January 28, 2024

Light and Crispy Fried Smelt

just keep swimming, just keep swimming…

If you love smelt, then this is THE recipe for you. This fried smelt is fresh, light, and crispy, with a clean seafood flavor. Paired with an easy and bright lemon-caper aioli, these fried fish are quick, easy, and absolutely delicious to make at home. If you don’t love smelt because you have never tried it or because small fish isn’t your thing, this recipe might just make it ‘your thing’.

large family sized plate of crispy fried smelt with fresh lemon and a lemon caper aioli.

WHAT IS SMELT FISH?

Smelt is a family of small fish typically between 6-8 inches in length. Born in fresh water, then returning to the sea, smelt can be found in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as well as in freshwater rivers and lakes. Similar to anchovies and sardines, these little fish are nutrient-rich, packed with omega-3s, and are a great source of protein. In terms of flavor, they are relatively mild compared to anchovies. So why don’t you see these little fish on more menus? Some people consider them only as bait fish, and some don’t see the value in them, but if you are someone like me, you just see them as delicious.

WHERE CAN I BUY SMELT?

Surprisingly, I bought the bag of smelt from my local grocery chain in the frozen fish section. Always check there first. The next resort would be to give your local fish markets a call; sometimes, they will have them frozen. If you are in a fishing heavy town, they may even have them fresh.

DO I NEED TO CLEAN SMELT?

Yes, I know it might sound annoying to clean out the bellies of every fish, but the innards are bitter and will make them taste very unpleasant. It is possible to buy them pre-cleaned, or if your fish market sells them, they may be able to gut them for you.

HOW TO CLEAN SMELT?

Honestly I haven’t had to do this since the smelt that I bought were already gutted and ready to cook. However I do have experience gutting small fish and for the most part it is pretty much the same

  • Cut off the head; this can be done easily with a pair of kitchen scissors.
  • Cut down the belly by placing the scissors in the opening you just created with the head removed. Cut down 3/4 to open the entire belly of the fish.
  • Scoop out the guts. This can be done quickly with your finger, or if you prefer, you can also use tweezers.
  • Scrub the inside using your finger or even a small brush. Scrub until the black residue is gone.
bowl of smelt, pre-cleaned

WHAT YOU’LL NEED FOR LIGHT & CRISPY FRIED SMELT

FRIED SMELT

  • Smelt – If you are confused on what smelt is, look at the passage above.
    • Substitute: Can’t find smelt? You can also swap this out for fresh anchovies, although I find that they are harder to come by. No, you can not swap this out for tinned anchovies, I tried it, it was not pleasant.
  • Flour
  • Olive Oil OR Neutral Spray Oil – Depending on the cooking method you choose, you will either pan-fry these little fish in olive oil or spray them down before air frying. For the air fryer, I suggest using a neutral, high smoke point oil such as avocado oil.
  • Lemon – Fresh only! Lemon in this part of the recipe is used to squeeze over the finished fried fish to add brightness and complement the seafood.

LEMON CAPER AIOLI

No we aren’t making aioli from scratch. Truth be told even I have issues emulsifying the egg. This quick and easy aioli is acidic, briny, and the perfect accompaniment to these crispy fried fish.

  • Mayo –Technically, aioli and mayo are not the same thing. Aioli is the emulsification of olive oil and garlic, while mayo involves eggs. However, these days people use aioli and mayo interchangeably, and most of the time, if you are having aioli, you are probably just having seasoned mayo. To make your life easier and keep this recipe at an easy difficulty, we are dressing up mayo. Pick a good mayo that you already like; after all, it is the base of this sauce.
  • Lemon – Fresh only. You need the zest of a full lemon and the juice of a 1/2.
  • Capers
  • Dijon Mustard – I absolutely love using Maille Dijon Mustard. Its acidic, tangy, and overall a well rounded dijon.
  • Garlic – Fresh only, 1 clove.

TOOLS NEEDED

  • Optional Basket Air Fryer – I find that the toaster oven format air fryers are NOT the same as the basket air fryers. This recipe calls for a basket version. For reference I use the Ninja AF101, which has a nice sized basket ( It can make about 10-15 smelt at a time).
up close shot of crispy fried smelt

HOW TO MAKE LIGHT & CRISPY FRIED SMELT

There are two methods for cooking these smelt fish. The first, and recommended method, is to pan-fry them. The second is the easier method, which involves using the air fryer. Below are both methods along with the positives and negatives for each approach.

PAN FRY

If you are looking for the best flavor and a crispy exterior, then pan-frying is the way to go. Cooking these little buggers in olive oil imparts SO MUCH FLAVOR. Additionally, you can immediately salt them when you remove them from the pan. However, be aware that this method is also messy—watch out for popping oil—and requires you to stand over the pan and babysit.

Prep the Smelt – If the smelt aren’t pre-cleaned and gutted please refer to the smelt passage above. Thoroughly dry the fish with a paper towel and generously salt. Working a few fish at a time, dredge the smelt in flour knocking off any excess flour. Don’t pre-dredge the fish. The longer the fish sit with flour the more they will absorb it and you won’t get a crispy crust.

Fry the Fish – Place 1/4″ inch of olive oil in a pan and heat over medium heat. Once hot, carefully once by one place them in the pan. Be careful to not overcrowd the pan. Depending on the size of your pan you may have to cook them in 2-3 batches. Cook for 3-4 minutes each side or until lightly golden in color.

Finish- Remove the fried smelt from the oil and immediately salt. When ready to eat serve with some lemon wedges and the lemon caper aioli.

AIR FRYER

I wasn’t an air fryer believer until a few months ago, but man, is this machine useful! It is the easier cooking method and doesn’t require constant babysitting. You still need to flip them, but in terms of mess and the amount of oil, it’s far less. Cooking the smelt this way doesn’t impart the delicious olive oil flavor, and the breading doesn’t get as bubbly and crispy. Nevertheless, it is a great alternative if you dislike pan-frying.”

I get it, we don’t always have to time to babysit the pan, or the desire to cook with a decent amount of oil. If this is you then I suggest you go with the air fryer. Not only is it easier, less mess, and probably less calories (from getting rid of the excess oil), but they taste almost just as good as an frying.

Prep the Smelt – If the smelt aren’t pre-cleaned and gutted please refer to the smelt passage above. Thoroughly dry the fish with a paper towel and generously salt. Working a few fish at a time, dredge the smelt in flour knocking off any excess flour. Don’t pre-dredge the fish. The longer the fish sit with flour the more they will absorb it and you won’t get a crispy crust.

Air Fry the Fish – Preheat the air fryer to 390F degrees (this takes about 3 minutes). Place the smelt in a single layer in the air fryer. Also important here to not over crowd the basket. Not only will it take longer to cook, not brown evenly, but they will stick together. Spray generously with the spray oil before popping the basket back in and cooking for 3-4 minutes. Flip the fish and cook for another 3-4 minutes or until the smelt are lightly golden in color. If you notice that there is still dry flour on the fish after the first flip, give it another spray.

Finish- When ready to eat serve with some lemon wedges and the lemon caper aioli.

plate of fried smelt with some lemon caper aioli and fresh lemon wedges.

STORING/REHEATING

Unfortunately, there is no storing or reheating this recipe. These light and crispy fried smelt are meant to be enjoyed immediately.

Want another fresh fish recipe? Try my Grilled Portuguese Sardines!

January 28, 2024

Light and Crispy Fried Smelt

Print Recipe Pin Recipe
Easy and delicious crispy fried smelt paired with a creamy bright and acidic lemon caper aioli.
Course Appetizer, Snack
Cuisine Mediterranean
Keyword Fish, Fried Fish, Smelt
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Total Time 25 minutes
Servings 4 people

Equipment

  • 1 Air Fryer optional cooking method

Ingredients

Fried Smelt

  • 1 lb smelt cleaned and gutted
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • salt
  • olive oil or neutral high smoke point spray oil
  • 1/2 lemon for finishing

Lemon Caper Aioli

  • 1/2 cup mayo
  • 2 tbsp capers
  • 1 lemon zest of a whole lemon, 1/2 juice
  • 1 tsp dijon mustard
  • 1 garlic clove finely grated

Instructions

Lemon Caper Aioli

  • Before you combine all the ingredients, chop 1 tbsp of the capers finely, leaving the other tbsp whole.
  • In a bowl combine the mayo, capers, zest of a whole lemon, 1/2 lemons worth of lemon juice, dijon mustard, and finely grated garlic. Mix and let the sauce sit in the fridge for a minimum of 10 minutes before eating.

Crispy Fried Smelt

    Pan Fry

    • Place a pan on the stove over medium heat with approximately 1/4 inch of olive oil
    • Dry the cleaned smelt throughly with a paper towel, and salt with a heavy pinch of salt. *For cleaning instructions please read the body of the post.
    • Working a few at a time lightly dredge the fish in flour shaking off the excess.
    • Once the oil is hot, place the fish in the pan, being careful not to overcrowd it. Depending on the size of the pan, you may need to cook the fish in batches. Fry for 3-4 minutes on each side or until lightly golden in color.
    • Remove from the oil and lightly salt. When you are ready to serve spritz with fresh lemon and serve with the lemon caper aioli.

    Air Fry

    • Preheat the air fryer to 390 degrees (approx. 3 minutes).
    • Dry the cleaned smelt throughly with a paper towel, and salt with a heavy pinch of salt. *For cleaning instructions please read the body of the post.
    • Working a few at a time lightly dredge the fish in flour shaking off the excess.
    • Place the fish in a single layer in the air fryer basket, still making sure you do not overcrowd the basket. Spray generously with the spray oil and cook for 4 minutes before flipping the smelt. Cook until lightly golden in color (approx. 7-9 minutes).
    • When you are ready to serve spritz with fresh lemon and serve with the lemon caper aioli.

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    Recipe Rating




    1. 5 stars
      Listen i grew up with salmon, tuna and cod. That was the extent of fish for my family. But ive slowly come around to anchovies, sardines and such. So i figured id give these a shot and wow was i surprised! Delicately fried, crispy and FLAVORFUL without being the dreaded “fishy”. A+