Dan Peterson, longtime owner and master boiler at Ellison Bay’s Viking Grill, first encountered fish boils at age 10.
“My dad used to own a bar and hotel in Baileys Harbor,” recalled Peterson, who’ll turn 80 this year. “We had a boil master come in from the farm. He did it in a washtub on Friday nights, and the cost was 50 cents.”
Fish boil equipment and the accompanying price tag have evolved, but the concept remains steady—“Whitefish, potatoes, onions, coleslaw, rye bread and cherry pie,” said Jewel Peterson Ouradnik, whose family has owned Rowleys Bay Resort since 1970. “Those are the six items that are essential to the traditional fish boil.”
And people agree. Sort of.
The perfect fish boil starts with a proper fire, said Steve Polster, who is in his fourth year as boil master at the White Gull Inn, Fish Creek. “You need a really good, dry hardwood,” Polster said. “That way, the fire burns longer and stays hotter.”
“But not cedar,” added Peterson, who bought the Viking Grill in 1984, “because of the sparks.”
Boil masters of yesteryear used huge cast-iron kettles, Polster said. Today, his heavy-gauge stainless steel kettle takes less time to heat, “and it’s a lot easier to handle.”
Preparations begin well before the dinner bell rings at Rowleys Bay Resort, Ellison Bay. “At 3 p.m., we start the fire,” Ouradnik said.
Heavily salting the water is essential; to his 20-gallon cauldron, Peterson adds five pounds altogether.
“It changes the boiling point and makes everything more buoyant, like it’s floating in the sea. But nothing tastes too salty,” Ouradnik added. “It’s flavored just right.”
While the water is boiling, a Rowleys Bay storyteller will greet hungry guests as the area’s first white settler, Peter Rowley. “He was a curmudgeon sort of fellow,” said Ouradnik. While prepping the fish boil, the re-enactor engages the crowd with the area’s history – from the years when the Potawatomi inhabited the lands through modern times.
Robert Scaturo, who’s been doing fish boils for 22 years at Scaturo’s Baking Co. & Café in Sturgeon Bay, also likes to get the crowd involved. He’s more likely, though, to give some good-natured ribbing to anyone in the crowd wearing Chicago Bears gear or those daring to venture too near the boiling pot.
First up in Peterson’s cauldron? New red potatoes.
“That’s because they take the longest to cook,” added Ouradnik.
Minutes later, he adds small boiling onions—the smaller and sweeter, the better, Peterson said. “Some people think the onions taste better than the fish.”
Polster skips this step completely. “I think the White Gull Inn is the only one in the county that never has used onions.” He explained that previous master boiler Russ Ostrand didn’t like using onions. “He thought it overpowered the delicate flavor of the fish.”
Scaturo, who emphasizes that the pot must be at a full boil before adding vegetables, uses not only onions, but carrots, too—much to the chagrin of fish boil purists. He thinks the carrots add color to an otherwise bland-looking plate. “And I happen to like carrots,” he said.
Timing is crucial, and 30 minutes is the magic number, “Otherwise the food isn’t cooked through. And nobody likes hard onions,” Scaturo said. “If you mess up the times, the food doesn’t work.”
Boils of Peterson’s childhood used lake trout, he said, but they use fresh whitefish today.
“Lake Michigan whitefish is the best fish to boil,” said Polster. “It has a really delicate flavor.”
“Many people think it tastes kind of like lobster,” added Ouradnik, “especially when it’s dipped in melted butter.”
Cutting the whitefish into chunks or steaks is another critical step. “It’s very important that the bones stay in the fish,” Ouradnik said. “It helps keep it together.”
And size matters. Scaturo said he wants steaks cut from four- to six-pound whitefish. “You can get them heavier,” he said, “but the bigger they are, the fishier they are.”
The chunks of bone-in whitefish go inside the basket in a separate layer, because it is too delicate to boil with a bunch of loose potatoes and onions, Ouradnik said.
Then start your stopwatch: “Any longer than 12 minutes and the fish falls apart,” Scaturo said. “Then you don’t have fish boil. You have fish soup.”
Boil masters throw a carefully measured amount of kerosene or fuel oil onto the cooking fire, the flames of which cause the temperature in the pot to rise suddenly and boil over the top layers of liquid that contain the whitefish oils and fats.
Unlike your home stove, when you don’t want your potatoes to boil over, “the boil-over is the most important part of the fish boil,” Ouradnik said, “and it’s the most fun.”
Polster tells of an anticlimactic fish boil during his first White Gull Inn summer. “Somehow, water got into the can (of kerosene),” he said. “The fire went down instead of up.”
Also, to avoid fiery mishaps, “Be very careful of the wind,” Polster advised.
How hot does the fire get? “Very,” said Scaturo. He and his restaurant have both received burns over the years.
DINNER IS SERVED
As a nod to those with not-so-fishy tastes, Rowleys Bay serves the fish boil as part of their buffet, Ouradnik said. Chicken, meatballs and various from-scratch soups are served alongside salads, baked goods, Swedish Limpa bread and cherry dessert.
Scaturo’s fish boil is served during the summer with a homemade bread basket and slice of authentic Door County cherry pie, which is baked on-site.
The White Gull Inn has “a wonderful assortment of bread,” Polster added, which has a practical purpose. “Just in case a customer gets a fish bone stuck, that’s what the bread is for.”
He’s quick to point out, though, that wait staff is so adept at deboning the whitefish that bones are rarely an issue.
The overall experience is probably the best part of fish boils for Peterson. “You’re outside. It’s nice. Maybe you have a drink in your hand. You’re on vacation.”
Scaturo agreed that just as a hot dog or brat tastes better when cooked on a charcoal grill, the delicious fish boil plate is enhanced by the vacation vibe and company of family and friends.
“Fish boils are fun. It’s a cool thing to do,” Scaturo said. “It’s a culinary experience that is greater than the sum of its parts.”