Shad Bake (Connecticut Style)




The "Shad Bake" appears to be a New England phenomenon that occurs in small towns along the Long Island Sound and Atlantic coast where shad (a species of fish) migrate from the saltwater up into freshwater rivers for spawning (more on their life cycle) . Actually shad bakes may occur in other areas like the Chesapeake Bay area or whatnot, but my knowledge of the gig is from witnessing the Shad Bake of the Rotary Club of Essex, CT.

I have never actually cooked shad. I just took pictures and asked questions. So if you know more, please leave a comment and I will fill in the gaps as we go.


Step 1: Procure Shad

I know very little about this step. My guess is that it goes like this: You know a guy. The guy catches shad. You put in an order prior to the Shad Season. The guys catches the shad with gill nets. You pickup shad and bone them (which I hear is a challenge). Or you pay the guy more to bone them. Either way, here is what the shad will look like when you are done boning.

Obviously we need and instructable on catching and prepping shad. Somebody step up.

Step 2: Procure/Build Other Stuff You Will Need

1) Boards for cooking
2) pork fat strips
3) hammers, nails, spatulas
4) food thermometer or knowlege of how long to cook the fish
5) some sort of rub (a la Old Bay or whatever the local Guy says is good on the fish)
6) hardwood scraps for the fire
7) side dishes

Step 3: Attach Fish to Boards and Start Fire

Start by laying out the fish on the boards so that there is about 3-4" between the cuts. Lay the pork strips accross the top and bottom of the fish. The pork does two things: it flavors the fish and helps hold it together. According to the Rotary folks, once the fish has been de-boned, it tends to fall apart so the pork helps keep everything together. Also, it tastes good.

Tap a roofing nail into each end of the pork (4 nails per fish). Don't drive the nails in too far - just enough to hold the fish as it cooks.

Also, they may soak the boards in water to keep them from burning - but I think once they are used enough they just because one with the fish.

Step 4: Set Up the Boards for Cooking

Each board has a prop stand that keeps it almost vertical in front of the fire. The Rotary folks use a little dripping tray under each one so that they don't leave a mess at the elementary school. This would not be required. Once you have a good bed of coals, set the shad around the fire in a circle or semi circle depending on how much fish you have. If you have a lot, the fire will be in a ring, with few to no coals in the middle. Although they probably started the coals in one center fire and then raked them out. The key here is to have enough coals in front of the fish to cook it indirectly. If the fire is hot enough that you cant keep your hand near the fish for longer than a few seconds it's probably hot enough.

Once the boards are set up, have a beer and get ready to serve the fish. This is also a good time for some raw clams or mussels or some such.

Step 5: Cook the Fish and Listen to the Brass Band

I don't have hard data on cooking times, and it depends on how hot the fire is. I'm guessing each rack takes 20-40 minutes depending on these factors. I would have an instant-read food themometer on hand and take the fish off when they are at a safe eating temp (which is probably higher than the local Guy would recommend - most food can be eaten safely and at a lower temp and tastes better as a result. But I take no responsibility for your food safety practices or contaminant content of your fish. Please do your own research and use logic).

Flip the board top for bottom half way through the cooking process. This is because the fish on the bottom do not get as much indirect heat....

The fish that came off of the racks in Essex had a nice brown crust - some were more done than others. All were excellent.

While the fish are cooking, enjoy the brass band that you invited to attend (did I mention the brass band in the ingredients section?).

Step 6: Remove Fish From Fire and Pull Nails

Once cooked, remove the fish from the board with a nail puller. I don't recommend the hammer for this because you will tear up the fish in the process. The Rotary guys use a fancy nail puller with a vacuum attached so that the nails just disappear once they are pulled. I would say that this is essential only if you are serving more than 75 people or so (they did hundreds of servings...).

This is a video of the nail pulling process. It seems to be important that the guy with the board yells "BOOAARRRDD!!!" as he approaches so that the other guys can put down their beers and get ready to pull nails. Yelling makes everything taste better - kind of like salt.

Step 7: Serve and Eat

The Rotary club serves the fish with a white potato salad, a green salad with Italian dressing and a slice of apple pie with a slice of cheddar cheese on top.

Eat the fish and go back for seconds and thirds.



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    17 Discussions

    Dream Dragon

    8 years ago on Introduction

    Ok this is an OLD instructable, but it does look good. You'd probably not get the zinc nails through a food hygiene inspector here in the UK, but if you are setting up from scratch, it's no big deal to buy a quantity of better quality nails.

    I've never seen anything cooked by this method before but it obviously works and I can see some interesting variations too. I can see this technique working well for many foods that are flat and relatively thin.

    Would the WOOD affect that flavour? How about using barrel staves?

    Nailing through from the BACK of the wood? Making something resembling coarse "Velcro" might help hold things together and make it easier to remove?

    2 replies

    We are checked annually by our towns health inspector to ensure food safety. This will be our 53rd year and we've yet to hear any issues regarding the nails we use.

    Also, nailing from the back velcro style would make it significantly more difficult to serve the fish, especially when you are trying to move quickly.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Wanna try it? Our 53rd Annual Shad Bake is Saturday, June 4th, 2011 at 4:30 PM
    Check out for tickets. All proceeds benefit the local and international service projects of Rotary International and the Rotary Club of Essex.

    Thanks and hope to see you there!


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Hmmm...shad is a big bad nasty baitfish where I'm at. Mainly used to catch catfish or stripers. I know it sounds closed minded but all I can think is, Yeah I guess on the other side of the world some people eat dogs too.


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    The only known cases of zinc toxicity in humans comes from the long term storage of highly acidic foods and/or beverages in galvanized containers. "Long Term" and "Highly Acidic" being the primary factors I doubt that fish spending 40 minutes with a nail in it will do you any harm. Besides, with all the scary things we consume on a daily basis in comercially produced foods, I'm surprised by the frequency of comments concerning potential poisoning from everyday things like nails, scrap wood, and brown paper bags. Paranoia will undoubtedly have a much greater affect on your life expectancy due to stress and high blood pressure than trace amounts of neccesary dietary minerals in your food. Relax and enjoy life a little.


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Galvanized is zinc, the area right around the nail might taste a little bitter like a cough drop with zinc (ment to reduce the length of a cold).


    11 years ago on Introduction

    This would work for potatoes, corn, eggplant or cabbage right? I'm a vegetarian. That said, this is a tasty way of cooking food for a large number of people.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    I've never seen anything like this either. What a great idea for a fun day. This is a great instructable. Bubbler, from The Land Downunder.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    yeah I wonder what species that is exactly, The only types of shad that live around here are all horrible to eat. (not that ive tried).


    11 years ago on Introduction

    I'm in Rhode Island and I've never seen anything like that. *eats stuffed quahog* I'll be in Stamford next week though, I'll keep an eye out


    11 years ago on Introduction

    i've lived in NE for pretty much as long as i've been livin in America, and i've never heard of this. sounds fun/good(as in tasty)


    11 years ago on Introduction

    That's one big cook. I've never seen or heard of pork & fish, but I'm sure it tastes good. What did the fire do to the drive though? L

    I bet he's actually yelling BOORRREEDD from serving so many people =P

    Good instructable, that fish looks really good. I don't think I've ever see fish cooked to be so golden. Yummy =D