Marinated Smelt with Lemon and Dill

My reign of terror in the kitchen continues.

Considering that my all time favorite pizza toppings are bacon (crumbled, not strips, thank you very much) and anchovy with mushroom, spinach and black olive, a combination that horrifies poor Mike at the best of times, I knew this would be a challenge in advance.  Small marinated fish, complete with scales and tails, were very unlikely to be shooting to the top of his, “I Love Tina Because…” chart. My husband is a trouper, however, and considering that in the last few weeks he has succumbed and admitted to enjoying both squid and octopus, he gave it a college try.

You know, the cheap and drug addled, D-, Community college try.  With a face like a rusted dough hook, he very politely took the half smelt on buttered bread that I offered one. Very slowly, he bit in and chewed for what seemed (to him more than me) to be an interminable length of time.  Swallow. Repeat.  For a man who considers an entire hotdog and bun to be “one bite”, he nibbled away at this like the Easter bunny’s anorexic aunt.  As I knew he would, he then thoughtfully declined the offer to have any more. “I know how much you like them,” he said, “and I would hate to take that pleasure away from you.”

What a generous guy.

Wait, actually, he is.  No, really.  There are things that I’m okay with sharing, and then there are things that I will jealously guard and monitor. I actively seek out friends who don’t like olives or guacamole, and I like to call their attention to that as a pointed little reminder before we share a plate of nachos.  You might think that’s selfish or manipulative, but I think of it as prudent.  Similarly, when you only make 10-12 dilly, garlicky, tender little marinated smelt at a time, each one counts.  If this happens to be a Dinner For One over the following 3-4 days, well, that’s just fine by me.  Mike can eat hotdogs.

If you have never tried smelt before, that’s probably for good reason.  It’s not a fashionable fish like sea bass or trout, nor is it a crowd pleasing fish like salmon or halibut.  They small fish can be a bit intimidating with the backbone (and often innards) in place, and if you’re not used to cooking a fish like this then you might be a bit flummoxed about what to do with it.  However, smelt (also called Capelin, Whitebait, Whiting or Sparling) is a good sustainable seafood choice, very affordable, and utterly delicious.

In size and texture, smelt are very similar to sardines although somewhat less oily. They don’t have the ‘fishy’ taste that you might expect, and they’re chock full of Omega 3s, healthy oils and lean protein. You can also cook smelt in much the same way as sardines, and they’re quite popular when pickled like herring.  In the Maritimes, smelt was historically floured and fried in butter, served with boiled potatoes and sometimes pickled beets or vegetables.  The Spanish and Italians tend to favor smelt that is either lightly battered and fried or grilled whole over hot coals, and even Chinese restaurants often feature whole deep fried smelt, heads intact.

I take a more Nordic approach, and give smelt a quick cure in acidic lemon before marinating in rich olive oil with plenty of garlic and fresh dill.  Tender and delicious, I can’t get enough of the mild sweet flavor of the delicately textured fish. I also can’t get enough of the horrified looks Mike gives me when I eat them.

Marinated Smelt with Lemon and Dill

  • 10-12 small smelt (150 g/5-6 oz)*
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 large cloves garlic
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • few sprigs dill (1.5 tbsp, minceed)
  • small handful chives (1.5 tbsp, minced)
  • 1/8 tsp red chili flakes

* If you can’t find smelt, another small cold water fish of similar size will do.  Ask your fishmonger for advice if you’re not sure. Also, frozen smelt is much more common than fresh, and indeed much of the ‘fresh’ smelt that you buy has been previously flash frozen.  That’s perfectly fine, but do use the fish as soon as possible once thawed, and if it smells fishy to you when it is raw, don’t make this dish.

If the fish are whole and uncleaned, scrape them to smooth the scales and slice off the fins. Remove and discard the heads up to the bottom of the gill.  With a thin, sharp knife, fillet the fish from top to tail and remove the innards.  Laying the fish down flat, pull out and discard the back bone.  Rinse the fish under clean running water and pat them dry.

Peel and slice the garlic so thinly that it is almost translucent.

Lay the fish flesh side up in a nonreactive dish large enough to hold them in a single layer.  Sprinkle the salt and half of the garlic slices over top.  Squeeze in the juice of a fat lemon (3-4 tbsp).  Leave the fish to marinate at room temperature for 1 hour or until the flesh is opaque. It will feel firmer to the touch but still be pliable and have give.

Drain the lemon juice and give the fish a very quick rinse.

Lay the fish back in the dish, flesh side up, and sprinkle the remaining garlic cloves over top along with a pinch more red chili flakes.  Finely mince the dill weed and chives and sprinkle them on top of the fish.  Drizzle olive oil on the fish until they are just barely covered. Cover the dish and tuck it in the fridge for 24 hours.

When you’re ready to serve the marinated smelt, let them sit at room temperature for 30 minutes so they can come up in temperature and loosen the olive oil.

These smelt are delicious on crostini with a drizzle of good olive oil and a slice of roasted red pepper. However, my favorite is on soft white bread slathered in cold butter with thinly sliced radishes.  A smattering of good olives on the side, and you can leave me be for at least half an hour.

The texture of the fish is tender-firm, not as “cooked” as a typical sardine and still pliant like a cold smoked salmon.

Sure, fish that has been marinated, pickled or smoked is definitely an acquired taste, but let’s just say that I have a history of acquisition.  If you enjoy marinated anchovies and sardines, or feel a sense of whimsy and challenge in the kitchen that can’t be tamped down at the sight of scales, why not give marinated smelt a shot too?


  • Kimberley

    And Father’s Day Brunch is taken care of.


  • lo

    Since smelt is so native to these here great lakes we live upon, I should really be pulling out the stops and making this ASAP. But, the truth is, I’ve never eaten these little baby fishies. ’bout time I tried them, hey?

  • Jacquie

    Thank you for the, “If it smells fishy, don’t make this dish” disclaimer. Real fish, even fresh-frozen fish should not have that gross fish smell. That is bad fish.

    Yay! Butter and Radishes! My favorite spring treat.

  • Otto

    There aren’t enough people who appreciated marinated or cured fish. You’re right, definitely an acquired taste. If only more people would give it a try! This looks delicious, but I would eat it on toasted rye with cream cheese.

  • daigoumee

    Pretty great post on marinated fish! I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. This reminds me of the anchoa I ate in Spain. In any case, I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!