Traditional recipes

Fried Smelts

Fried Smelts


  • Vegetable oil (for frying)
  • 16 butterflied fresh smelts (about 1 1/3 lb.)
  • 2 lemons, cut into wedges

Recipe Preparation

  • Pour oil into a large pot to a depth of 1/2". Attach deep-fry thermometer to side of pot so bulb is submerged in oil. Heat oil over medium-high heat to 320°. Season smelt fillets lightly with salt.

  • Place flour in a wide shallow dish (a pie dish is ideal). Holding 1 fillet by the tail, dredge in flour on both sides, shaking off any excess. Place on a large rimmed baking sheet; repeat with remaining fish. Working in batches and returning oil to 320° between batches, fry fillets until light golden and just cooked through, about 1 minute per batch. Transfer fish to paper towels to drain.

  • Heat oil to 360°. Working in batches, fry fillets until golden brown, about 1 minute. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Season with salt and serve with lemon wedges for squeezing over.

Recipe by Alejandro Morales,

Nutritional Content

5 servings, 1 serving contains: Calories (kcal) 300 Fat (g) 14 Saturated Fat (g) 2 Cholesterol (mg) 85 Carbohydrates (g) 20 Dietary Fiber (g) 1 Total Sugars (g) 2 Protein (g) 24 Sodium (mg) 170Reviews Section

Fried Smelt – Pan Fried in 5 minutes!

Every springtime around the Great Lakes in the United States and southern Canada, the yearly smelts run happens. 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&rsquos called.

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&Prime to 9&Prime. Learn more at Wikipedia

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 way cleaning the smelts.

What Are Smelt?

Smelt is a small fish (approximately 6 inches or so in length) with a silvery or slightly green-ish exterior and white flesh inside. Here in Canada, they are quite common in the North Atlantic ocean, where they are a popular food source for other fish species, like salmon.

Smelts are easy to prepare, tasty, low in mercury and have lots of other benefits .

Here in the waters of the island portion of the province (Newfoundland), we have fish that are quite similar to smelt called &lsquocapelin&rsquo.

Capelin, actually, is part of the smelt family. In the middle of summer, if you go on the shores, you can actually see the capelin rolling in on the beach rocks. They&rsquore trying to get away from whales (who enjoy them as a food source). It&rsquos quite the sight to see, I tell ya!

This is a picture shot by my parents of the capelin rolling in one summer:

I grew up eating smoked capelin. Quite tasty as well! I remember my grandfather would dry them outside in the sun where they were in season. Such lovely memories.

So, when I was given these smelts, I was quite the happy lady!!

Fried Smelts - Recipes

If smelts are frozen, defrost them. Some people fry and eat smelts whole, especially the smallest ones. Our family prefers smelts butterflied. To clean whole smelts, make a straight cut along the belly with a small knife from under the head to the tail. Turn the smelt over and cut halfway into the fish just behind the head.

Pull the head down and back to remove the innards and tiny backbone. Use your fingers and running water to pull and rinse away any remaining bits. Drop each cleaned fish into a bowl of ice water.

Pour oil into a large skillet to a depth of 1 inch. Heat oil over medium-high heat to 350° (or until a small piece of bread dropped in the oil immediately bubbles and rises to the top).

Mix the flour, salt and pepper in a plastic bag.

Cook the smelts in batches, depending on the size of your skillet. Drain the smelts and toss about ten in the bag at a time.

Shake bag to coat smelts with flour. Shake off excess flour from each smelt before dropping it into the oil. Stir to make sure they don’t stick together. Cook until golden brown, turning over once if necessary, 3 to 4 minutes.

Drain the fried smelts on paper towels and serve immediately with the lemon wedges.

Smelt History and Recipe

“This evening we were visited by Comowool the Clatsop Chief and 12 men women and children of his nation . . . The Chief and his party had brought for sail a Sea Otter skin, some hats, stergeon and a species of small fish which now begin to run, and are taken in great quantities in the Columbia R. about 40 miles above us by means of skimming or scooping nets . . . I find them best when cooked in Indian stile, which is by roasting a number of them together on a wooden spit without any previous preparation whatever. They are so fat they require no additional sauce, and I think them superior to any fish I ever taste, even more delicate and luscious than the white fish of the lakes which have heretofore formed my standart of excellence among the fishes.”
– From the Journals of Captain Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (February 25, 1806)

History of Smelt Fishing:

To an old-timer living in the Pacific Northwest, smelt can bring back memories of glorious fish runs. For many families, annual smelt dipping was a social and recreational activity, and they came from miles around to net the smelt for frying and smoking. No one knew actually when the schools of smelt would come until someone spotted the first fish. When the announcement was made that “the smelt are running,” everyone made a mad dash to the river.

The smelt runs were so large through the 1930s and 1940s, that there was the illusion the runs would be annual events. But the runs started becoming irregular and eventually stopped in some rivers, especially in the 1990s. Only a few now make the migration up the Columbia River. No one knows what went wrong, with the smelt runs. Among the possible reasons for the decline are the warm-water El Nino ocean conditions, water pollution from pulp mills, and the changes to the river estuary caused by channel dredging and construction of jetties and dams. The river temperature at the end of March may have an effect on the timing of migration upstream to their spawning grounds. A water temperature of approximately 40 degrees F. was found to be necessary to insure upstream migration in the Columbia River. This spirit of the smelt fever still continues whenever the fish decide to appear in the rivers of the Pacific Northwest.

My husband, Donald Stradley, writes about smelt fishing in the 1940s with his father, Lawrence Stradley, on the Sandy River, a tributary of the Columbia River near Portland, Oregon:

I remember, as a boy of twelve or thirteen, smelt fishing with my father on the Sandy River. We fished from a wooden float supported by oil drums and anchored to the bank where the water ran 10 to 12 feet deep. Large nets, 2 feet in diameter and up to 4 feet long, attached to a 16-foot-long poles, were dipped downstream to intercept the upstream migration of these thick schools of silvery fish.

Sometimes the schools were several feet in diameter moving in undulating fashion through the current, never following the exact same route more than a few seconds. The trick was to locate the school by the feel of the fish hitting the steel rim of the net and then rapidly stroking downstream to intercept as many as possible. On a good dip, as many as 50 pounds of fish could be intercepted, requiring more strength than I had to bring them to the surface.

Smelt, also called eulachon or oolichan by Native Americans, are small, silver fish the size of herring (approximately 6 to 10 inches long).

Each spring they migrate in millions to coastal rivers from the Klamath River in northern California, north to the Nushagak River in Alaska, and to the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. After spawning, most die, their carcasses decay, and they thus enrich the streams and estuaries. Another nickname is “candle fish.” This nickname comes from the fact that the smelt are so full of oil that when dried, placed upright, and lit, the fish would burn from end to end like a candle.

To Native Americans, the return of the eulachon meant the beginning of spring and a renewed food supply, literally saving lives and earning them the name “salvation fish” or “savour fish.” They were the first fish to arrive in the river after a long cold winter when most of their stored food supplies had been depleted. Unlike other fish oils, eulachon lipids are solid at room temperature, with the color and consistency of butter. These fish are almost 20 percent oil by weight, allowing a fine grease to be rendered from their bodies and creating a high-energy food source that could easily be transported and traded with other tribes farther inland.

The name “Grease Trail” was given to these travel routes, because the most important trade item carried over them was the eulachon oil extracted from the tiny fish. In the 1700s a vast network of ooligan “grease trails” stretched from Alaska to the Fraser River, even crossing the northern Rockies. These ancient “Grease Trails” later formed part of the Dalton Trail, a toll road that opened up the interior of Alaska to prospectors during the Klondike Gold Rush from 1897 to 1898.

In 1793, when Alexander Mackenzie (1764-1820) made his famous overland journey to the Pacific Ocean, he followed an ancient “Grease Trail” from the Upper Fraser to the Bella Coola. Alexander Mackenzie, considered Canada’s Lewis and Clark, was the first European to cross the Rocky Mountains and view the western seas from the shores of northwestern North America, preceding the more widely known Lewis and Clark expedition by 12 years. His journey took him 72 days and covered over 1,240 miles (2,000 km) of unmapped terrain. Today parts of the ancient trail form the famous Alaskan Highway.

The term “grease Trail” does not seem to have been used south of the Canadian border, but there is evidence that dried ooligan and ooligan oil were key trade items in the Columbia River trade network. Chinook is a Native American nation of the Pacific Northwest, which inhabited the lower Columbia River valley in what is now Washington and Oregon. Chinook comprise the Clatsop, Cathlamet, Multnomah, Watlala, Clowwewalla, Clackamas, Chilluckittequa, and Wasco tribes today. The Columbia River tribes used the Chinook Jargon trade language, which spread the word “ooligan” throughout the Northwest. Those who spoke Chinookan languages, fifty or more winter villages strung along both banks of the lowest two hundred miles of the Columbia River plus twenty-five miles up the Willamette River at the falls and the Clackamas River, and twenty miles north and south along the Pacific seacoast, for all those people the river people had no name, indeed hardly more than a memory that they must be related. David Lewis and Scott Byram in their article Ourigan – Wealth of the Northwest Coast talks about the ooligan oil:

The Indians of the Northwest were known for their great wealth, and nutritious ooligan oil was one of their most valued trade goods. Some of the greatest potlatch ceremonies were ooligan ‘grease feasts,’ and ooligan also was a medicine.

Tribal chiefs would hold “grease feast . . . in order to destroy the prestige of the rival” chiefs. The ooligan grease feast was the most expensive of all the feast, “at which large quantities of fish oil (made of the oulachon) are consumed and burnt . . . “During a grease feast, the central fire is built up to the point of scorching the guests in order for the host to conquer them, and “grease is poured into the fire so that the blankets of guests get scorched.” This serves to raise the prestige of the host who can afford to give such a feast, expending enormous quantities of the valued resource. If the rival chief is not able to respond with a similar potlatch and destroy an equal amount of property, then his name is “broken” and he suffers a loss of prestige.

The Native American’s recipe to render oolichan grease differs slightly from one tribe to another. The Haisla people of the Kitamaat Village of British Columbia, have been oolichan fishing for thousands and thousands of years. The following recipes are from their web site:

Their general recipe is to allow the fish to ripen for approximately two weeks under evergreen branches, cook the fish in fresh water, and then skim the oil from the surface of the water. Specific recipes differ in the dumping and stirring of the fish, straining the carcasses, placing rocks in the water to reheat the mixture, and filtration methods. Whatever method used that is unique to the individual tribe, those involved in making the oolichan grease were, and still are, proud of the end product. The grease was, and still is, shared and sometimes given away as a gift. The valuable and nutritious end product is used on many foods salmon, halibut, herring roe, and berries, similar to the way butter is used. The grease was used for trade with other First Nations that did not harvest oolichan.

Pan-Fried Smelts

Smelts can be baked, deep-fried, grilled or pickled. They can be coated with bread crumbs, panko, cornmeal or flour. Or they can be thrown in the pan without embellishment.

Look for fish that are 3 to 4 inches long the smaller, the better. They are usually sold dressed (heads off, guts removed). The whole fish can be eaten, skin, bones and all. If you prefer, the heads, innards and roe are edible.

They are available (best to call first) at the Maine Avenue seafood markets in Southwest Washington, some Whole Foods Markets, Southern Maryland Seafood Market at Eastern Market and the Fishery in Chevy Chase.

Servings: 4

Combine the butter and oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.

Combine the flour, salt and pepper in a shallow dish.

Rinse the cleaned smelts and pat them dry with paper towels. Lightly season them inside and out with salt and pepper. Dip them in lemon juice, if desired. Line a large plate with several layers of paper towels.

Lightly coat both sides of the smelts in the seasoned flour. Place just enough smelts in the skillet to keep from overcrowding it cook for 2 to 4 minutes, then turn them over and cook for 2 to 4 minutes, so the skin is browned and crisp and the flesh is flaky.

Transfer to the lined plate to drain briefly. Repeat as needed to cook all the smelts.

Easy fried smelts recipe

Most of the people I know have never seen a smelt, much less know what one is. I live in Miami, FL., and smelts are found in the Northern oceans. I may have come across one in a Greek restaurant, but never in a fish market. For some reason, small fish like sprats, smelts and sardines are popular all over the world, except the States.

If you see them on the menu or in the market, don’t pass up the lowly smelt. You can eat the whole fish – bones and all. They are crunchy goodness…sweet and light and not as fishy as a sardine. Larger smelt can be butterflied and fried.

I’m lucky to live near an amazing gourmet Russian market. It’s like an amusement park for foodies. It has whole walls of truffles freezers full of caviar and foie gras. I’m not even exaggerating. They even raise their own sturgeon somewhere upstate.

Deep in their frozen fish section, I found some six-packs of little smelts. I bought two, because I love the idea of having a backup six-pack of frozen little fishes in the freezer. I cooked them up a few days later, with a side of fennel apple slaw and buttered dill potatoes.

They were easy to clean and easy to cook. A quick dredge in seasoned flour, and a few minutes in hot peanut oil resulted in a delicious meal. If you want a thicker crust, dip your smelts in an egg/milk mixture after the first dredge in flour then coat them in another layer of flour before frying.

Heat your oil in a heavy pan. I used one about the width to hold two fish side by side. You want about 1½ inches of oil in the pan.

Clean sprats by cutting a small slit up the belly from the tail to the head. If you find some clumps of orange stuff in there, that’s the roe. Remove it from the cavity and you can eat it. I battered and fried mine along with the fish.

Now run your finger inside the cavity towards the head to remove the guts. Just yank them out quickly and you’re done. Remove the heads if you prefer them that way. Rinse the fish.

Season your flour with salt and pepper. Dredge fish in the flour. I test my oil to see if it’s hot enough by dropping in a dash of flour. If it sizzles right away, it’s ready.

Now add your smelts to the pan and fry about 2 minutes on each side. Drain on paper towels. Season with a sprinkle of salt and serve right away.

Buying Smelts

Smelt are vastly underfished, according to many seafood watchdog groups. This means you can eat lots of them in good conscience and various species are available all over the world. Found along the Atlantic coast, the most widely distributed is the rainbow smelt. The most common on the Pacific coast is whitebait smelt. Whitebait is a catch-all term for a number of species, including surf smelt, night smelt, and the fatty eulachon. The latter is so rich the Indians used them for making candles, thus their common name "candlefish."

Frozen smelt are widely available in supermarkets. They are always flash-frozen and come in big bags, so you just grab as much as you need. Aim for six to seven per person for an appetizer, twice that for the main course. Thaw in the fridge and fry away.

How to Cook Smelts that Melt in Your Mouth

Smelts are freshwater fish that you can steam, fry, barbeque on the charcoal grill, roast or even bake. They have a decent amount of meat for a small fish, and thus just a few fish provide a filling meal. The taste of smelts rivals that of sea fish when done right, because they take well to seasoning, and they have a melt-in-your-mouth texture. Use the following cooking tips below for tastily fried smelts that will leave you and your family wanting more.

After thawing, wash the smelts with vinegar and water, then dry them with a piece of paper towel. You want to get the smelts as dry as possible so that they will fry well.

Prepare a mixture of 1 tablespoon each of salt and black pepper in a saucer this is the only seasoning the smelts need. They also need a dry batter of flour mixed with a pinch of salt and pepper. Rub the dry batter over the fish immediately before frying, never place the fish in the batter and let them rest.

To get a melt in your mouth fried smelt, you should fry the fish until they are just golden brown. Any darker means that you’ve dried out the juices and made them crispy instead. To get your smelts golden brown and juicy set your skillet to medium heat and when it’s hot, add your oil. Coconut oil, olive oil, or any type of vegetable oil are good choices. Place the smelts into the oil immediately after placing it in the pot. If you wait until the oil smokes, you run the risk of making the fish too crispy.

Before serving the smelts, squeeze the juice of a lime or a lemon over them. This gives them a tangy taste on top of the salty and spicy flavors from the seasonings. You can serve them with any side dish you like because they pair well with just about anything.

Pan-fried smelt can have a melt-in-your-mouth texture if done the right way. Remember that fish have natural juices that give them a succulent flavor and texture. Your job in the cooking process is to try to preserve those natural juices while adding the other flavors from frying. Follow the guide on how to cook smelt above and use these cooking tips to deliver your best ever pan-fried smelts.

  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup rye flour
  • 2 teaspoons caraway seeds (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon salt (or according to taste)
  • 1 cup vegetable oil (for frying)
  • 2 pounds fresh smelts (cleaned, rinsed, and patted dry, apple cider vinegar or lemon juice)

1. Combine the rye flour, white flour, salt, and caraway seeds and mix them all well.

2. Heat the oil in a large heavy pan over medium heat until very hot but not smoking.

3. Roll the smelts in the flour mixture, and fry, a few at a time until crisp and golden, about 1 minute on each side. Drain on paper towels.

Serving: Serve with vinegar. Serving will be enough for 4 to 6 as a snack.

Watch the video: Smelt Catch and Cook Part 2: Pan Fried Smelt (January 2022).