Fish and Bacon Muddle

Zingerman’s 4th Annual Camp Bacon is coming soon and to help get everyone prepared, we’re sharing tasty excerpts and recipes from Ari’s book, Zingerman’s Guide to Better Bacon

North Carolina Fish Muddlepig-sun

“Bacon makes the soup”

—Provençal saying

I’m not sure how I first heard of this dish, but it has become one of my favorite ways to cook fish stew over the years. It’s clearly in the same culinary tradition as all the one-pot seafood stews made anywhere near the ocean—something between a thickened bouillabaisse with bacon and a fish-dominated, lightly tomato-based chowder.

Although I’d always seen this billed as “Outer Banks Fish Muddle” I was steered straight by Elizabeth Wiegand, author of the Outer Banks Cookbook. “Muddles are done both at the coast and up rivers, so some sources say,” she explained. “However, I’ve always considered them INNER coast.” What she’s saying makes good sense. As she pointed out quickly, while it makes a great summer getaway and provides for some fine fishing, the thin strip of land that is the Outer Banks has never been a good place for raising the pigs from which the bacon for this fish stew comes.

(As a pig-related side note, Elizabeth also shared with me that back in the nineteenth century the North Carolinian upper crust built homes on the Outer Banks, then ferried all their possessions across the bay: servants, supplies, pigs and cows all came over. The livestock liked to root under the houses, which in and of itself isn’t a terrible thing. But the small holes in the floors of the Outer Banks houses, which allowed floodwaters to drain, also allowed the smell of the animals to permeate their interiors. The latticework that became so typical of houses in this area was originally installed to keep the animals and aromas away from the living quarters.)

Most recipes for muddle rely on rockfish, so called because the fish hang out near rocks. You may know them as striped bass, which fisherman refer to as “stripers.” What I didn’t know until speaking with Elizabeth is that they’re also known along the Carolina coast as “Mr. Pajama Pants” because of the horizontal black stripes that run up their hindquarters. Better still, some folks call them “squid hounds” for their propensity to chase squid, one of their favorite foods. The spring and fall are prime striper seasons—one theory of muddle making being that people had end of the year get-togethers to cook up the new season’s fish (remember, the slaughter took place around New Year’s, as well).

There are a few thousand versions of muddle. In part because it’s so good, and in part because this book is about bacon, I’ve put the pork more out front than some other cooks might have done. With that in mind, I prefer to feature the bigger flavors of an Edwards’ or Benton’s. I use a mixture of different fish for greater complexity of flavor and texture, but it’s certainly great made exclusively with striped bass, as well.

The sliced bread isn’t in many recipes but it’s a great way to bring more bacon flavor to the dish. Elizabeth reminded me that many Southerners would use Saltines, which are, of course, widely considered a “traditional”  bread down below the Mason-Dixon line. I have eggs listed as optional—most recipes don’t use them but I think they’re delicious. I’ve old references to doing the same in various versions, including one from Beth Tartan’s 1955 classic book, North Carolina and Old Salem Cookery.

Muddle is mostly considered a main dish, but you could certainly serve it in smaller portions as a soup course.


  • 8 ounces (about 4 to 6 slices) bacon, dicedfish-muddle-187U
  • 2 medium onions, diced
  • 1 large leek, washed well and thinly sliced
  • 1 large or 2 medium carrots, diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 pounds fresh plum tomatoes, chopped (in the off-season I’d suggest using good-quality canned)
  • An additional 4 ounces bacon, in a single chunk
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaf
  • ¼ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (I like the Marash red pepper flakes from Turkey)
  • 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped, rinsed and squeezed dry
  • 4 cups fish stock
  • ½ pound pollock or other inexpensive white ocean fish, cut into 1-inch
  • pieces
  • 1½ pounds waxy potatoes (I like Yukon Golds), cut into ½-inch dice
  • 1 pound striped bass or other full-flavored ocean fish, cut into 1-inch
  • chunks
  • 1 pound cod or other flaky white ocean fish, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • Coarse sea salt to taste
  • Freshly ground Tellicherry black pepper to taste
  • 6 eggs (optional)
  • 6 slices good crusty bread
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons reserved hot bacon fat
  • Bacon fat mayonnaise (optional, see page 172, Zingerman’s Guide to Better Bacon)



  1. 1. Brown the diced bacon over medium heat in a soup kettle or large Dutch oven until crisp. Remove and set aside. Remove the 3 to 4 tablespoons of drippings and reserve for garnish, leaving the rest in the pot. (If you don’t have enough fat in the pan, feel free to add a glug from the jar you’ve now started saving . . . right?)
  2. 2. Sauté the onion, leek, carrot and celery in the fat until soft. Stir gently to be sure they don’t stick.
  3. 3. Add the garlic and bay leaf and cook for 2 more minutes.
  4. 4. Add the tomatoes, bacon chunk, thyme, red pepper and parsley and cook over medium high for 10 to 15 minutes, until the tomatoes release their juices and begin to reduce.
  5. 5. Add the fish stock, pollock pieces and potatoes and bring to a strong simmer. Reduce heat to medium low. Simmer, uncovered, for about 2 hours. The muddle should be the texture of a moderately thick vegetable soup, so add more water if needed.
  6. 6. Remove the bacon chunk and set aside for future use. (At this point, the stew can be cooled and held in the refrigerator overnight, to be finished the following day. If you do so, be sure to bring the broth back to a strong simmer before continuing.)
  7. 7. Add the striped bass and cod, submerging them in the stewing juices, and bring back to a low boil.
  8. 8. Simmer for 5 to 8 minutes, until fish is just done. Add salt and pepper to taste. The stew should be thick and savory.
  9. 9. If using the eggs either poach them in a separate pot or do as I do and just crack them gently into the muddle when it starts to simmer, after you’ve added the final pieces of fish.
  10. 10. When the stew is just about ready, toast the bread. Rub each slice with some of the reserved bacon fat.
  11. 11. Warm the bowls in the oven. Ladle in the muddle and top with a slice of the toast. Place one of the poached eggs in each bowl. Sprinkle with the diced bacon.
  12. 12. You can also treat the muddle like a Marseillaise bouillabaisse by spooning a dollop of bacon fat mayonnaise atop the toast as a rouille. (It’s delicious!)

Serves 4 to 6 as a main course, or 8 as a side dish.


See you at camp!