Because of its historic role in the development of the economy of the Northeastern United States, American shad is an important and flavorful fish still embedded in the local angling culture. The fish is native to the Atlantic coastline of North America and its large roe sack is considered a special spring delicacy. It has a substantial amount of bones relative to its small size, but shad lovers think the flavor payoff far outweighs the inconvenience of dealing with the bones. Usually smoked, grilled whole, baked, or deep-fried, shad can be easily cooked and served as you would salmon.
What Is American Shad?
Like salmon, American shad is an anadromous species of fish, meaning it spends most of its time in saltwater but swims upriver in the spring to spawn in fresh and brackish waters. American shad is the largest of the Clupeidae family of ray-finned herrings but has little in common with other members of the family apart from high-fat content and a profusion of fine transparent bones.
The scientific name of American shad is Alosa sapidissima, meaning "most delicious of herrings." The fish is native to the East Coast of North America, from Florida to Canada, but most prevalent between North Carolina and Connecticut. It was introduced to West Coast waters in the 1870s and now flourishes in both Atlantic and Pacific coastal areas. It has a delicate texture to match its elevated price point, but does require concerted deboning.
How to Cook American Shad
The biggest challenge of cooking American shad is how to deal with the bones. Some people suggest cooking the fish in a pressure cooker long enough that most of the bones simply dissolve. Others recommend poaching the fish in a court bouillon, flaking it or passing it through a colander to remove the bones, and then using the fish to make cold salads, fritters, or fish cakes. One of the most traditional ways to prepare shad is to smoke or grill it on a cedar plank. The pronounced flavor and oiliness of shad stand up quite well to the smoke and cooking it this way makes it much easier to remove the bones. Filleting American shad into boneless fillets or "fingers" is great for grilling, sautéing, broiling, or frying the boneless pieces.
What Does American Shad Taste Like?
American shad has a wonderful, distinctive, sardine-like flavor that is sweet, salty, and freshly fishy. The texture of the fish—which you can really only savor when it is filleted—enhances its pronounced flavor with an oily, yet resilient, silky sensation as it melts like butter on the palate.
American Shad vs. Salmon
American shad and salmon are two very different fish that do have some significant things in common. Both have high-fat content, an oily consistency, and take well to smoking. Salmon are also anadromous and both have a bi-coastal presence in areas of the North Atlantic and the North Pacific.
The differences perhaps outweigh the commonalities. Most salmon are orange (a rare white version being the exception) whereas shad is a pinkish-gray, tending toward white when cooked. While salmon typically weigh about 10 pounds, most American shad is about five pounds, although larger shad and smaller salmon, like sockeye, for example, overlap. Salmon has flaky consistency, and shad is much more compact. Salmon has pin bones going down the middle of each fillet, which are easily removed, whereas American shad has many fine bones. And while salmon is clearly one of the most popular and ubiquitous fish on the culinary radar, shad is generally overlooked except by fish connoisseurs who love it, especially for its roe. Unlike salmon, American shad are not farmed.
American shad is so flavorful that it can be filleted and simply sautéed with melted butter and a squeeze of lemon. It is also versatile in that it can be used fresh, smoked, or pickled in brine. Cook shad en papillote, poach it, deep-fry it covered in tempura batter, or easily adapt it for recipes calling for a full-flavored, oily fish.
Where to Buy American Shad
The commercial fishing season for American shad is typically early spring through midsummer (with shad roe only in the earlier part of the season) on both the East and West Coasts. Look for fresh shad during this period at your local fish purveyor or at a quality grocer with a good fish department.
If purchasing a whole fish, look for moist shiny skin and clear, bright eyes. Fillets should look moist, pink, and translucent, without any signs of grayness or drying out around the edges. Because of the large amounts of bones, ask your fishmonger to clean and debone the fish for you.
Storing American Shad
American shad is at its best fresh and in season. When bought fresh, the fish should be used within a day or two. A whole gutted fish is best kept in the fridge on ice in a perforated draining pan. Shad fillets should be wrapped in plastic and refrigerated until cooking. Smoked shad can be kept in the refrigerator wrapped in plastic for up to a month; if vacuum sealed, smoked fillets can usually be kept for three to six months. Fresh-frozen shad fillets can be kept in airtight plastic bags in the freezer for nine to 12 months.
McPhee, John. The Founding Fish. Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, p2003. ISBN 1402556691