Scottish Cullen Skink – Easy Creamy Fish Chowder
This traditional Scottish comfort food will keep you all warm inside. Cullen Skink is an easy creamy, fish chowder with an amazing flavor! Made with smoked fish, potatoes, leeks, onions, and cream, it’s perfect for when the cold outside just seeps down into your bones.
The name sure sounds strange to those of us living outside of the U.K. “Skink”? I mean, how unappetizing does that sound? Sure is close to “skunk”!
Cullen Skink is a thick, hearty, and substantial soup and one of the most famous dishes in Scotland. It’s more of a creamy chowder and made with smoked haddock, a fish found in northern coastal waters. Potatoes, whether in chunks or mashed, are a key ingredient that adds thickness and creaminess. Leeks and garlic are added for another layer of rich, delicious flavor.
The unusual name of this soup comes from where it was created in the small northern seaside fishing village of Cullen, near Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Being a seaside town, fish is more available than beef. And Cullen specialized in preparing an abundant catch of smoked haddock. So when times were hard, home cooks made a stew using fish instead of beef. The word “skink” is Scottish for the shin, shank, or knuckle of beef, which are cheaper cuts of beef.
You don’t have to go to Scotland to enjoy this crazy-good soup. Not only is it on almost every menu throughout Scotland, but it’s also in numerous Scottish cookbooks and websites, each with a different take on it.
I enjoyed my first bowl of this humble soup during a recent visit to Scotland. The velvety fish soup was heavenly at first bite. So during the rest of the trip, I ordered it at every restaurant whenever it was on the menu. And yes, just as Italian families differ in recipes for Bolognese sauce, every Scottish cook has his or her own individual twist on what goes in the soup pot. Like every recipe that I share, you too can add, remove any ingredient, and/or adjust any of the measurements. After researching this traditional Scottish dish and scouring through a variety of recipes in Scottish cookbooks, this recipe is my interpretation and is absolutely amazing.
Trust me, you’ll love this too.
However you make it, just know that Cullen Skink is very filling! With a slice of crusty artisan bread, it’s a complete meal all by itself.
A ‘wee’ bit about haddock and purchasing it:
Haddock is a very popular and favorite fish among seafood lovers. Primarily because it is enjoyed for its mild and slightly sweet flavor. It possesses a lean and firm, flaky flesh that is excellent for adding protein without a lot of excessive fat to one’s nutrition. Not only is haddock a staple in Scottish and British cuisine (such as Fish and Chips, Fish Pie, and Cullen Skink), it’s also prevalent in Mediterranean recipes, and Mexican fish tacos! Not only is the taste divine, but the health benefits of haddock are right up there at the top.
Packed with Omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin B-12, haddock is very beneficial for brain function, muscle development and maintenance, healthy red blood cells, and good nervous system function. Additionally, it has superb anti-inflammatory attributes to aid in inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and pain. Haddock is also low in cholesterol and the bad, saturated fats!
Haddock is a versatile fish that can be enjoyed in numerous recipes, including gluten-free! Low in carbs, this is an excellent choice for keto food choices.
Always buy your haddock, and any fish, from a fishmonger that you trust with a high reputation for quality seafood. What are there methods of catching the fish, storing it, and shipping it? It’s critical to buy haddock just as soon as it arrives on the market when it is as fresh as possible. If you need to have it shipped, you’ll have to splurge for the fastest shipping method as well as pay for the extra cooling ice pack packaging that’s necessary to keep the fish cold during shipping. At check-out, you will normally be informed of the extra shipping charges for fresh fish.
When purchasing look closely at how the fish looks: it should have a shiny, vibrant skin with no blemishes, marks, or discoloration. Pick up the fish and feel if it is firm (neither limp and flimsy nor stiff). Give it a sniff test to see if it has a mild aroma that evokes the ocean. Wild-caught haddock, although more expensive, will have a superior flavor than haddock coming from a farmed producer.
So let’s gather up our ingredients and get to the kitchen!
“Andiama a cucina” (let’s go to the kitchen)!
- Smoked haddock – any white fish is fine, but smoked haddock is traditionally used in Cullen Skink which it is famous for adding notes of greater depth and complexity to the soup than non-smoked fish.
- Butter – This is not a dish to use olive oil for sautéeing. This is a calorie-laden, rib-sticking soup, so go for the gusto and create a more flavorful base by using butter.
- Onions – White or yellow onions are fine; I use Vidalia onions.
- Leeks – Yes, you must add leeks for a chowder, if you want a more liquidy soup, either leave the leeks out or put them in a blender to cream them and return them to the soup base.
- Garlic – Just makes every savory recipe better. Use 3 large cloves!
- Potatoes – Use Russet brown potatoes which soften nicer than the waxier varieties of potatoes.
- Thyme – An excellent herb to add more interesting flavor.
- Bouquet Garni (optional) – Another recommended herb. Add it at the same time that you add the thyme.
- Bay leaves – Use 2 leaves, preferably “Turkish” bay leaves which are much more mild in flavor. Too much bay flavor ruins a dish.
- Milk – Use ONLY whole, full cream milk, and nothing else.
- Heavy Cream – Use full-fat cream and not half and half. This gives the soup such a super, creamy texture. Oh my!
- Italian Parsley – Parsley and soup (and any savory recipe) is the perfect pair. Italian parsley has a better flavor than curly parsley. I never use anything other than Italian parsley in any recipe.
- Dry White Wine – Some wine adds more depth to this soup and tastes superb with the garlic, thyme, and bouquet garnis.
- Liquid Smoke (optional) – If you can’t get smoked haddock, you may want to add a few drops of this ‘smoky’ flavor.
- Salt and Pepper – Season after you add any ingredient and not all at the end. Taste after each time you add salt so you don’t add too much. White or black pepper is fine. I like the appearance of black pepper, personally. Just like in cacio e pepe!
- Melt butter in a large skillet
- Saute onions and garlic until soft; do not brown
- Add leeks, including the leaves, and sauté
- Add potatoes and cook until al dente
- Mix well
- Add chives and parsley
- Add milk to the soup base
- Add cream to the milk-soup base
- Get the haddock, if the skin is on the fish, do not remove it
- Pour milk into a separate, tall, medium-sized pot; add thyme, bay leaves, and bouquet garni.
- Poach fish for about 5 minutes
- Remove haddock after poaching, along with some of the hot milk; allow the fish to cool, and then remove the skin, and flake the fish with your hands
- Add the haddock flakes into the milky soup base
- Bring to a soft boil and serve immediately while hot!
- Smoked haddock is the fish of choice showcased in this ‘chowder’.
- Use the freshest haddock and prepare the soup within a day of bringing it home; no later than 2 days! All fish is extremely perishable and must be prepared and consumed within a few days.
- It’s critical to refrigerate the haddock (and any fresh fish) immediately.
- Put the haddock in a shallow baking dish or rimmed plate, preferably with a layer of ice on the bottom to lay the fish on top. Cover the fish loosely with plastic wrap and a damp cloth on top to keep the haddock from drying out.
- Freeze the haddock if you can’t use it right away; it freezes beautifully. Use within 3 months to avoid freezer burn. Wrap very well with a layer of plastic wrap, then parchment paper, and then 2 layers of freezer-strength aluminum foil. This is a very expensive fish! You don’t want to waste your money with a freezer-burnt-tasting fish.
- Prepare all of the ingredients in advance, there’s a lot of chopping and dicing in this recipe.
- Use non-waxy brown potatoes instead of the waxier varieties; Russet potatoes are a great choice
- Use full-fat dairy: whole milk and not reduced-fat milk; heavy cream and not half and half, etc.
- Some people add a soft-boiled egg to the finished soup
- Use Italian parsley and not curly parsley for better flavor
- Salt and pepper after adding any ingredient to allow them to marry into the ingredients; don’t salt and pepper at the end only.
- Leeks and garlic enhance the flavor beyond potatoes and onion alone. Some recipes leave them out, but WHY??
- Thyme and bay leaves are excellent herbs to use. Experiment and don’t be afraid to be creative and try new combinations of herbs and spices that YOU enjoy that will add more depth and complexity to the soup.
- Adding wine gives a nice, subtle flavor to the soup that is somewhat indulgent; but this is optional if you don’t prefer alcohol.
- Don’t overcook the haddock, it only needs 4 – 5 minutes in the hot milk and it continues to cook after you remove it from the hot milk. It will cook a wee bit longer when you add it back into the complete soup base.
- Serve with warm, crusty artisan bread and good-quality butter
- Enjoy a dram of good Scotch with your Scottish Cullen Skink soup.
Cullen Skink may sound funny by it’s name, but one bite of this hearty comfort soup from Scotland, and you’ll know why it is so famous. Thick, delicately spiced, and chock full of tender fish, potatoes, leeks, and garlic. And OH, it’s so EASY to make! Say ‘goodbye’ to feeling cold during winter or freezing temperatures with this amazing soup!
- 1–1/2 sticks of butter
- 4 smoked haddock filets, either skinless/ boneless, or with skin still intact
- 2 medium onions, diced
- 3 large cloves garlic, minced
- 2 large leeks, diced, including the green leaves
- 2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into equal-sized 1/4″ cubes
- 1–1/2 teaspoons thyme (dried or fresh)
- 2 bay leaves, preferably “Turkish”
- 1 bouquet garnis
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1–1/2 cups heavy cream
- 2 Tablespoons fresh chives, chopped fine
- 2 Tablespoons Italian parsley, chopped fine
- salt and pepper, to taste after every addition to the soup base
- a few drops of liquid smoke (optional)
- In a medium-sized stove pot, melt the butter, do not let it burn or change color.
- Add the chopped onions and garlic. Saute’ for 5 minutes minutes until shiny and velvety looking.
- Add the chopped leeks, including the leaves, and cook for another 4 minutes.
- Add the chopped potatoes and cook for about 30 minutes, until the potatoes are ‘almost’, but not ‘completely’ cooked through.
- Now place a medium-sized tall pot on the stove and add the milk. Bring to a very low boil, keeping an eye on it and stirring so as not to burn.
- Add haddock to the hot milk to poach for no more than 4 minutes. At the same time add the thyme, bay leaves, and bouquet garnis to marry with the milk and fish flavors.
- When poaching is finished, remove the haddock from the hot milk; place it in either a large bowl or a large plate, and allow it to cool.
- Once cooled, using your fingers, ‘flake’ the fish by pulling apart chunks of fish.
- When the potatoes are nearly done cooking, add the hot milk that you used to poach the fish.
- Add the chunks of smoked haddock.
- Add cream, chives, and Italian parsley. (optional: add a few drops of liquid smoke). Bring to a soft boil and then serve immediately while piping hot!
- Buon Appetito!