Eel: What is it? And what is the best way to cook it?

From pickling and smoking to frying and stewing

This mysterious fish with its unique taste is delicious in salads, snacks and other dishes. Some prefer smoked eel, but you can also buy them fresh. You can also stew it, fry it and cook it. Read on if you want to know more about this traditional Dutch delicacy.

Table of contents

Chapter 1

What kind of fish is eel?

Eel is a ray-finned fish. Ray fins belong to the class of vertebrate fish. They have fins, scales and a well-developed ossified skeleton.

This fish has a brown to grayish color and an elongated body that can reach over a meter in length. The scales are barely visible but they are present in the deeper layers of the skin.

Eels have a smooth slimy layer on its thick smooth skin. This makes them very difficult to handle. And the wild writhing movements it makes to escape don’t make it any easier.

Gerookte palingfilet
Eel fillet

Eels live in mud bottoms and mainly eat mosquito larvae, mosquito pupae, bivalves such as the zebra mussels and the exotic mussels, amphipods and other small invertebrates.

Eels are migratory fish, so-called catadromous fish that migrate from freshwater to the sea to spawn. They can survive for a time out of the water due to a narrowed gill slit and thus move meandering over moist land to reach isolated waters. Male eels grow up to 40 cm, while the females can reach 70 cm in length. Eels can live up to 80 years.

Eel tastes like mackerel but is fatter, as fat as herring. The meat is soft and sweet.

Where does this fish come from?

The eel is found in Morocco, the entire Mediterranean region, the Baltic Sea, up to the north of Norway. In the Netherlands you will find eels in almost all Dutch rivers, canals, polders and the IJsselmeer.

In the Netherlands, eel is caught in the period from the beginning of May to the end of August. Between 1 September and 1 December it’s forbidden to fish for eel.

Is it healthy?

Eel is an oily fish and contains omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. The omega-3 fatty acids protect us against cardiovascular disease. These unsaturated fats also lower blood cholesterol levels. You need vitamin D to absorb calcium from food and it is important for growth and for strong bones and teeth.

Which wine goes well with eel?

Smoked eel pairs well with rich wines that are not too dry in taste. For example, think of a Riesling, a Pinot Grigio or a Pinot Blanc.

Chapter 2

How to cook eel?

Eel can be smoked, stewed, marinated and fried.

Green eel is a delicacy from the Netherlands. Once everything has been removed from the eel, such as the skin, head and organs, you can cut it into smaller pieces and stew it in a mixture of finely chopped green herbs such as sage, ginger mint, wild marjoram and sorrel.

Filleting an eel

You can quickly and easily fillet eel yourself. All you need is a clean cutting board, a sharp knife that cuts on both sides and a spoon.

Place the smoked eel with its side on the cutting board. Place the blade directly behind the gill and cut a notch until you reach the spine.

Then slowly cut along the top of the backbone towards the tail and keep cutting until you can remove the side of the eel from the backbone. Set aside. You can now see the spine.

Hold the head of the eel tight and with your knife under the spine, carefully cut along the underside of the spine, again from head to tail. Continue until the bone separates from the meat. Now put your knife back where you started this step and now cut in the opposite direction to remove the head. You now have two eel fillets with skin.

Use a spoon to remove the skin from the eel fillets. Place the eel skin side down on the cutting board. With one hand you grab the tail of the eel and then with your other hand place the spoon between the meat and the skin. Stroke the spoon to the end of the fillet in one smooth motion to scrape the meat from the skin.

Brine an eel

Brining is a technique for preserving food. You can brine eel as follows:

  • Fill a clean bucket with 8 liters of cold water and stir in 600 grams of salt until dissolved.
  • Put the cleaned eel in the bucket with brine and make sure that the eel remains well submerged in the salt water. For example, put a lid on it.
  • Remove the eel from the brine after 30 to 60 minutes and rinse it briefly with clean water.
  • Thread the eel directly onto the skewers to drain.

Frying it in a pan

If you want to fry eel, do so at a medium temperature.

  1. Cut the eel into pieces of about 5 centimeters.
  2. Let these pieces sit for an hour in a marinade of lemon, salt and pepper.
  3. Pat them dry before putting them in the pan.
  4. Melt a large piece of butter in a pan and then fry the eel on medium heat until golden brown.
  5. Add herbs such as bay leaves or fresh thyme, fresh rosemary and a splash of white wine.
  6. Close the pan with a lid and let it simmer for 15 minutes.


If you want to stew eel, you do so at a high temperature.

  1. Cut the cleaned eel into pieces of 3-4 centimeters.
  2. Place pieces upright in a casserole dish and add a generous splash of vinegar, salt and pepper.
  3. Put pieces of butter between the eel and put the pan on high heat until it boils.
  4. When it starts to boil, let the pan stew on the lowest burner for 45 minutes, with the lid on the pan.
  5. Then put the pan without a lid on high heat for 10 to 15 minutes, so that it boils dry.
  6. If the eel is still too wet, you can skim off the moisture and leave it on a high heat until the eel has a crust.

Grilling on the barbecue

The eels must first dry thoroughly before they can be cooked. You can do this by hanging the eel on skewers in a drying cabinet.

  1. Make a fire with pieces of oak wood and bring the temperature to about 40°C. The barbecue is open or slightly ajar. If the skin feels parchment-like and has no more moist spots and the dorsal fin is also dry, then the eel is dry enough. Now you can start the cooking process.
  2. Light the fire with some larger pieces of oak or beech wood and let the temperature rise slowly. Not higher than 80°C, otherwise the proteins of the eel will break down. Take it easy with the firing, otherwise the bellies will pop open and the fat will run out of the eel. You can close the barbecue  slightly to reach the desired temperature. The meat is done when it immediately comes away from the skin.

Smother the fire with smoke dust or wood shavings. Smoke the eel for about an hour between 40 and 60°C. After this, the smoky flavor has been absorbed into the eel and you can remove the smoked eel.

Finish cooking

After smoking, the skin is still a bit stiff. To make it easier to remove the skin, let the eel finish cooking when it comes out of the smoker. Wrap the eel in wax paper and place it in a Styrofoam box. After about half an hour you can take the eel out.