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Gefilte Fish Recipe

Why It Works

  • Adding water to the ground fish mixture hydrates the dry matzo meal, loosening it to a workable texture.
  • Quickly blanching the fish bones and heads and discarding that water removes proteins and impurities that can cloud the stock.
  • Simmering the gefilte fish just until cooked through ensures tender fish balls that retain their moisture.

There are few foods more reviled than gefilte fish—the mere mention of it almost always triggers a compulsory acknowledgement of its inherent disgustingness. Gefilte fish elicits acks and icks in conversation and preemptive apologies from food and recipe writers, who manage to say in a single breath: “I value this food enough to spill ink about it” and “of course we all agree it’s pretty gross.”

I will not do that, because I do not believe it. Yes, it’s a poached fish ball often served in its own chilled jelly, but I don’t think there’s anything particularly offensive about that. Its flavor is pleasantly clean verging on mild, its seasonings constrained and balanced, and I can think of no other food that makes prepared horseradish taste so good—not even roast beef. I have always loved gefilte fish, and I am convinced that if more people dropped their reflexively aghast posture when in its presence, many of them would, too.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

I’ve eaten enough gefilte fish in my life to stuff a whale, but only now have I done the work to put together a recipe of my own, to the degree I can even call it my own. My recipe below is a very traditional recipe, free of tricks or “upgrades” or culinary flourishes. I arrived at it by reading many, many recipes for gefilte fish, noting their similarities as well as their differences, and running test batch after test batch to work out the ingredients and ratios that most aligned with my tastes. As it turns out, it landed not too far from a lot of classic recipes.

In many ways, this is an incredibly easy recipe to put together, though finding and preparing the fish itself can be a major pain—I mean that literally, my fingers are still healing from all the scratches and pricks I endured when washing and cleaning the bones for the broth. But just as a good latke requires grating a few knuckles, so, apparently, does good gefilte fish require getting your finger caught on mysterious sharp bits inside a pike’s mouth. I’d say it’s worth it.

Gefilte What?

Gefilte is the Yiddish word for “stuffed,” because in centuries past, the seasoned ground fish mixture—a “forcemeat” if you want to use the technical culinary term for it—was packed back into the skin of the fish from which it had come before being cooked. Almost no one does the stuffing part anymore, but the cooked forcemeat filling remains a staple of the Ashkenazi Jewish table, especially for the Passover seder—though I, for one, am happy to eat gefilte fish any day.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Today, you’ll usually see gefilte fish prepared a couple different ways, either packed into a loaf shape and baked, or formed into patties or balls and poached in a broth made from the fish bones. This recipe is for the poached version, which is what I mostly ate growing up. Often, that poached version is served cold, at times with its jellied aspic alongside. While the fish used varies depending on location and varying Ashkenazi traditions, the most common ones in the United States are freshwater fish like carp, pike, and whitefish, typically seasoned simply with onion, pepper, salt, and sugar and bound with eggs and matzo meal.

There is much more to gefilte fish’s story, including that it originated as a popular Christian food for Lent during Medieval times. You can read more about that via the link, but the point I’d like to stress is that there is nothing unusual about gefilte fish. It has a history that goes back centuries and is rooted in a widespread tradition of making flavorful forcemeats from fish and then cooking them gently. Millions of people have enjoyed this dish, and ones like it—including France’s famed pike quenelles—across vast stretches of land for ages through to the present. That hardly sounds like an inherently disgusting recipe to me.

Finding and Prepping the Fish

By far the most difficult thing about making gefilte fish is securing the fish itself. I live in New York City and ran into wall after wall trying to order it for this recipe in the lead-up to Passover. Many fishmongers told me I would have needed to place an order weeks in advance, and even when I tried to pull the “this is for a major food publication” trump card with the PR reps of one significant fish wholesaler, I still got bupkis. Ultimately, Citarella in the West Village came through for me, handing me a heavy bag of pounds upon pounds of carp, whitefish, and pike two days after I placed my order. (I name them not because I owe them—I paid for the fish in full—but simply because, if you’re in the New York City area, it may help to know they’re one of your best bets. Plus I’m just so grateful they made it work.)

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

To be clear, you don’t have to use all three of those fishes. If you can only find fresh carp, or pike, or whiting, you can still make gefilte fish with just that. And if you live somewhere where those three types of fish are not available, you can probably ask around at good fishmongers to find out what’s best to use for gefilte fish.

It doesn’t even have to be freshwater fish. From what I’ve read, Jews in the United Kingdom routinely make gefilte fish with saltwater fish like cod. But for most Jews in most places, the sweet flesh of freshwater fish is the preferred option. But now I will issue a major warning: If you cannot find good freshwater fish from a quality fishmonger, do not under any circumstances use whatever freshwater fish you can find easily, because most of the time that fish is garbage. I know because I made this mistake: In the early stages of developing this recipe, before Citarella came through with the good stuff, I relented and bought pounds upon pounds of mixed freshwater fish from a local market, including fillets of frozen tilapia. I knew it was going to be bad, but the resulting gefilte fish tasted so horrendously muddy that I spit every bite straight into the garbage. Avoid low-quality freshwater fish, low-quality farmed fish, and anything that’s been held in a tank for too long. They will taste like the concentrated conditions in which they lived.

Once you have a source for your fish locked in, you’ll need to make a decision about how to go about prepping it. You need to buy whole fish so that you can use the heads and bones for the stock, but that fish needs to be filleted, skinned, deboned, and ground. You can do this yourself, but it’s quite a chore. It’s much easier is to ask your fishmonger to do this for you, and will eliminate one of the biggest labors of the whole process.

The Tricky Issue of Knowing How Much Fish to Buy

Many gefilte fish recipes call for a whole fish weight, since you need the heads and bones to make the stock. They then estimate a yield based on that whole fish weight for the meat that will be used to make the gefilte fish itself. One very common estimate I’ve seen is that roughly seven pounds of whole fish will yield about three pounds of ground meat. When I bought my fish from Citarella, though, the whole fish weight was more than 12 pounds, but the ground meat I received was just about four pounds.

This raises a problem. If the yield is inconsistent, the resulting recipe will be inconsistent as well, since you may end up using the incorrect amount of ground fish relative to all the other ingredients that go into the forcemeat. The ratios matter to the final results, so you want to make sure you have the right amount of ground fish. For that reason, I’ve written my recipe to prioritize the weight of the ground meat: It calls for three pounds, which makes enough gefilte fish to serve an extended family of at least 12 and up to about 24 at a seder. Everything else is scaled to those three pounds (and of course you can easily scale this recipe up or down depending on how many people you’re feeding: See my section below on scaling for how to do that).

I recommend talking with your fishmonger and specifying how much ground fish you want, and then asking for their help in determining how much whole fish will be required to accomplish that. Since you’ll be buying the fish whole, you may end up erring on the side of slightly too much fish, but that is preferable to having too little for your needs.

The Importance of Cleaning the Fish

Let’s assume that you have your fish and it’s the right amount. Let’s talk about about what to do with those bones and fish heads, since your fishmonger may still leave some work for you. Before cooking the fish bones and heads in the stock, you must make sure all the entrails are removed from the cavity and that the gills have been pulled fully out of the head, as the presence of any of that stuff will ruin the broth, turning it murky and foul.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

It’s also a good idea to wash the bones and heads well, using your fingers to rub away as much remaining blood as possible. Most of it will be located in the head and along the spine. I’ve tested this before when I worked on my fish stock recipe, and found that while washing makes a cleaner, clearer, less funky stock, it’s not something that has to be 100% perfect. A little bit remaining won’t ruin anything.

To further ensure your fish stock cooks up nice and clean, I’ve also written an optional blanching step into the recipe, in which the bones are brought to a simmer to coagulate some of the free-floating proteins and impurities. After the bones are simmered briefly, they’re dumped into a colander and rinsed; then the the bones go back in the pot with fresh water and aromatics (I’ve included some especially fresh-tasting ones like fennel and dill) to cook. You don’t have to do this blanching step, but it will produce a cleaner stock in both looks and flavor.

In addition to cleaning the bones for a nice clear stock, you’ll want to be sure to pick through the meat, whether you grind the fish yourself or the fishmonger does it for you. Bones and scales can slip through when the person prepping the fish is working quickly, and even some chunks of fish can pass through without being ground properly. Getting a little extra to account for loss as a result of picking through the ground fish is a good idea.

Ratios, Ratios, Ratios

Making the fish mixture for gefilte fish is easy as can be: Mix the ingredients together and…that’s it. So my focus when developing this recipe was to get a better sense of the ratios of ingredients and how they impact the final results. My favorite way to do this is to create a spreadsheet and log the ingredient details of as many great recipes as I can find to compare ingredients and ratios. Then I go into the kitchen and test the variations I’m seeing in the recipes to find out which I like best.

The ingredients themselves are fairly consistent from recipe to recipe: They almost all contain fish, eggs, matzo meal, onion, salt, sugar, and spices (usually white or black pepper, sometimes a touch of nutmeg). Carrot is an important element in most gefilte fish recipes, with some including it in the forcemeat itself, though I grew up mostly eating gefilte fish with boiled carrot served as a garnish and not folded into the fish mixture, so that’s what I stuck with here.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Onion: Some recipes have you sauté the onion first while others have it folded in raw. I tried both and decided I liked each in their own way, so I split the onion in half, cooking half of it for a sweeter, more tender bite and leaving the rest raw for a little more texture and pronounced allium flavor.

Egg: Most recipes use one large egg per pound of fish, and I found this worked well; adding two per pound made bouncier gefilte fish that started to seem a little rubbery.

Matzo meal: Matzo meal, meanwhile, was most pleasing to me at the lower end of the ratio spectrum, about 1/4 cup per pound. The inclusion of matzo in the recipe is often described as a tactic to stretch the fish to feed more people, and without a doubt adding bread or other starches to protein mixtures does accomplish that. But there are culinary reasons for it that are just as, if not more, important. A starch that is mixed into ground meat is known in French cooking as a panade, and it helps to both bind and tenderize the proteins, reducing their overall rubberiness once cooked. While I’m sure poor families in the past added hefty amounts of matzo meal to truly stretch the fish, the 1/4 cup per pound called for in my and many other modern recipes hardly adds any mass at all. It is not there for economics, it is there for gustatory reasons.

The panade, though, can dry a meat mixture out, especially when it’s made from something as dry as matzo. So it’s helpful to add a small amount of water to the forcemeat and let it stand for at least 30 minutes to hydrate the matzo and loosen the mixture. This is typical in many meatball and meatloaf recipes, and it’s a good move here too even though some recipes don’t call for it.

How to Scale This Recipe Up or Down

After testing a range of ratios for various ingredients, I was able to nail down a basic per-pound recipe for gefilte fish. This is useful to know, as the recipe can easily be scaled up and down. If you only need to cook gefilte fish for a few people, you can probably make do with a one- or two-pound batch. If you need to feed a synagogue’s worth of folks, you can scale it up (though you’ll probably need to do it in batches at a certain point if the recipe exceeds the capacity of your gear).

For reference, here are my per-pound ratios so that you can scale as needed. Everything else about the recipe remains the same in terms of process and estimated cooking times.

Gefilte Fish Recipe Scaled to One pound Fish
Ingredient Amount (number and/or weight) Grams Equivalent 
1 pound ground fish (carp, pike, whitefish) 454g
1 medium yellow onion (8 ounces) 227g
1 large egg (2 ounces) 57g
1/4 cup matzo meal (just over 1 ounce) 33g
1 tablespoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt 9g
1 teaspoon sugar 4g
1/3 teaspoon freshly ground pepper N/A
2 tablespoons (1 fluid ounce) cold water 30g/30ml

Please don’t take these precise numbers too literally. You do not need to measure 33 grams of matzo meal to the gram, nor do you need to go searching through your utensils drawer for a 1/3 teaspoon measure for the pepper—you can just go down to 1/4 teaspoon or up to 1/2 teaspoon for pound, or just eyeball it, which is what I would actually do in real life. Gefilte fish is forgiving and will be close enough as long as you’re within these general ranges.

The main reason I’m specifying the brand of salt here is not because it’s kosher, though that’s a fitting choice for this recipe given its place on the Passover table, but instead because salt amounts can vary significantly when measured by volume. If you’re using table salt and you measured one tablespoon, for example, you’d end up with twice as much salt as if you used Diamond Crystal. Similarly, Morton’s kosher salt has a different mass per volume than Diamond Crystal, so once again, volumes are not equivalent. I, like many professional cooks and recipe developers, have grown very accustomed to Diamond Crystal, as it tends to be the basic salt of choice in most professional settings. They do not pay me to include their name, and I don’t love giving them the free advertising, but it’s important to be specific when it comes to salt to avoid problems when you’re making this recipe at home.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

One final note: These seasonings are good to my taste, but the nice thing about a forcemeat like this is you can easily adjust. You should absolutely poach a small sample fish dumpling in the broth and taste it for seasoning before committing to cooking the whole batch. You can alway bump up the salt or sugar or make any other adjustments necessary before you cook the rest.

Let’s Talk Sugar, Baby

Sugar is possible one of the most divisive topics when it comes to how best to make gefilte fish, and the truth is there’s no right answer. Preference for sweetness maps directly to where one’s family comes from, and it’s a clear enough demarcation in Europe that there’s something literally called the Gefilte Fish Line: If your people came from the more Eastern portions of Ashkenazi lands, like Lithuania and Ukraine, the taste tends to lean more salty and savory. If you’re from areas slightly more to the west, like Poland, the taste can become so sweet that it’s a shock to many who have never experienced it before.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

My Jewish ancestors came from Latvia and so my tolerance for the super-sweet gefilte fish is limited. My recipe calls for only a touch of sugar to balance the more savory or salty elements, but not make the fish overtly sweet. If your tastes run more sweet than mine, the solution is as simple as adding more sugar until you hit the level you want. Once again, you can pinch off and cook sample bits of the forcemeat to get it where you want before you cook the rest.

  • 3 pounds (1.4kg) ground carp, pike, and/or whitefish meat, plus reserved bone cages and heads (see notes)

  • 4 medium onions (2 pounds; 900g total), divided

  • 1 large celery rib, thinly sliced crosswise

  • 1 fennel bulb, ends trimmed, then halved and thinly sliced

  • A few sprigs each fresh flat-leaf parsley and dill, plus more for garnish

  • 2 tablespoons (30ml) vegetable or other neutral oil

  • 3/4 cup matzo meal (3 1/2 ounces; 100g)

  • 3 large eggs

  • 3 tablespoons (27g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt, plus more as needed (for table salt, use half as much by volume)

  • 1 tablespoon (13g) sugar, plus more as needed

  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground white or black pepper

  • 4 medium carrots (3/4 pound; 340g), peeled and sliced on the bias 1/4 inch thick

  • Preserved horseradish, for serving

  1. Inspect fish heads and bone cages, removing and discarding any remaining viscera and gills if necessary. Under cold running water, wash fish heads and bone cages well, using your fingers to work away traces of blood, especially inside the head and along the spine (it doesn’t have to be perfect, but try to get what you can).

    Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

  2. Transfer fish heads and bone cages to a large stock pot and add cold water until just covered. Set over high heat, bring to a bare simmer, then drain in a colander in the sink. Rinse out pot and fish bones and heads, then return to pot (this step, while optional, coagulates and removes proteins that can cloud up the stock for a more pristine result).

    Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

  3. Thinly slice 1 onion and add to stock pot along with celery, fennel, and parsley and dill sprigs. Cover with fresh cold water, set over medium-high heat and bring to a bare simmer. Reduce heat to maintain bare simmer and cook for 1 hour.

    Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

  4. While the stock cooks, finely dice remaining 3 onions. In a small skillet, heat oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add half the diced onion along with a pinch of salt and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 4 minutes. Set aside to cool.

    Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

  5. Transfer ground fish to a large mixing bowl. Carefully pick through ground fish, removing and discarding any bones or scales. Add raw onion, sautéed onion, matzo meal, eggs, salt, sugar, and pepper. Add 6 tablespoons (90ml) cold water, then stir until very well combined and fish mixture develops a slightly sticky texture. Let rest, refrigerated, for 30 minutes.

    Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

  6. When fish stock is ready, strain through a fine-mesh strainer set over a large heatproof vessel. Discard solids and wash out stock pot. Return fish stock to stockpot.

    Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

  7. Return fish stock to medium-high heat and bring to a simmer. Add sliced carrots.

    Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

  8. Using 2 large serving or sauce spoons, scoop up a generous ball of fish mixture and scrape it back and forth between the 2 spoons to form a compact football shape (if you want to make it look like a classic French quenelle, try to use the spoons to give it 3 defined sides). Carefully free the fish ball from the spoons and slide it right into the water. Repeat with remaining fish mixture until all has been formed into balls and added to the pot, shaking the pot from time to time to ensure fish balls do not stick to each other. Simmer until fish balls are cooked through and register 150°F (65°C) on an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center, 10 to 15 minutes. (Note that depending on the size of your pot, you may need to cook the fish mixture in batches. If you do need to do this, transfer the cooked fish balls to a platter, then add the next batch. Once all are cooked, add them back to the pot.)

    Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

  9. Season fish broth with salt and sugar to taste, then let cool until warm. Serve gefilte fish warm with cooked carrots, parsley and/or dill garnish, and horseradish. Alternatively, cover and transfer to the refrigerator and allow to chill overnight, then serve chilled with carrots, herb garnish, horseradish, and, if desired, a small amount of aspic (the chilled, slightly gelled broth).

    Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez


While you can fillet, debone, and grind the meat from a whole fish yourself, it’s a significant labor. It’s much easier is to ask your fishmonger to do this for you; make sure to communicate that you want the bones, heads, and skin from the fish along with the meat. The ingredient list in this recipe calls for the weight of the ground fish instead of a starting weight for the whole fish because my experience is that the yield is too variable from the whole fish: I’ve seen many recipes that estimate that a 7-pound carp will yield more than three pounds of meat, but when I shopped for the fish to develop this recipe, I barely got four pounds of ground meat from 13 pounds of whole fish. Talk to your fishmonger about your desired yield of ground meat to ensure you get the right amount of whole fish.

Nutrition Facts (per serving)
153 Calories
6g Fat
9g Carbs
15g Protein

Show Full Nutrition Label


Nutrition Facts
Servings: 12
to 24
Amount per serving
Calories 153
% Daily Value*
6g 8%
Saturated Fat 1g 5%
71mg 24%
490mg 21%
9g 3%
Dietary Fiber 1g 3%
Total Sugars 2g
Vitamin C 3mg 17%
Calcium 44mg 3%
Iron 1mg 8%
Potassium 331mg 7%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.

(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)

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