New England has the clambake; midcoast has the soft-shell crab feast; further south, it’s the crawdad boil. The midwestern equivalent? A big ol’ smelt fry.
What are smelt?
Smelt are small, silvery fish that spawn in freshwater and migrate to saltwater through rivers and tributaries. On the Atlantic coast, rainbow smelt is the predominant species; on the Pacific coast, whitebait is the catch-all term for various local smelt species.
Coastal Native Americans have a long history of eating and using these oily little fishes. One species of smelt was given the nickname “candlefish” because of its high fat content that would allow a dried, properly-positioned fish to burn from end to end when lit. After their introduction to Michigan’s Crystal Lake in 1912, smelt migrated into the Great Lakes, where they flourished as predator populations were reduced. Though populations in the Great Lakes aren’t what they once were, smelt are generally underfished and thus usually a sustainable choice.
What do smelt taste like?
Poetically, Eat Wisconsin Fish describes their aroma as “like freshly cut cucumber.” For a fish so rich in oils, smelt are praised for their fresh, sweet flavor and white flesh that becomes soft and flaky when cooked.
Low-calorie smelt are a concentrated source of protein, and have significant levels of omega-3s. As with most fish, they can contain chemicals and toxins found in their environment, so the recommended dietary frequency will depend upon the level of PFAS in the water where they’re caught.
How to cook smelt
Survey says: fried. Smelt are four to seven inches long, as if made for the frying pan, and their delicate skin and soft bones make them easy to eat whole. Larger smelt can be broiled, grilled, or baked whole, but, as in the classic dish called ‘fried whitebait,’ smelt are most commonly battered or dusted with flour and then fried. A batter with a light touch, like a tempura batter, will add a nice crust but not overwhelm the fish’s delicate texture. Six or seven will do a person nicely as an appetizer; eat with your fingers, with a side of mustard or aioli for. Maybe smelt with sour pickle sauce will be your new fave?
A quick note on the head and viscera: though both can be eaten, they can if necessary be removed with a quick diagonal slice. Skin, tail, and fins are typically all eaten.
Though occasionally found fresh in seafood markets, smelt are highly perishable, and as such, are most often flash-frozen and sold in supermarkets. Most smelt are sold already headed and gutted.