Fried Smelt is an easy dinner for any night of the week! They take 5 minutes to cook, and have 6 ingredients, done in less than 30 minutes!
Every springtime around the Great Lakes in the United States and southern Canada, the yearly smelts run happens. Smelts are anadromous fish. Meaning they spawn in fresh water and live in the ocean as adult. Although they have been known to live in fresh water as well.
The breeding season lasts about a week. Several males will accompany the females up the stream and fertilize the eggs after she lays them. Spawns can vary in their timing, depending on how warm the spring temperatures are.
During the spawn fishermen can be seen, at night, with lanterns and nets, in the streams and river tributaries of the lakes, as the smelts go upstream to breed; smelt dipping, as it’s called.
Smelts are also caught with tiny hooks, under the ice. Ice fishermen set up many hooks together and you can pull up 5-10 smelts on one pole, depending on how many hooks you put on the pole. This is usually done in shallower lakes or coastal areas of the Atlantic and Pacific. Some lakes have laws that forbid smelt dipping so in those lakes you fish for them on poles.
Smelt are also sold commercially, if you live close enough to one of the Great Lakes or some of the coastal lands of the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Different species of smelts are found in Europe, and northern Asia, and also in Australia! Our local smelts range from about 7″ to 9″. Learn more about smelts at Wikipedia
Smelt are low in mercury and other heavy metals, compared to larger fish. They are nutrient rich and have many of the same health benefits of anchovies and sardines. They are high in calcium, potassium, phosphorus and vitamins B and D. Smelts are also low in calories and low in fat.
We used to stay up until the sun came up and drive an hour south of us to a stream where you were guaranteed to get the best haul of smelts, if you stayed up most of the night. Then we would spend the next day cleaning the smelts.
How to Clean Fresh Smelts
- Cut off their heads, just past the gills. (very small smelts can be cooked with their heads attached.)
- Slit the belly to the anal fin.
- Remove entrails.
- Wash cavity thoroughly. It is important to wash the fish under running water to clean out all of the entrails.
- Once smelts are cleaned, place in cold, salted water for approximately 1 hour.
- Freeze in plastic freezer bags or vacuum sealed bag.
- Adding 1/2 cup of water to the bag will prolong the freezing time.
- Can be frozen for up to 6 months.
What ingredients do you need?
- flour (can substitute gluten free flour)
- fine bread crumbs or corn flake crumbs
- lemon pepper – dried spice in the spice aisle
- celery salt – you can substitute celery seed and then add salt separately
- oil – use a high temperature oil like canola or peanut oil
- cleaned and dressed smelts
How to Cook Fried Smelt
Measure about 1 cup of flour, 2 tablespoons of cornstarch and bread crumbs into a covered bowl or plastic food storage bag. Add lemon pepper and celery salt. Mix well.
Dry fish with paper towels. Add fish and shake to coat.
Cook smelt in shallow oil and butter in a heavy bottom pan, until crispy on first side. Flip with tongs or spatula when brown, and brown second side.
What sauces to use for smelt
Smelt are actually delicious on their own but lots of sauces go well for dipping them, if you love dips. We also like to serve them with a lemon wedge.
- tartar sauce
- comeback sauce
- homemade cocktail sauce
- Thousand Island Dressing
- Fermented Hot Sauce (or Tabasco, Sriracha)
- chili flakes for a bit of kick.
- fresh, chopped herbs like parsley and dill work very well too.
- Chipotle aioli
- Malt vinegar as the British do for fish and chips
What to serve with smelt
Serve them as an appetizer with a dipping sauce or with one of these side dishes.
- Sweet potato fries
- Fries or chips
- side salad
- cottage cheese
- mashed potatoes
- lemon wedges
Variations of this recipe
Depending on the flavor profile you are going for you can use other spices to change it up a bit.
- Add chili powder for an added kick.
- Add paprika or smoked paprika for a different flavor profile
- Dill goes really well with these smelt, especially if you sprinkle with lemon before serving (grate some lemon zest over them too, after cooking)
- Add Italian seasoning and garlic powder for the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve and make them Italian smelts
- Add Mexican seasonings like garlic, cumin, coriander, chili powder, paprika and Mexican oregano. Make fish tacos with this variation.
Pro tips for your success
- Add plenty of salt to the flour and cornstarch. (or celery salt)
- Be sure to shake excess flour off of the fish before cooking. You don’t want an excess of flour in the body cavity because it will not cook properly.
- Cook smelts until crispy for best texture.
- Make sure oil is very hot and add smelts slowly so that the oil does not cool down too much.
- Eat smaller smelts with the bones. They are soft enough to chew. Larger smelt should have the rib cage removed, after frying. To remove the rib cage, grab on the the spine with your fingers on the end from where you cut the head off. The entire rib cage will pull out very easily.
Other Delicious Fish Recipes on Binky’s Culinary Carnival
- Pan Fried Bullhead
- Northern Pike
- Stuffed Rainbow Trout
- Grilled Salmon
- Lobster Stuffed Grouper
- Fried Perch
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I hope you enjoyed the recipe today!
Enjoy. And have fun cooking!
- Add flour, cornstarch, bread crumbs, celery salt and lemon pepper to large covered bowl or plastic food storage bag. Mix well.1 cup flour, 2 tablespoons cornstarch, 1/2 cup fine bread crumbs, 2 teaspoon celery salt, 2 teaspoon lemon Pepper, or to taste, 2 teaspoon Olive Oil or Canola Oil, 1 tablespoon Butter
- Add smelts to flour mixture and shake until thoroughly covered. See notes below. You can also dredge them in a bowl.1 pound smelt
- Melt butter in olive oil in large cast iron skillet over high heat.
- Add smelts, in batches, to hot oil and fry 2-3 minutes per side, until golden brown and crispy. Drain on wire rack.
- Serve with your favorite dipping sauce.
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