The next time you cook for a crowd, show off your outdoor chef chops by including a soupçon of science and danger in the presentation. Preparing a fish boil isn't hard, but it does take careful preparation.
Like Montreal's poutine or a New Orleans' po-boy, a fish boil is a micro-cuisine, a specialty dish associated not with a country, but with a much smaller geographic area. In this case, the area is Wisconsin's Door County peninsula, which is 45 minutes north and east of Green Bay's Lambeau Field.
An authentic fish boil, invented to feed mess halls full of north woods lumberjacks quickly, uses Great Lakes whitefish, cleaned and cut into 2-inch long chunks, but if you can’t find whitefish, use cod. The key ingredient is coarse kosher salt. The salt is not for flavor but rather to change the chemistry of the water. Salt raises the specific gravity of the water so the fish oils float to the top of the kettle during boiling and forms a layer of foamy suds that is spectacularly ejected from the kettle during the boil over.
In Door County, the chef in charge of the operation is referred to as the boil master. The boil master's biggest concern is the fire. According to Dan Cegelski, long-time boil master at the venerable Rowley's Bay Restaurant in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin, the fire must be large and hot, so the salted water doesn’t just bubble, but roils.
When the pot is right, add the ingredients one at a time starting with the salt. Timing is everything. Then add the potatoes and onions, and 12 minutes later add the fish. "It's easy to overcook fish," explains Cegelski. "Seven minutes of boiling for the whitefish, that’s perfection."
The boil over occurs immediately after the boil master determines the fish is done. Standing well back from the fire the boil master flings a small container of kerosene on the live coals of the wood fire. This results in a giant lick of hot orange flame. The instantaneous temperature spike causes an eruption of fish suds that removes all the junk from the kettle while leaving the fish clean and firm and the vegetables perfectly cooked.
All that's left to do then is remove the fish and vegetables from the pot, serve hot with lots of butter and lemon.
A Door County Fish Boil
- 7 ½ lbs chunked Great Lakes whitefish or cod
- 1 ¾ cup coarse kosher salt
- 10 sweet onions
- 20 b-sized potatoes
- 3 gallons of water
- 5-gallon pot
- Season to taste with bay leaves, whole allspice, and peppercorns
- Serve with melted butter and lemon wedges as condiments