The Gefilte Fish Recipe You Never Knew You Needed

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This is not your bubbe's gefilte fish! Our step-by-step homemade gefilte fish recipe will make you forget that store-bought jar ever existed.

Let’s be honest, gefilte fish has a bad rap. Amid the many delicacies of traditional Jewish holiday foods—matzoh ball soup, brisket, honey cake—the humble gefilte fish is often left stranded and lonely on the table with no one asking for seconds.

Here’s a secret, though: That jar of gefilte fish that was brought home from the supermarket, the one filled with gelatinous broth and covered in a layer of dust from the jar from having sat there too long—that is not gefilte fish!

It’s an impostor, and it’s high time to treat yourself and your family to the real deal by learning how to make gefilte fish at home. Because the truth is that a real gefilte fish recipe, the kind made from scratch with fresh fish just for Passover, is entirely deserving of a spotlight on your table.

What Is Gefilte Fish?

Gefilte fish is a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish food eaten at holidays and most often associated with the Passover Seder. Translated from the Yiddish as “stuffed fish,” it was originally prepared by stuffing a mixture of ground, boneless fish into the carcass of a whole fish. It was a humble food, prepared with inexpensive fish and made in a way that stretched the cost of the ingredients as much as possible.

Gefilte fish recipes vary by region and by family, but they include a mix of fatty fish (like carp or salmon) and lean fish (like whitefish), and may or may not include onion, carrot, horseradish, sugar and matzo meal or bread crumbs. Nowadays, these fish balls are generally prepared as either egg-shaped quenelles or pressed into a loaf pan and sliced. They’re served as a cold appetizer and best enjoyed alongside horseradish relish and slices of the carrots they were cooked with.

If you’re Jewish and of a certain age, you may remember the classic kids book The Carp in the Bathtub, which I loved getting shocked by as a kid, thinking of a fresh carp swimming inside a tiny New York apartment building’s bathtub. But this story is for more than just laughs—it reminds us of how important this dish is in Jewish cuisine, and shows how much respect our ancestors gave to it that they would give up their very limited space to keep the fish as fresh as possible until the very last minute. Today, you won’t find carp in many bathtubs, but gefilte fish remains a classic dish that deserves to be passed down through generations.

How to Make Gefilte Fish

This recipe makes about 13 gefilte fish.

Ingredients

For the broth:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 onion, quartered
  • 2 carrots, whole
  • 1 bulb fennel, quartered
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
  • 1 quart white wine
  • 2 quarts water
  • 1 bay leaf

For the fish balls:

  • 12 ounces whitefish, rockfish or cod fillet, bones and skin removed
  • 12 ounces salmon or trout fillet, bones and skin removed
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons chopped dill
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice (about ½ lemon)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/4 cup matzo meal

Directions

Step 1: Make the broth

gefilte fish recipe make the brothJamie Thrower for Taste of Home

In a wide Dutch oven, add oil, onion, carrot, fennel and peppercorns. Saute on medium for 5 minutes. Add the salt, white wine, water and bay leaf. Cover, bring to a boil, then remove the lid and reduce heat, simmering for 45 minutes while you work on your fish balls.

Step 2: Prepare the fish balls

gefilte fish recipe prepare the fishJamie Thrower for Taste of Home

Roughly chop the onion and carrot by hand and set aside. Cut both fillets of fish into medium-size cubes and set aside.

In a food processor, add garlic, onion and carrot and pulse until finely ground. Add the fish, and pulse until it’s finely ground and mixed well with the vegetables. (If you have a small food processor, do the fish in batches.) Don’t let the food processor run for a long time, though—pulsing is better to prevent it from becoming a paste.

Put the mixture into a medium bowl and stir in the remaining ingredients: egg, dill, lemon juice, salt, pepper, sugar and matzo meal. Mix until just incorporated.

Step 3: Shape and cook the fish balls

gefilte fish recipe shape the ballsJamie Thrower for Taste of Home

Wet your hands and shape the fish mixture into quenelles (the shape of an egg) about 1-1/2 to 2 inches long. Gently place the quenelles into the simmering broth—they should all be nearly submerged with broth. Cover the pot and poach on a low simmer for 30 minutes.

Step 4: Cool down

gefilte fish recipe cool downJamie Thrower for Taste of Home

Gently remove the gefilte fish from the broth with a slotted spoon and place in a baking dish. Strain the broth and pour some of the liquid over the fish and allow to cool. Make sure to save the carrot! Once cooled, put the gefilte fish in the fridge for at least 2 hours (preferably overnight).

Step 5: Serve

gefilte fish recipe serveJamie Thrower for Taste of Home

Remove the fish from the liquid and arrange neatly on a serving platter. Slice the carrot into rounds and spread them out over the gefilte fish. Enjoy with horseradish, either store-bought or homemade.

Gefilte Fish Tips

Here are a few tips to help you make the best gefilte fish you’ve ever eaten.

  • Gefilte fish is always best served cold. I don’t make the rules, I just follow them! But this one makes sense because it tastes much better chilled.

  • Don’t use a very tall pot. My first kitchen burn was caused by a very tall stock pot that had a small amount of broth and gefilte fish at the bottom, and then over a foot of steam above that. Use a wide shallow pot that all your ingredients can fit into but won’t become a steam hazard.

  • This recipe can easily be halved (or doubled) depending on your needs. If you halve it, use a smaller pot. Here are more ideas for a small-scale Passover celebration.

  • Make sure to wet your hands when forming the patties. This will keep the fish from sticking to your hands and make a smoother final product.

  • Gefilte fish is usually served as an appetizer, and goes great with spicy horseradish that is sure to clear your sinuses. It’s also a perfect precursor to all the classic Passover dishes, like matzo ball soup, brisket and these Passover sides.

  • Like most cooked proteins, gefilte fish will stay good for a week when refrigerated. It’s best prepared a day before you want to enjoy it so the flavors have time to develop.

  • If your fishmonger is willing to grind the fish, you can skip the food processing step for the fish and add it directly to the bowl with the processed carrot and onion. Where I grew up, it was common for fishmongers to grind fish for exactly this dish, but where I live now they look at me like I’m crazy when I ask! Hence the food processing method. Either way, your gefilte fish will be delicious.

So skip the infamous store-bought jar and head to the fish counter instead. Your family will thank you, and your gefilte fish will finally get its rightful spot at the table.

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Risa Lichtman
Risa Lichtman is a chef and writer living in Portland, Oregon. She is the owner/chef of Lepage Food & Drinks, a small food company featuring Jewish seasonal foods, providing takeaway all around Portland. She has previously published poems in Poetica Magazine, the anthology The Art of Bicycling, Maggid: A Journal of Jewish Literature, and The Dos Passos Review. She lives with her wife Jamie, their dog Isaac, and their cat Sylvia. Follow her at @risaexpizza, or find her delicious food offerings on @lepagefoodanddrinks.