What Is Gefilte Fish? Plus 14 Modern Ways to Make it at Home
Whether you've never heard of the dish before or you grew up eating it, here's everything you ever wanted to know about the trendy-again Passover classic.
What is gefilte fish?
“Gefilte fish is a dish eaten by Central and Eastern European Jews of Ashkenazi descent,” explain Jeffery Moskowitz and Liz Alpern of Gefilteria, a pop-up restaurant and catering company that focuses on Jewish foods. “It’s a poached or baked appetizer of ground fish and spices that’s generally served cold and traditionally eaten on holidays and festivals.” The dish is especially popular during the Jewish holiday Passover, but can really be eaten any time of year. “‘Gefilte’ translates to ‘stuffed’ in Yiddish, and for centuries, it was actually a stuffed fish,” Alpern says. “The meat of the fish was removed. The fish fillets were ground up with spices, eggs, and breadcrumbs and stuffed back into the skin to cook.”
Eventually, this stuffing technique fell away—it’s pretty laborious—and now, people just eat the stuffing itself. These days, the dish usually contains a mixture of different types of fish like whitefish, carp, trout, and pike, along with some vegetables, eggs, and sometimes matzoh meal.
And though many families go for the store-bought version out of convenience, experts agree that it’s generally tastier—and healthier—when homemade. “If you make it homemade, you’ll enjoy all the health benefits of fish and you can control the fillers, which are used to bind the loaf or croquettes,” explains Jewish food and lifestyle expert Jamie Geller, also known as “The Queen of Kosher.” But sometimes, it’s just easier to grab something pre-made and dress it up at home. “When buying pre-made frozen or jarred gefilte fish be sure to look at the sugar, carbs and sodium count,” Geller advises. “Store-bought gefilte fish can essentially be the fish version of a hot dog.” As long as you choose carefully, you’ll be good to go.
Herbed Gefilte Terrine
This herbed terrine from the duo behind Gefilteria is super simple and adaptable, perfect for serving at a meal when you have other, more complicated dishes to worry about. It does require making the fish mixture itself from scratch, but it’s much less work than a super traditional recipe. “You can use a variety of different fish and mix and match your herbs,” says Alpern. “It’s baked in the oven, not poached, which is what people expect, so it’s an easy recipe that highlights the freshness of the fish and it doesn’t stink up your house to make it! It’s also gluten-free with a light and airy texture.” Be sure to start with fresh, skinned, and de-boned fish fillets for the freshest final product. Find out the fish you should never eat in a restaurant.
Japanese Gefilte Cakes
This recipe from Shoshana Shine, a Jewish food blogger, features a Japanese twist and uses the frozen version for an easier assembly process. “The most important thing to remember when making this dish is to handle the mixture as little as possible,” Shine says. “By just scooping it up and dropping it into the panko and carefully transferring to the frying pan, you will get beautiful and uniform shapes each time.”
Two Layer Gefilte
This double-layered recipe from Geller incorporates layers of spinach and carrots, helping to up your vegetable intake. For best results, make it a day ahead and serve it with lots of horseradish. And just a heads up: “The colder the fish the better,” Geller says. “About half an hour before the meal, I slice and arrange the fish on a platter, and keep it chilling in the refrigerator until just before serving.”
For a new take on the classic dish, try this shakshuka, an Israeli staple from Jewish food blogger Amy Kritzer of What Jew Wanna Eat. “I think it’s perfect for a fun breakfast for dinner,” she says. “You can put the fish ingredients together earlier in the day.” As for getting this recipe right, Kritzer says that making sure there’s enough liquid in the pan is key so the shakshuka doesn’t dry out. To get the full effect, serve with matzoh.
In search of a basic but delicious recipe for your first time making gefilte fish from scratch? Try food blogger Lori Stoke Hirch’s decades-old family recipe. You’ll need the fish bones for this recipe, too, so be sure to ask your fishmonger to include them. To make the recipe gluten-free, omit the matzoh meal. On the lookout to avoid foods with gluten? Check out these foods with gluten that will surprise you.
Elegant Springtime Gefilte
This spring-inspired version is perfect for Passover and beyond. The recipe’s creator, Yael of the food blog Nosherium, never liked this traditional appetizer growing up. Then, she attended a Passover seder at a friend’s and discovered that their version smelled like fresh dill, which was enough to get her to try it. Now, this is her go-to gefilte fish recipe. It’s worth noting that this recipe makes for a very delicate dumpling, she says, so use a light hand when shaping each one. And don’t be afraid to experiment with toppings. “I like to make several different horseradish options: plain white horseradish, traditional pink with beets, and a delightful orange one with citrus and carrot,” she says.
Another great gluten-free option, this version from Elana Amsterdam of Elana’s Pantry was made with fish’s health benefits in mind. “This dish is traditionally made of carp, whitefish, or pike, but mine combines halibut with salmon,” Amsterdam says. “In addition, my recipe goes beyond the usual onion and includes other vegetables and herbs such as carrots, dill, and parsley.” This is what Passover is and why it’s celebrated.
Baked Salmon Gefilte With Wasabi Sauce
“Wasabi sauce is the latest gefilte condiment rage,” Geller says. Luckily, it goes perfectly with this salmon gefilte fish, which is baked with wasabi inside and then served with a wasabi sauce for an extra bit of punch. Need another reason to try it? Salmon is one of the 14 best foods to eat when you’re stressed thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties.
Pressure Cooker Gefilte
Oh, yes. You can make anything in a pressure cooker, so why should this be any exception? “To create this dish, I recommend only using fresh fish,” says Jill Selkowitz of This Old Gal. “You may need to special order the whitefish and pike from your local fish market, but you will find the end result is well worth the extra effort.” Make sure you never, ever make these things in a pressure cooker.
“Za’atar is my favorite spice and I put it on everything,” Geller says. “So it only makes sense that I add this versatile Middle Eastern spice to gefilte fish.” When you incorporate this tangy, herby flavor into the crust, it only feels natural to serve it with typical Middle Eastern and Mediterranean spreads like hummus, labne, and babaganoush, making for an appetizer platter that’s sure to go over well.
Old-World Stuffed Gefilte Fish
Feeling adventurous? This is the recipe for you, straight from the experts at Gefilteria. It’s basically a whole fish stuffed with gefilte fish, just like they used to make it. “It’s a real stuffed fish and makes for a dramatic (and delicious) presentation,” says Moskowitz. Also, be sure to ask your fishmonger to remove the skins with scales from your fish. “Biting down on a fish scale is no fun,” he adds.
Gefilte Shumai Dumplings
This Jewish/Asian mashup, courtesy of Geller’s treasure trove of gefilte recipes, is the stuff of dinner party legends. Even better, you can make them up to two months ahead of time and keep them in the freezer. Then, when you’re ready to serve them, simply defrost and whip up the dipping sauce.
This family recipe from Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez of Hot Bread Kitchen in New York City uses a Bundt pan to create a lovely presentation. Rodriguez says that this recipe has won over many who didn’t grow up eating the stuff. If you’re one of them, this may be your best bet for your first gefilte fish adventure. Try these hacks to make matzoh less boring during Passover.
Brighten up your plate with this pink rimmed appetizer. “This gorgeous fish will really impress your guests,” Geller says. “My secret? Store-bought borscht gives it that beautiful pink hue.” This recipe is also ideal for when you don’t want to spend a lot of time cooking. Though it requires about two hours of simmering, it’s easy to multitask with a pot on the stove. Read on to discover all the ways you’ve been cooking fish wrong—until now.