Smelts with Lemon & Capers

Yes, these little New England natives have a funny name, and they don’t look like much more than a mouthful, but these mid-winter natives remain popular.

Rainbow smelts are a saltwater fish that, like salmon, spawn in fresh water tributaries, particularly on the Maine coast. These little gems are an extremely popular target of ice fishermen (and women), as well as food for larger fish. They are tiny, just two to five inches long, sweet, and were long a staple of the New England mid-winter kitchen.

Sadly, they have been overfished, thus both fishing season and quantities are now closely regulated to protect them and help to rebuild the populations. I was lucky to find some last week at my local fish market, and bought two pounds. I was a little greedy, but nothing went to waste, not even the bones, which are edible! I remember my Uncle Leonard ate every bit of the fish–– head, guts, bones, and all, but I prefer them without the guts and head!

A funny name!

Yes, they have a funny name, and I will always remember my father referring to them as fish bait, and he was right about that. Many fishermen use smelts as bait for larger fish, but they are delicious in their own right!

My Mom cooked them simply. A soak in milk to sweeten them (I still do this although I’m not sure it really affects the flavor of the fish much), a dusting of flour or breadcrumbs, and a quick fry in cast iron, more than likely in Crisco.

Plain and simple – just a quick dredge in breadcrumbs or flour, and a sprinkle of salt is all that is needed to serve up these little fish. However, you can add a squeeze of lemon and some capers to add a little something different.

There’s nothing wrong with that method; it’s quick and delicious. But I’ve made a few swaps which I think enhance these little bites. I swapped buttermilk for the milk. It is a little thicker and helps the coating stick a little better to the slippery fish. It also adds a tang to the finished dish.

Buy local!

When buying smelts, ask about the origin, and in New England you want it as local as possible. I bought some a few years ago that I discovered were from the other side of the country (perfect if that is where you live), and they tasted like they had been on a long ride! A fresh smelt will smell like nothing at all. If the smelts are whole, you can ask the fish monger to clean them for you. Also, try to find them all about the same size so they will cook evenly. Some batches vary widely in size! Of course, you can also separate them yourself and cook the larger and smaller ones separately (probably not).

I also don’t recommend buying them frozen and the small amount of flesh dries out quickly in the freezer.

A little jazz

A little garlic in the oil, a squeeze of lemon, and a few capers add to the fresh tang. Cooking smelts will still be very simple, well received by the family, and an easy recipe for a weeknight.

Don’t bother with fancy breadcrumbs here, a lot of it falls off in the cooking no matter how you bread them! If you don’t have breadcrumbs, you can simply use flour.

Smelts with Lemon & Capers

2 lbs. fresh smelts

2 cups buttermilk

1 tsp. each salt and pepper

2 cups plain breadcrumbs

Duck fat or olive oil for frying

2 large cloves garlic, bruised

Juice of 1 lemon

1 tbsp capers

Parsley to garnish

Rinse the smelts well and pat dry. Combine the buttermilk and the salt and pepper in a shallow dish and soak the fish in this for 30 minutes. In the meantime, squeeze your lemon, measure out your other ingredients, and chop your parsley.

Heat a cast-iron or other large frying pan (mine is 12″) over medium high heat and add fat and garlic cloves (if the garlic starts to get too browned, remove it from the pan, its only job is to flavor the oil). I prefer the duck fat, but olive oil does nicely too. You want there to be a quarter- to half-inch of fat in the pan.

Place the breadcrumbs on a cookie sheet and remove the smelts from the milk mixture, shaking off before placing on the crumbs. Have them all breaded and ready to fry.

Once the oil is hot, cook smelts in batches, one layer at a time that is not crowded. These cook quickly, once they are browned, they are ready to turn.

Place on a wire rack to drain, sprinkle with salt immediately, cover loosely with foil, and continue cooking the rest. Place on a platter for serving. You can top right here and serve them, but I prefer the lemon topping.

Mix the capers and lemon juice together and sprinkle over the whole lot, then garnish with the parsley.

I also like them fried simply and served with horseradish seafood cocktail sauce!

Another recipe

My late mother-in-law Pat operated two high end restaurants in the tourist ski areas where we lived. She loved serving the humble smelt to her guests. Here is her recipe, straight from her recipe card:

Pat’s Smelts

8 eggs

½  cup water

½ cup oil

2 cups flour

1 tbsp. garlic salt

1 tsp. salt and pepper

Mix eggs, water, and oil in one dish. In the second dish, mix flour and seasoning. Dip smelts in the egg mixture, then in the flour mixture, and fry. Serve with lemon aioli mixed with fresh chopped dill.

© Copyright 2019 – or current year, Dorothy Grover-Read, The New Vintage Kitchen


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Lickthespoon says:

    What a great post. I love the sense of nostalgia and the way you put on your own twist. Buttermilk sound a great idea I must say.
    Ive not seen smelts in our Suffolk uk fishmongers – do you think I could try this with the tiny whitebait we get here?

    1. I was just chatting with someone else about that same substitution. I am not familiar with whitebait, but it sounds like they are similar in nature. I’m sure this recipe would probably work with you natives!

  2. I had not heard of Smelt so did a little Googling and discovered there is a species of Australian Smelt…. I thought they might be like Whitebait (which I love) but they are not. I agree, for a larger fish heads and guts gone, but for smaller White bait, it’s cooked as is. Very interesting and great recipe!

    1. And I have never heard of Whitebait The other advantage of eating the small fish is that they contain less mercury than larger, older fish! My other small-fish love is our regional fresh sardines, although I love the canned ones as well, bones and all!

      1. Me too Dorothy….I love Sardines on toast with a little sprinkle of vinegar….yum!

  3. Yum on this end too! One of my favorite lunches when no one’s around is sardines on baguette toasts with a little red onion on top. My grandmother would smear them with hot mustard, which is good too!

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