsp. salt
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 pound smoked haddock (or other smoked fish)
- ½ cup heavy cream
- Pepper, to taste
- Fresh parsley, finely chopped
- Parmesan cheese, for serving (optional)
1. Heat butter in a large soup pot on medium heat. Chop onions and potatoes.
2. Saute onions for 5 minutes until translucent. Add potatoes, fish or vegetable stock, bay leaf, and salt. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and cover with a lid. Allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes until potatoes are cooked through.
3. When potaotes are fully cooked, remove bay leaf and add milk. Blend with a stick immersion blender (or other blender) until partially smooth. Leave some chunks in the soup for a rustic texture.
4. To the soup, add flaked fish, chopped parsley, and heavy cream. Allow to heat gently for several minutes to allow flavors to come together.
5. Top with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese, if desired. Serve hot.
Instant Pot Version:
1. Set to Saute mode to cook the onions until translucent, then add broth, potatoes, and bay leaf to the pot. Select Cancel.
2. Lock the lid and set vent to sealing, then cook on Manual, High pressure for 5 minutes.
3. When finished cooking, quick release pressure and remove lid after pin drops down. Discard bay leaf, add milk, then use a stick immersion blender to blend soup to desired consistency.
4. Add flaked fish, parsley, and heavy cream. Season to taste and serve hot.
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 202Total Fat: 11gSaturated Fat: 7gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 4gCholesterol: 75mgSodium: 880mgCarbohydrates: 6gFiber: 0gSugar: 5gProtein: 19g
Have you ever tried smoked fish? What’s your favorite kind of soup?
Enjoyed this post, good to get a “wee bitty” of reading and learning in.
Thanks for reading, Jason!