I remember the first time my dad made fried smelts at home. He approached it casually, commenting that he hadn’t had these in “so long” and started frying and removing the tiny smelts from the hot oil, heads in tact. That was the part that made my eyes bug out. I don’t know how I got past being weirded out long enough to try one, it probably had a lot to do with how normal he made partaking seem. It only takes one to convert the hesitant, at least in my case it took just one, but feel free to remove the heads off even the tiny ones if you’d like. These are salty, crispy but yielding little things, that need to be served with icy beer or a dry sparkling wine. As a kid I probably washed these down with a cold orange Crush—that still seems like an ideal pairing now.
*If your smelts are very thin and tiny you can leave them whole. If they are plump and 3 inches long or larger, discard the heads, slice the bellies open and scrape or squeeze out the guts before rinsing, or buy them already cleaned.
Vegetable or canola oil for frying
2 lb smelts*, rinsed and patted dry
1/2 c rice flour
1 tsp kosher salt
Zest of 1 lemon
Handful chopped parsley
Maldon salt for serving (optional)
Heat 2 inches of vegetable oil in a high-sided pan to 375F degrees, or until the oil dances around the edges of a wooden chopstick when it’s inserted. Meanwhile, add flour and salt to a bowl, mix well. Add smelts and mix to cover them completely, then dust excess flour off. Slowly lower a small batch of smelts into the oil using a spider or a slotted spoon, and do not over-crowd. Keep a safe distance away and use a spatter guard if you have one—they will splatter wildly. After about a minute, carefully try to separate the smelts that are sticking together. Fry until the smelts are golden and crispy, about 4 minutes total, then transfer the smelts to a paper towel-lined plate and repeat with remaining batches. Sprinkle fried smelts with lemon zest, parsley and a little Maldon salt if using and serve warm.