Many people along the Chesapeake do not like Shad. It is a fish, that unless properly chosen does not have any distinguishable flavor beyond that of a white fish. The major drawback to this fish is that it contains many small pin bones that must be professionally cleaned, or baked in acidulated liquid for a long time to dissolve the cartilage. Despite these things, the fish still faced extinction due to the most prized delicacy it contains within it, the roe.
The shad’s major contribution to Mid – Atlantic cuisine is its roe. Much like the sturgeon there is a short period in which the shad run upstream and are laden with two huge sacks of roe, in most cases almost one quarter the weight of the fish itself.
The roe sacks offer a unique flavor and a surprising versatility in preparations. Bacon is often paired with the roe to simulate the salted effects of traditional caviar. I have yet to see anyone attempt to make caviar out of shad roe, but it is no doubt available somewhere. The eggs themselves are quite small much like the savruga caviar made from the sturgeon.
One of the most common preparations of shad is to serve it “Planked.” This is a hot smoking method that allows the fish to cook for several hours dissolving the small pin bones and infusing the fish with the flavor of the smoke. This method is not as effective as the cold smoking method which breaks down and draws the myosin out of the protean molecules which forms a tacky pellicle to which the smoke adhere, but that is more of a curing process rather than a cooking one.
Smoking is one of the most ancient ways of preserving food probably dating back to the discovery of fire. It was a way of keeping the food longer as well as making the food undesirable to insects.
The American Shad is the most popular type of shad in the Chesapeake Bay, although there are six verities commonly found in the waters. The Alosa sapidissima (Latin: most delicious) is the largest and most valuable finfish in the bay. The shad is also known in local history as the “savior fish,” which saved George Washington’s troops from starving during the winter of 1777-1778 when the army camped along the Schuylkill River at Valley Forge.
A. (A.) sapidissima
Alosa (Alosa) sapidissima
(A. Wilson, 1811)
The heralding of the season for catching shad is preceded by the blooming of a white flower in the Mid-Atlantic region known as the shadbush or serviceberry. It blooms in early spring and gives warning to everyone of the annual running of the shad upstream. Shad have also been used for generations as fertilizer for crops along the Chesapeake shore. Native Americans used to plant them along with corn seeds to provide fertilizer for the plant as it began to grow. It is also during this season that the shad are heavy with roe which is a prized delicacy throughout the Mid-Atlantic.
By the 1800, shad had become one of the most profitable fish in the Chesapeake Bay region. Overharvesting as well as environmental impact fromthe Pennsylvania Canal system depleted the population of the fish. The feeder dams used to feed the canal system cut off access to many of the rivers for the migration of shad to the spawning grounds. By the 1970’s the harvest had dropped down to two million pounds.
Shad are anadromous and spend most of their lives in salt water, but spawn in fresh water. An average female shad carries anywhere from 100,000 – 600,000 eggs in their roe sacks.
In 1980 the harvest dropped to record low 25,000 pounds causing the state of Maryland to pass a moratorium on the fishing of shad. In 1992 Virginia passed a similar resolution after their harvest dwindled to 50,000 pounds.
Environmental concerns have also played a role in the dwindling numbers of shad, as the larvae are highly susceptible to pollutants and toxins the water. The American Shad is also one of the many fish which is now commercially farmed in the region.
Environmental restrictions were put into place and barriers have been removed from most of the region. Fish-ways and elevator systems have also been installed at several of the active dam sites to allow access to the spawning grounds.
Below are the crib notes for the recipe that I have used professionally. As a chef, we usually don’t measure things out in the kitchen unless we are dealing with baking, and I rarely list directions to my cooks since I teach them by showing them what I want. Use your best judgment if you attempt to make this dish. I used wild asparagus since it is also in season when the shad make their annual run.
This dish is actually breaded rather than planked, just one of the many versatile ways you can prepare this dish.
Shad & Roe
Cheddar Bacon Mashed Potatoes
Dill Cream Sauce
4 oz Shad Filet & ½ Roe
Salt & Pepper
Salt & Pepper
Cheddar Cheese (Shredded)
Red Skin New Potatoes (Peeled & Cooked)
Salt & Pepper
Onion (Diced & Cooked)
Salt & pepper
The recipes below are for the most part, very basic in design. Fish is often paired with complicated recipes and heavy cream and butter sauces which can overpower the delicate flavor. The farm raised shad, which are more environmentally friendly lack the flavor of the wild shad and are more palatable to the modern consumer.
To Cook Shad on a Plank
165. Place an oak plank that is perfectly smooth, before the fire, until it is quite hot, but not scorched. Put upon this heated plank a shad that has been split down the back, and seasoned with pepper, salt and butter. Put the skin next the plank and do not touch it until it is done. Take the liver, roes, and heart, 4 ounces of butter rolled in flour, 2 slices of lemon, and a few cloves; put them in a saucepan, and let them stew until they are done. When done, add a gill of wine, and serve in a sauceboat.
In this preparation the shad is cooked on a heated plank and the roe and intestines are used to make a sauce. This is an extremely pragmatic way of utilizing as much of the fish as possible and making an excellent meal in the process. Note: A gill of wine is equal to about 4 ounces.
This is the very best way of cooking shad.
The plank should be three inches thick, two feet long, one and a half feet wide and of well seasoned hickory or oak. Pine or soft wood gibes the fish a woody taste. Take a fine shad just from the water, scale, split it down the back, clean it, wash well and immediately wipe dry. Dredge it with salt and pepper. Place a plank before a clear fire to get very hot. The spread the shad open and nail it, skin side next to the hot plank, with four long headed tacks. Put it before the fire with the large end down; in a few minutes turn the board so that the other end will be down; and do this every few minutes until the fish is done. To tell when it is done pierce it with a fork; if the flesh be flaky it is done. Spread the butter and serve on the plank or draw the tacks carefully and slide the shad on to a hot dish.
The whitefish caught in the lakes are excellent when cooked in this manner.
This is an example of a recipe being in use for decades before being published. The almost primitive nature of this recipe could place it at any time in the last few centuries. Salt, Pepper and butter are the only ingredients used. This would indicate that it is more of a waterman’s recipe, since it mentions the fish being very fresh and the use of a plank as a serving tray.
This recipe also gives great advice on the type of wood to use. Soft woods contain resin and sap which will give a very unpleasant flavor to your smoked foods. Always use hardwoods when smoking.
Planked Shad Al Fresco
“This mode of cooking a shad will be found superior to all others. It is much enjoyed by parties who have dinners on the banks of the river, and bespeak of the fishermen shad just out of the water.”
A Very Fine Shad
Salt & Cayenne
Oak or Hickory Plank
A board or plank about 3 inches thick and two feet square must be provided. This plank should be well seasoned oak or hickory, and very clean. Take a very fine shad, and (having cut off the head and tail.) split it down the back, clean it, wash it well, and wipe it dry. Sprinkle with salt and cayenne. Stand the board up before the fire till it becomes very hot, and almost begins to char. Then nail to the hot board the spread open shad with the back or skin side next to the plank. Secure it with a few nails. Begin to roast it with the head (end) downward. After a while turn the other end of the plank. Turn it frequently up or down, that the juices of the fish may be equally dispersed throughout. When done, butter it with fresh butter, and send it to table on the board.
This recipe is identical to the last and almost 100 years have passed between them. The only addition here is the use of cayenne pepper. This is not surprising since Baltimore was the capitol of the American spice trade for hundreds of years and is still the largest producer of spices in the United States, although now the company is owned by a Canadian firm.
A 3 or 3 ½ pound shad, hard – wood plank, salt and pepper, melted butter, mashed potatoes.
Clean and split shad. Put skin side down on buttered hard wood plank of generous proportions, sprinkle with salt and pepper and brush over with melted butter. Bake 25 minutes in hot oven 400 degrees, or broil, not to close to the grill. Remove from oven, spread again with butter, and surround with creamy mashed potatoes arranged in mounds. Return to oven until potatoes are lightly browned. Garnish with parsley and lemon slices and serve on plank. Serves 6.
Maryland Inn Annapolis
In this recipe we see the adaptation of the classic recipe being used in a more modern way. The outdoor fire has been replaced by the oven and broiling rack. This method will not generate the same smoky qualities of setting it outside by a fire, but it will produce a nice result. The wood here, should be only slightly wet, or the fish will cook long before the plank will char even a little.
This method will also create a great deal of smoke in your kitchen, so ventilate properly before attempting to try this.
Prepare initially as for boneless baked shad, but after steaming for 5 hours, remove the head, tail, and fins. Slit along the backbone and open gently the two halves (skin side down) on a well greased oak plank. Season to taste and broil approximately 20 – 30 minutes. Serve with boiled groundnuts, chopped potatoes, or wild rice and chopped fresh dill weed. Serve hot on a bed of sorrel or garlic mustard leaves.
This method calls for you to steam the fish and then sear it in the oven. This book was written as a guide to preparing food as they were cooked by Native Americans, but the information contained within is not necessarily accurate. Many of the recipes have been updated and lack historical authenticity.
Planked Shad with Shad Roe
For the Shad Roe:
For the Planked Shad:
6 – 8 Slices Bacon
1 Whole Boned Shad Fillet (2 ½ – 3 Pounds), Cleaned
6 Small Pairs Fresh Shad Roe (8 – 10 Ounces)
4 Tablespoons (1/2 Stick) Unsalted Butter, Melted
1 Cup Flour
Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper, to Taste
¾ Cup White Wine
3 Tablespoons Capers, Drained and Finely Chopped
Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper, to Taste
To prepare the roe, in a large skillet over medium high heat, place the bacon. Cook, turning often, until browned and crisp. Drain on paper towels. Cool and chop finely.
Separate the roe sacs and dry well with paper towels. Dredge the roe in the flour and shake off any excess. Transfer to the skillet and cook over medium high heat until firm and lightly browned on both sides, about 10 minutes. Remove the plate or platter and cover with foil to keep warm.
Pour out the fat from the skillet. Add the wine and place over medium high heat. Cook, whisking constantly, until reduced by half and slightly thickened. Add the capers and season with salt and pepper. Combine with the roe, cover and keep warm.
Meanwhile, to cook the shad, carefully check that all bones have all removed from the fillet. Preheat the broiler to high and position the oven rack 4 – 5 inches from the source of heat. Oil the broiling pan and place on top, skin side down. Brush with half the melted butter and season with salt and pepper. Broil until the shad is lightly browned and flake easily, 6 – 8 minutes. Baste occasionally with the remaining butter.
Carefully transfer the broiled shad to an oak plank large enough to hold both the fish and the roe sacs. Place the shad in the middle of the plank and surround with the roe. Spoon the white wine and caper reduction over the roe, sprinkle the bacon over, and serve at once.
This recipe touches on all the main flavor profiles of the dish as we have come to know it today. It is prepared in the modern way in an oven, but you could easily do this outdoors as well with a grill. A great way to do this is to wrap the wire rack of the grill in foil and place the plank of wood and the shad over that. This will slow down the cooking and will give the smoke from the grill more time to penetrate the flesh of the fish. It is a great way of preparing it and is also easy to clean up.
The basic elements of wood fire, smoke and fish are a classic flavor profile and really can’t be much improved upon. Feel free to experiment with different seasonings and marinades, but I always felt that they are better served on the side. Make the complex dishes to compliment the fish and blend the primitive cooking method of planked shad with the sophisticated sauces and side dishes.
 The Queen of The Kitchen: A Collection of Old Maryland Family Receipts for Cooking by Miss Tyson: T.P. Peterson & Brothers 1874
 Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cookbook: A Manuel for Home Economics by Mrs. Sarah Tyson Heston Rorer: Applewood Books 1886
 Virginia Cookery: Past and Present by The Women’s Auxiliary of Olivet Episcopal Church Franconia, Virginia 1957
 Maryland’s Way: The Hammond – Harwood House Cookbook by Mrs. Lewis R. Andrews & Mrs. J. Reaney Kelly: Press of Judd & Detweiler Inc. 1966
 Native Harvests: American Indian Wild Food and Recipes by E. Barrie Kavasch: Dover Publications, Inc. 1977
 The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation: Clarkson Potter Publishers 2001
- Shad Resurgence Marks a Cleaner Delaware River (wnyc.org)
- Shad Resurgence Marks a Cleaner Delaware River (njspotlight.com)
- Interlude: The future meets the past (midatlanticcooking.wordpress.com)
- Where are the Delaware River basin’s once-legendary shad? (miamiherald.com)
- DEP proposes limits on fishing of shad, herring (gloucestercitynews.net)
- Fallin’ for Shad (nickchabarria.wordpress.com)
- Fishing report for Oct. 18 (kansascity.com)