Cullen skink might sound like an odd name, but you'll soon set that aside when you start eating this hearty Scottish smoked haddock chowder. Just a few humble ingredients become comfort food in a bowl.
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Scottish food might not be that well known, but it has some great dishes that are worth trying, from staples like oatcakes (oat crackers) and desserts like cranachan to more recent dishes like chicken Balmoral (haggis stuffed chicken).
Maybe not surprisingly, fish is a big part of the traditional diet and haddock is a favorite. It's the most popular choice for fish and chips in Scotland, but also appears in other forms like being smoked.
One of my favorite memories of smoked fish is from being on a trip with my mum's Brownie group (girl guide/scout) in Northeast Scotland near the town of Arbroath. Arbroath is particularly known for one delicious food: Arbroath smokies, a type of smoked haddock.
Before the trip, we told parents that we planned to visit an Arbroath smokie producer then have them for dinner. Most parents were convinced their kids wouldn't eat them. So, we compromised and said we'd just get a half each for them and plenty sides.
Well, the kids gobbled them all up and wanted more, we didn't have enough. True, they were incredibly good, but I think the main driver was they got to see the process and so really wanted to eat them.
Different types of Scottish smoked haddock
Now, I've said all this and actually this soup isn't made with Arbroath smokies. The basis of Cullen skink is "finnan haddie" which originates in the same general region.
Finnan haddies are a cold smoked haddock. They are only lightly smoked and need additional cooking.
Arbroath smokies, meanwhile, are first salted before an intense high-heat smoking with plenty steam that cooks them through. Once smoked, they are ready to eat as they are.
I know you might not manage to find finnan haddie as such, but most smoked haddock you'll find are cold smoked and so are fine for this. Just try to find as good quality as you can. You really want non-dyed, if at all possible - the artificial yellow color really isn't part of this - but see what you can find.
What are the origins of cullen skink?
Cullen skink is essentially a fishwives soup, making the most of what was available. It originates in the Northeast of Scotland (maybe not surprising, as you might now guess), in the small town of Cullen.
"Skink" apparently originally means a shin/knuckle of beef in Scots but evolved into meaning soup. Many would have used bones as a base, so I can kind of see the logic. Here, though, it's the fish that gives the main flavor.
Cullen skink ingredients
The essential ingredients in this soup are smoked haddock, potatoes, onion and/or leek and usually some milk. It's a humble list, but the end flavor is wonderfully tasty and so, so comforting.
As with many traditional recipes, you'll find variations. Some use all milk, some only water, others a little cream at the end. Some don't mash the potatoes at all, leaving it thinner.
You do need two pots to make this, as you lightly poach the fish in one while you soften the onions and sweat the potatoes in the other. But this is an easy soup to make and comes together pretty quickly.
What is the best poaching liquid?
The poaching liquid for the fish is added in later in the soup-making, so you can consider it part of the end soup, too. Options include water, milk, stock or wine.
Neither stock or wine are all that common (unless you are trying to be a little fancy) and to me, there is enough flavor from the fish without them.
I chose to poach the fish in water, partly as I think it's rich enough with just part milk in the soup. Also some accounts I read suggested the milk could become a strange texture with poaching the smoked fish, kind of curdling. So, to me water works best.
Top tip: use the vegetables to help thicken
I like to blend/mash some of the potatoes a bit to thicken the soup. You can take some of the vegetables out and blend the rest, but I find if you use an immersion blender, you can keep part to one side. That way, part won't be blended, and it's less to wash up!
Do this before you add in the flaked fish so you keep the chunks of fish in the end soup.
Cullen skink is a traditional soup that takes humble ingredients and makes them into something special. The fish gives it such depth of flavor, with minimal effort. It's no wonder it appears in many a restaurant in Scotland and further afield. Try it at home, and enjoy!
Looking for more comforting soups? Try these:
- Avgolemono soup (Greek lemon chicken soup)
- Wonton soup
- Delicata squash soup with curried chickpeas and onions
- Shrimp bisque
- Plus get more appetizer recipes and winter recipes in the archives.
If you can't find smoked haddock locally, this smoked haddock available online would be a great choice (affiliate link).
- 8 oz smoked haddock ("finnan haddie" if possible)
- 1 cup water
- 10 oz potato (approx 2 medium)
- ½ onion
- ½ leek (or extra onion - you want approx 1 cup/120g combined for 1 quantity)
- 1 pinch black pepper
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- ¾ cup milk or use part milk, part cream
- Put the smoked haddock in a pot/pan just big enough to fit it in a singe layer and pour over the water. It should just cover the fish. Set over a medium-low heat and bring to a boil. By the time it starts to bubble, the fish should be cooked through. If it's not, let it simmer another minute. Remove from the heat and take the fish out of the pot and set aside.
- Meanwhile, peel and cut the potatoes into a small dice and finely dice the onions and leek.
- Warm the butter in another pot/pan over a medium heat and add the onion and leek. Cook for a couple minutes until they soften but don't let them brown - turn down the heat and/or add a little more butter if needed.
- Once the leek and onion have softened and are just translucent, add the potato and some pepper. Stir so they become coated in butter then cover and let the vegetables sweat a couple minutes.
- Add the cooking liquid from the fish to the onion and potatoes, straining it to hold back any foam or skin etc. Cover again and bring to a simmer. Let it cook around 5-10 minutes until the potato is tender. The exact timing depends a little on the potato variety and size of the chunks.
- As the soup is cooking, remove any skin and bones from the smoked haddock and break it up into relatively large flaked pieces.
- Once the potatoes are cooked, blend part of the soup. You can either remove a couple of spoonfuls of solids and blend the rest in a blender, or if you have an immersion blender, just blend more to one side so some is left un-blended.
- Add the flaked haddock and milk to the pot and stir. Warm it very gently then serve. (You can top with a little fresh chopped parsley if you like.)
See some of my favorite cooking tools and ingredients in the Caroline's Cooking Amazon store.
This post was first shared in November 2019 and has been updated with added video and additional information.
Try some other seafood soups:
- Broget Fish Soup (Broget Fiskesuppe) by Sid's Sea Palm Cooking
- Caldo de Camaron (Mexican Shrimp Soup) by Palatable Pastime
- Portuguese Fish Stew (Caldeirada de Peixe) by Karen's Kitchen Stories
- Shrimp and Poached Egg Stew by Food Lust People Love