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Fried Smelt – Pan Fried in 5 minutes!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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Freezing Smelts

  • Once smelts are cleaned, place in cold, salted water for approximately 1 hour.
  • Drain
  • 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)
  • cornstarch
  • 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
  • butter
  • 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.

Breaded smelt in cast iron pan.Pin

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.

Crispy smelt cooking in cast iron pan.Pin

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.

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
  • coleslaw
  • side salad
  • cottage cheese
  • mashed potatoes
  • lemon wedges
smelt with sweet potatoes on pewter bowlPin

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.

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Fried smelt on pewter dish with sweet potato fries.Pin

Fried Smelt

Fried Smelt is an easy Spring dinner for any night of the week! They literally take 5 minutes to cook, so dinner is on the table in less than 30 minutes!
See Step by Step Photos Above!Most of our recipes have step by step photos and videos! Also helpful tips so that you can make it perfectly the first time and every time! Scroll up to see them!
4.95 from 18 votes
Print Pin Rate
Course: entree, Main Course
Cuisine: American
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes
Servings: 6 servings
Calories: 264kcal
Author: Beth Neels

Ingredients

  • 1 pound smelt
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1/2 cup fine bread crumbs can substitute corn flake crumbs
  • 2 teaspoon celery salt
  • 2 teaspoon lemon Pepper, or to taste
  • 2 teaspoon Olive Oil or Canola Oil plus more, if needed
  • 1 tablespoon Butter

Instructions

  • 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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Video

Notes

**Notes**
Important to shake off excess flour!
We find that shaking them in a bag introduces too much flour into the cavity that does not get cooked through and will make them taste like flour. If you choose to flour them in a bag, make sure to shake them off thoroughly.
Garnish with fresh chopped herbs such as fresh dill or fresh parsley. Serve with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
Good sauces for dipping;

Nutrition

Calories: 264kcal | Carbohydrates: 22g | Protein: 16g | Fat: 12g | Saturated Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 33mg | Sodium: 858mg | Potassium: 222mg | Fiber: 1g | Vitamin A: 175IU | Calcium: 234mg | Iron: 2mg
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32 Comments

  1. I live in Alberta, Canada, and years ago could get frozen, dressed smelt (4-6 inches) in some supermarkets, but for years now only tiny ones, undressed and like bait smelt have been available. Some years ago in Edmonton a local seafood retailer was able to get me some from a Scandinavian supplier in season. In Calgary for years now and no smelt. A local retailer said he’d been trying to source some for months (that’s how hard they are to get here!) so left my name on his list a month ago and today he had finally sourced some Atlantic sea smelt! Going to have my first pan fried smelt feed in years tonight!

    1. That’s great! We have a hard time finding them too. Haven’t been able to find any so far this year. We continue to look though. When we can find them they are Canadian (Ontario, I think) Whe we were young we would stay up all night catching and cleaning them but, alas, time wears us down. Lol! Let me know how they turn out! Thanks Joe.

      1. 4 stars
        They were great Beth! I purchased enough for 4 meals for myself and am having the second batch tonight. Spacing it out because they ARE expensive, understandable I guess because of how hard they are to get. I was pointed to the local seafood retailer who got them for me (Boyd’s Lobster Shop) by a wholesaler, because in desperation I had called a couple of seafood wholesalers to see if they had any suggestions. And Boyd’s did come through, because luckily they had spent months trying to source them for other customers. You might want to try that route, or a really good local seafood retailer. Just a thought! 🙂

        1. I haven’t been able to find any yet. I’m waiting with anticipation! Glad you liked the recipe Joe.

  2. HI, you my ok the she from for oxen or thaw the thaw them out first

    Please let me know as i’m making these for friends tomorrow
    dawn

      1. You don’t want to leave them out of the refrigerated. Leftovers should be refrigerated and will last approximately 3 days.

  3. We ate them a lot when we were kids. And also can make into a nice curry if you are game for it. Some remove the heads and others leave them on. Nice with rice. If you are stuck with a bone in your throat what mum said was to swallow a ball of rice without munching)followed by a glass of water.

    1. My mom always said a wad of white bread, so the same theory. I love curries. I would love to try that! Thanks Ira!

  4. Beth, following up to your last comment… if I’m making them only for adults, would you fry them as they are? With bones, head and everything else? Also, could they be done in an air fryer? Thanks!

    1. Some people leave the heads on. We always removed the heads when we cleaned them. These ones were from Canada and I purchased them at my local grocer. They had the head removed. You could cook them head on. It won’t affect the flavor. I personally wouldn’t eat them, but have known people who did. As far as the air fryer, I don’t see why not! I have been going to try them in the air fryer, I haven’t as of yet. I’ll update you once I do! Thanks Claudia!

  5. 5 stars
    This is the best way to serve these little fish – we also refer to them here as whitebait (I hope I am not wrong). They are delicious. You really made me crave for those now and I need to go and get some and have them ASAP.

    1. Oh, that’s interesting to know Ramona! I wonder if they are the same genus and species. They are tasty, though, for sure! Thank you!

  6. 5 stars
    What an interesting recipe and a new name to me, in some ways it is similar to what we call whitebait in the UK, which is immature fish that are fried and eaten whole, head and guts included 😮 They are a lot younger than these smelts though.

    This sounds delicious!

    1. This variety of smelt gets approximately 20 cm in length, so they are quite small. I have known people to eat the entire fish, but we prefer to clean them! Thanks Brian!

  7. 5 stars
    Wow a 5 minute recipe that is amazing!! These look fabulous, great recipe! I am going to give these a try! Cheers

  8. 5 stars
    These sound so delicious. I like the simple flavors which let the fresh fish shine through. There’s nothing like fresh pan-fried lake fish. I bet it’s a fun experience catching these too.

    1. We used to pack up son and he would end up falling asleep in the car! It’s too far past my bedtime now, lol! Thanks Michelle!

  9. 5 stars
    My first attempt at cooking smelts will be this weekend. I’m a little nervous as I’ve never deboned a fish before, but love how yours turned out in the pick and can’t wait to try.

    1. If the smelt are small enough, they do not have to be deboned, for adults. The bones are so small they are perfectly fine to chew. If the smelt have gotten some size to them, you want to spread them open and pull the whole rib cage out. This can usually be done in one step if you grab the mid line bone. You can also take a fork and stick it along the mid line bone, from the skin side of the fish and gently pull the meat off. This should eliminate 99% of the bones and you should end up with the whole rib cage, pretty much intact. For smaller children, I would make sure they are totally deboned. Thanks Jen! I hope this helps!

  10. 5 stars
    I like that these are lightly coated. That way you get more of the flavor than coating.

    1. Yes, I don’t like them if they are drowned in breading, you can’t even taste the fish! Thanks Andrea!

  11. 5 stars
    I’ve never had smelt. I’m sure it’s available to me here in MA, so now I’m going to keep my eye out because this looks yummy.

    1. They may be available near the ocean, from what I have read! If you can find them, definitely, give them a try! Thanks Christine!

    1. They are just shallow fried. You can deep fry, but they are just as good, or better than deep fried. Thanks Krissy!

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