Okay, we admit it. The sentence “We’re having smelt for dinner” doesn’t sound horribly appetizing. This is just one of those many cases in life where appearances, or in this case, names, can be highly deceiving. Smelt are among our most popular specialty New England seafoods and for good reason. They taste great, provide many health benefits, and are a breeze to prepare.
Also known by the name of Osmeridae, smelt are small fish that are found in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as well as in freshwater areas throughout the Northern Hemisphere1. In regard to their appearance, they actually look quite similar to very tiny salmon, with few of them reaching more than eight inches in length. They generally tend to live out most of their lives in salt water, but like many other fish, come back to fresh water to spawn. Prized for more than just their meat, smelt also produce a bright orange roe that is frequently found atop sushi.1
While smelt are popular in Asia and Europe, they’re especially beloved right here in North America. Many of the smelt that are caught in the lakes of and off the coasts of our continent are found along the New England coast, Great Lakes, and tidal areas of the Pudget Sound and Columbia River near Washington state and Oregon.2 Smelt are rather unique in the way that they are captured. They are one of the few fish that can legally be caught by hand-held nets and doing so provides onlookers with quite a show. In fact, it is generally considered one of the first rites of spring when local anglers come out at 2am with head torches and hand-held nets, clamoring up to the rivers/tidal areas and hoping to snare a fresh treat.
In addition to being caught in streams by nets, smelt are also a frequent target of ice fishermen. When the conditions are right, you can expect to find many hopeful fishermen sitting loyally by their freshly dug holes in the ice, poles in hand, waiting to snag a tasty morsel.
Due to their size and mild-yet-pleasingly fishy taste, smelt are a popular food source for other marine life, such as lake trout and salmon. Despite their low position on the food chain and their high popularity among consumers, smelt remain as one of the most underfished species in existence and therefore you can chow down on them to your heart’s content without making a negative impact on the environment or endangering a species.4 Generally around 5-7 smelt will make for a good snack and a dozen provide an adequate dinner for most appetites.
As mentioned before, smelt are generally very easy to prepare. If desired, they can be eaten whole, though most people tend to eat them with the heads and internal organs removed. If you’re buying your smelt frozen from a grocery store or seafood market, this removal has likely already been taken care of for you. After that, it’s simply a matter of thawing the smelt out and putting them in the frying pan to come up with a easy and delicious dinner. Smelt possess a lot of health benefits, such as being high in Omega 3 fatty acids, the ability to reduce bad cholesterol, and the ability to reduce your risk of a heart attack.4
To make sure your smelt are prepared safely though, there are a few rules of thumb you’ll want to follow. First off, never re-freeze smelt after you’ve thawed them. Secondly, thawing should generally take place over a period of about 24 hrs inside of your refrigerator. If you need to thaw them more quickly, you may run them under cold water, but never hot water. Once thawed, you’ll ideally want to start preparing your smelt for consumption as soon as possible. 4
As stated before, smelt are a well-known fish that are beloved throughout the Northern Hemisphere. There are several different festivals in different nations in which smelt play a starring role, just a few of which are listed below:
- The South Korean Ice Fishing Festival, running from Jan 30 to Feb 2 every year
- The Feast of Seven Fishes
- Norssikarnevaali – an annual fish festival held in the Finnish village of Paltamo
- The Lewiston Smelt Festival – held annually in Lewiston, NY, this festival involves consumption of smelt in mammoth supply along with chowder and beer
We’ll close out our little talk on smelt with an easy to prepare and delicious recipe from Food.com which we’re pretty sure you’ll enjoy.
Crisp Fried Smelt
Ingredients: 1 egg, 2 tbs milk, 1/2lb smelt, 1 cup of flour, frying oil/shortening of your choice 3
- Put the flour into a 1 cup container and add the smelt, shaking well to coat.
- Mix the eggs and milk together, then dip the fish into the mixture. After this, coat it in flour again.
- Add your shortening or frying oil to a large frying pan and fry the smelt for about 2 minutes or until they are golden brown, then flip and brown the other side.
- Remove smelt from the pan and add salt, pepper, and lemon if desired
1. Author Unavailable
2. Shaw, Hank
Smelt: Finger Food Extraordinaire
Crisp Fried Smelts
Food.com April 16, 2005
4. Gunderson, Jeff
Smelt- Dip Net to Dish
Minnesota Sea Grant
5. Author Unavailable