A kippered herring is a food item made from a herring fish that has been prepared or, more appropriately, preserved by kippering. Kippering is a special technique of preserving fish wherein the fish, usually a herring, is split from head to tail, gutted, salted, and smoked. Although herring is the most common fish prepared by kippering, mackerel and salmon are often kippered. Since kippering is essentially a technique for preserving meats, beef and other meats can also be kippered. As a verb, to kipper is simply to preserve by rubbing with salt and spices before open-air drying or smoking.
Kippered herrings are most commonly eaten in the United Kingdom, though they are also found on the East coast of North America, and in other parts of Europe such as Germany and Scandinavia. In the United Kingdom, kippered herrings are often served with supper or high tea. They can be cold smoked, filleted and canned in oil, or even served as pre-cooked “kipper snacks”.
Different theories exists as to the etymological origins of the term, kippering. Etymological claims to an English origin point to the word kip, meaning short beak, or kipe, a basket used to catch fish. Etymological ties are also drawn to the Icelandic word kippa, meaning “to pull or snatch”, and to the German word kippen, which means “to seize”. Kippered herrings are supposed to have been consumed in Germany and Scandinavia as far back as the Middle Ages. A common meal in the British Isles is kippered herring and potatoes, known as tatties and herrin, or spuds and herrin.
Kippered herring are sometimes called red herring, as they take on a reddish brown color when heavily smoked. Most consumers prefer this rich coloring over paler kippered herrings. However, the extensive smoking required to achieve such a color can dry the fish too much. Therefore, the color is often achieved by adding dye to the salt brine in which kippered herrings are usually cured.
A herring fish can be any member of the family Clupeidae, but the most species most common in commercial use is Clupea harengus. Herring are found in shallow waters in the northern parts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The quality of a kippered herring is judged by the fat content, so herring are usually caught just before they begin to spawn. At this point they have fattened up, but have not yet begun the period of starvation that follows spawning.
Most of the herring are caught in a short time period, but the heavily cured kippered herrings last until the next catching season. “Kipper Season” is a term used to describe period of low trade, when the necessity for frugality leads to consumption of canned goods, such as kippered herrings.
The term red herring can also refer metaphorically to a diversion or distraction. This interpretation has origins in traditional British hunting, where red herring were used to train hunting dogs. The pungent fish were dragged across the grass leaving a scent trail for a puppy to follow in practice for future hunts.