When we first saw Cullen Skink on a menu we had absolutely no idea what it was, but this hearty Scottish smoked haddock soup is now one of our favourites!
What is Cullen Skink?
Cullen Skink is a rich and creamy smoked haddock soup that borders on being a chowder, it’s packed full of flavour and can easily be eaten as a main meal as well as a starter. If you’re coming to Scotland it is a must try!
Like many traditional Scottish dishes, Cullen Skink is actually a really simple recipe. But the method you use to bring together the main ingredients of potatoes, onions, and smoked haddock is what gives it a deliciously creamy and satisfying taste. It’s is much more of a meal than just a plain old soup!
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Why is it called Cullen Skink?
Cullen Skink is named after the town of Cullen in Moray, near Aberdeenshire. Sure it might be easier to call it Scottish fish chowder, but then we miss out on the fun of asking visitors what exactly they think it is and hearing their varied responses!
Lots of Scottish foods are named after their location of origin, like Dundee Cake, Arbroath Smokies, and Forfar Bridies.
Originally Cullen Skink was a type of beef broth made from the front legs of cattle, and the word skink was used to mean a shin or knuckle of beef.
Around the early 1890s smoked haddock was in a much more plentiful supply than beef around the area of Cullen, as the village had become specialist in producing it, and so it was used to make a simple smoked fish soup instead.
Move forward over a hundred years and Cullen Skink is now found on menus across Scotland! Many places have their own take on the dish so it’s worth trying in different areas to see how it deliciously differs. It can be eaten as a starter or a main and is generally served with bread – be warned it’s very filling!
We took a trip to the Moray coast a couple of years ago but unfortunately, it was a Sunday when we visited Cullen and we were unable to find anywhere to serve us a Cullen Skink. Just another reason to return to this beautiful part of Scotland, however!
While we regularly make fish chowder at home we had never tried to make Cullen Skink before, thinking we would need some sort of specialist ingredients or method to do so. However, we’re happy to say that when we began researching the process we discovered that making your own Cullen Skink is actually really straightforward, once you know what you’re doing.
Which is what we’re here for to help you with!
What’s the difference between Cullen Skink and Chowder?
Because Cullen Skink is made with smoked fish it gives it a smokier taste than you’d expect from a chowder. The main ingredients are the smoked haddock, potatoes and onions. You might have additional vegetables in a fish chowder and multiple types of fish or prawns in a seafood chowder.
Things you’ll need to make Cullen Skink
You’ll need two pots/pans to make the Cullen Skink, ideally at least one should be non-stick so the milk doesn’t stick as easily.
Ingredients for Cullen Skink
There are a few variations to how this Scottish soup is made, but you’ll find that the base is always smoked haddock, potatoes, and onion.
This recipe makes two full bowls of soup, but you can easily scale it up to serve more people.
- 25g butter
- 1 medium onion
- 400g potatoes
- 280g smoked haddock (approximately 2 fillets)
- 300ml whole milk (about 1 and 1/4 cups)
- 300ml boiling water (about 1 and 1/4 cups)
- Optional – Parsley to garnish
- Optional – Fish stock cube
What type of smoked haddock do you need?
There are lots of different kinds of Smoked Haddock. Traditional recipes used the full fish which was then de-boned mid-cooking, but these days it’s much easier to use fillets.
Most recipes we looked into called for “undyed smoked haddock”. We weren’t able to source that at this time so just used the dyed kind we found in the supermarket fish section. The only reason we can imagine they suggest undyed is so the soup doesn’t go as yellow, but it doesn’t make any difference to the taste.
The amount is usually what comes in the pre-packaged smoked haddock in the supermarket but there’s no problem using a bit more or less.
Ultimately use what you can manage to get! The only important thing is that it’s smoked as this is what helps to give the soup it’s flavour.
Do you need fish stock?
We have fish stock cubes on hand in our pantry and sometimes I add them to our homemade Cullen Skink but other times I don’t. It depends on how “fishy” you want it to taste and how much flavour the soup absorbs while you’re cooking it.
If you’re making it quickly and eating immediately then it may not have as much flavour as if you leave it to reheat later. I always taste when it’s ready to serve and then add a whole or even just part of a fish stock cube if I think it needs a little more depth to the flavour.
How to make Cullen Skink step by step method
The full ingredients list and method is listed in the recipe card at the bottom of the post, this can also be printed, but here’s a breakdown of each step with a few more tips!
Ideally, you’ll want to have 2 pans on the stovetop at the same time. Try to use a non-stick pan for the haddock and milk so it doesn’t stick.
Put the milk and smoked haddock skin-up (if there is any) into a cold pan and allow to sit. The milk should cover the whole fish. Don’t turn the heat on yet.
Finely chop an onion and peel and cube the potatoes so they’re an inch or so in size.
Heat your other pan and add the butter and onion and fry for around 5 minutes until the onion is soft but not brown. Add the potatoes for a minute before pouring in 300ml of boiling water. It should cover the potatoes and onions. Now cover and allow to simmer for 15 minutes or so until the potatoes are cooked through.
If you want to add leeks then you could do so at the same time as the potatoes.
Meanwhile, heat the milk and haddock gradually. You’ll want a low heat so the milk doesn’t burn and you’ll need to move the milk around every now and then to stop it from sticking to the bottom. It will take about 5 minutes or so for the milk to heat up and then you want to cook the fish for a further 5 minutes.
Remove the smoked haddock from the milk with a slotted spoon, turn the heat off and keep the milk to one side.
Allow the fish to cool slightly so you can remove any skin or bones and discard them. The skin should easily peel off the back of a fish with a little help from a knife if necessary.
Take a masher or fork and mash about a quarter of the potatoes in the pan roughly. You don’t want to mash too much and it doesn’t need to be perfect, this will just help to thicken up the soup.
Add the milk to the pan of potatoes and onions and stir for a couple of minutes to combine. it’s important you bring them to the same temperature and keep stirring so that you don’t have an oily layer from the butter and fish.
Use a fork to separate the smoked haddock into large chunks then add to the pan and stir gently through. Also, salt and pepper to taste. Adding a little parsley can give an extra hint of flavour too.
At this point, you can taste the soup and see if it is fishy enough for you. The point of allowing the haddock to sit in the milk is so it will absorb some of the flavours. Sometimes this doesn’t always come through enough so adding a bit of fish stock can help intensify the flavour.
If you do feel it needs more flavour then this is when we crumble in all or part of a fish stock cube.
This is also at this stage you can add a couple of tablespoons of cream if you want a richer, creamier taste.
And there you have it, a rich and creamy Cullen Skink ready to serve with a garnish of parsley and ideally some crusty bread, enjoy!
Variations to Cullen Skink
Cullen Skink generally only has potatoes in it, but leeks are a popular addition. Fry the leek with the onion to allow it to soften.
As mentioned, cream is also another common addition to Cullen Skink, but we prefer ours without it as it’s already a rich smoked fish soup. However, if you like to have a richer taste then you can add a couple of tablespoons of double cream and stir through just before serving.
We find if you plan to have Cullen Skink as a starter or light meal it doesn’t need the cream, but you might want to add it to a full meal for a fuller, heavier taste.
Can Cullen Skink be reheated?
You can easily make this dish in advance and reheat on the stovetop, making it a quick and easy meal or something to serve as a starter at a dinner party.
If the soup has thickened too much then add a dash of milk or water and stir thoroughly.
How long does Cullen Skink keep for?
Up to 2 days in the refrigerator, if you actually have any leftovers, it’s not something that happens in our house!
It can also be frozen if you want to make a bigger batch and save some for later. Make sure the fish is covered in liquid and freeze once it’s cold for up to 3 months. However, soups with cream added can separate after freezing so if you do want to add it then hold off until after defrosting and reheating.
More Scottish Soup Recipes
- Scottish Lentil Soup – a delicious red lentil and ham hough soup (can be made vegetarian!)
- Tattie Soup – classic Scottish potato soup
- Cock-a-leekie Soup – Chicken, leek, and rice soup, the Scottish version of a chicken noodle soup!
- Scotch Broth & Vegetarian Scotch Broth – made with barley and vegtables
Cullen Skink Recipe
This traditional Smoked Haddock soup is deliciously tasty and satisfying. It can be served as a starter or main, usually with crusty bread. The smokiness of the fish adds the flavour to the soup.
- 25g butter
- 1 medium onion
- 400g potatoes
- 280g smoked haddock (approximately 2 fillets)*
- 300ml whole milk (about 1 and 1/4 cups)
- 300ml boiling water (about 1 and 1/4 cups)
- Optional - Fish stock cube*
- Optional - Parsley to garnish*
- Optional - 2 tablespoons double cream*
- Put the milk and smoked haddock skin-up (if there is any) into one pan and allow to sit. The milk should cover the whole fish. Don’t turn the heat on yet.
- Finely chop an onion and peel and cube the potatoes.
- Add the butter and onion to a pan and fry for around 5 minutes until the onion is soft but not brown.
- Add the potatoes for a minute before pouring in 300ml of boiling water. Cover and allow to simmer for 15 minutes or so until the potatoes are cooked through.
- Meanwhile, heat the milk and haddock gradually, moving the milk around with a wooden spoon every now and then so it doesn't stick. It should take about 5 minutes or so for the milk to heat up and then cook the fish for a further 5 minutes.
- Remove the smoked haddock from the milk with a slotted spoon and keep the milk to one side.
- Allow the fish to cool slightly and any skin or bones and discard them.
- Take a masher or fork and roughly mash about a quarter of the potatoes. You can just do this in the pan, no need to take any out.
- Add the milk to the pan of potatoes and onions and stir for a few minutes to combine.
- Use a fork to separate the smoked haddock into large chunks then add to the pan and stir gently through. Salt and pepper to taste.
- Add parsley or cream if you choose to.
Traditional recipes used the full fish which was then de-boned mid-cooking, but these days it’s much easier to use fillets.
Most recipes called for “undyed smoked haddock” but you can use dyed if you need to, the soup may just be a little more yellow but will taste the same.
If you’re making the soup quickly and eating immediately then it may not have as much flavour as if you leave it to reheat later.
We always taste when it’s ready to serve and then add a whole or even just part of a fish stock cube if we think it needs it.
*Parsley and Cream
Neither of these is essential but parsley is often added as a garnish and brings a little more of a herby flavour to the soup, and cream is sometimes added if you would like a richer, creamier taste.
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 623Total Fat: 23gSaturated Fat: 13gTrans Fat: 1gUnsaturated Fat: 7gCholesterol: 168mgSodium: 1429mgCarbohydrates: 55gFiber: 5gSugar: 13gProtein: 49g
The nutritional data in this recipe is provided by a third party and these values are automatically calculated and offered for guidance only. Their accuracy is not guaranteed.
23 thoughts on “Simple Cullen Skink recipe”
Hi being a Scotsman it’s more traditional using leeks rather than onions and this adds more flavour. Definitely not fish stock, veg or chicken, but use the milk of the white smoked haddock. Finally mashing the potatoes is a modern twist on the recipe by “named” chefs , to add something different to this simple soup.
It was originally a poor man’s or working class fisherman’s soup hence potatoes n leeks to fill it up.
Thanks for your thoughts. Our research has shown that onions and/or leeks were used though many families had and have different recipes and takes on this delicious dish. We agree with you about the tradition of not using stock, and we just offer it as an alternative to our simple recipe. We hope you liked how our recipe tastes!
All the best,
Phil & Sonja
I made this dish for the first time yesterday. Your recipe and instructions were excellent.
I am very p!ease with the results. I will be making this often 😃
Thank you so much that’s wonderful to hear!
Thanks for such a simple to follow recipe, I swapped the milk for cream to make it extra creamy and was just the way I like it!
I made this for dinner this evening and the instructions are perfect. The portion is perfect too. We are not Scottish but have recently moved to Scotland. Wanted to try cooking Scottish dishes.
There was no need for fish stock as the soup is very tasty. Will definitely make again and try with leeks. Thank you for the recipe. 😋
This comment made our day! Thanks so much, we’re really glad you enjoyed it and welcome to Scotland!
I made this for lunch today. It is so tasty. Thanks for recipe
I assume you drain the water off the Tatties and onions?
Gonna do that method anyway but just not quite clear. Thanks
We don’t generally drain the water as it’s absorbed and cooked off, but if you have excess then by all means drain it.
Can I use soya milk in this recipe please,
Yes that should be no problem!
We’re proud Scot’s and have toured our beautiful country many times. Anyway we ended up in Cullen and had the traditional Cullen Skink, we managed to find our dish in the golf club in Cullen and the good new’s is it’s open on a Sunday.
Sounds great! We’ll have to remember next time we’re up that way!
Visited Scotland a few months prior to Covid hitting the world, staying at Tigh Mor, Trossachs. Tried Cullen Skink several times as I love fish or seafood chowder, catch a lot of fresh NZ fish and smoke some of it. Love this recipe as it is easy to follow with simple ingredients. Try to use my own grown potatoes also. Do occassionally add a dash of chilli though. Sorry to the purists!
Love a dash of chilli in most things, dash away!
I’m wondering if I can used canned Finnan Haddie?
You can use any fish, but it’s the smoked flavour, as well as the natural fish flavour, that helps bring the Cullen Skink to life. We would certainly give it a go.
Aye Finnan haddock is basically just smoked haddock.
I love your recipe and Cullen Skink is has been a family favourite for many years. Although I’m Scottish I now live in Madrid and it’s been impossible for me to find smoked fish here, do you have any recommendations on alternative types of fish to use instead please?
Thanks for your question You can, of course, make it with unsmoked fish, sadly the smoked fish does add a level of flavour to the dish that would be missed without it, it will still be delicious though. You could also add a little fried chorizo perhaps that would add a nice flavour. This would of course not be traditional, but would still be tasty!
Being from Cullen originally my mother says she has never known leeks to be used instead of onions. She also would add in a small tin of evaporated milk rather than adding in double cream and would season the soup with salt and pepper. It is always tastes better second day.