Cooked in 5 minutes, this Norwegian recipe for pan-fried smelt makes for a quick and easy meal, snack, or a crispy appetizer. These small fish are flaky, soft, and perfect finger-food with seasonal salad and beer.
You should always select fresh fish as frozen tends to retain too much water, but smelt is fine either way.
To fry the fish, use a heavy non-stick pan or cast-iron skillet. It makes cooking and especially frying so much easier and will make this recipe easy for you too.
You’ll definitely need to pick one up because it’s inexpensive and makes the perfect cookware. I hesitated too long before buying a cast iron skillet, but now I have many pans and pots and couldn’t imagine my kitchen without it.
Norwegian favorite fish
In Norway, these little silver-colored fish are often the target of small ‘fishing shack’ villages that spring up along frozen rivers or in “schools” along the saltwater coastline during spring migration to their spawning streams.
Historically, fishermen would go to customary locations over the ice using horses and sleighs. Smelt taken out of the cold saltwater were preferred to those in warm water.
This recipe is not only affordable but also delicious and rich in Omega3. You will need:
- Smelt fish – see instructions below on buying smelt
- All-purpose flour – gluten-free flour will also work
- Cornmeal – I use coarse yellow cornmeal for making polenta
- Salt and pepper – to taste
- Oil for frying – I used olive oil, but any high-heat oils (such as sunflower, canola, vegetable, avocado, and peanut oil) will work
For the Norwegian sauce:
- Olive oil – do not substitute
- Lemon juice – freshly squeezed
- Garlic – fresh garlic clove
- Fresh parsley – do not substitute
How to fry smelt in a skillet?
*Keep scrolling to get the full (printable) recipe, ingredient amounts, and more tips, or click on the “Skip to Recipe” button at the top of the page.
Fry the fish:
- In a bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, salt, and pepper.
- Coat the small fish on both sides with the flour mixture. Fry both sides of the fish for 2-3 minutes each.
- Let the fried smelt drain its excess oil on a wire rack. Serve hot drizzled with dressing.
Make the dressing:
- In a small bowl, combine the oil, lemon juice, garlic, and parsley. Set aside.
Frozen smelt are widely available in supermarkets. You can find them already cleaned with heads removed.
When you’re buying smelt, look for the smallest in size. They should be not much longer than your finger because bigger tend to have bones that are a little harder. The smaller, the better, as you’ll be eating these fish whole – tail, bone, and all.
Do I have to clean smelt?
To clean the smelt or not, is something everyone decides for themselves. The fish are small, and just like sardines, you should eat them whole.
No need to debone small smelt. Fish bigger than 6 inches should be cleaned because they can be a bit bitter. Either way, if eating heads, guts, and tails is disturbing, here’s how to clean it:
- Gently pry open the head of the fish and slowly pull the gills along with the entrails.
- Rinse smelt under cold running water and drain well.
What to serve with pan-fried smelt:
Smelt fry is good on its own and amazing with Norwegian aromatic dressing of oil, lemon juice, garlic, and parsley, but it also pairs well with:
- Garlic Swiss chard and potatoes
- French Fries or sweet potato fries
- Fresh salad greens or creamy cucumber salad
- Roasted vegetables and rice
- Chips and beer
- Dipping sauces: tartar, mustard, aioli, cocktail, or hot sauce
How to get rid of the fish smell after cooking:
HELP! MY HOUSE SMELLS LIKE FISH FOR DAYS!
Frying any fish in a pan (smelt included) will leave an odor that is hard to eliminate. To prevent, or at least minimize it, try these tips:
- Soak the fish in milk for at least half an hour before cooking it. It cuts down on odor when the fish is cooked without changing the flavor of the fish.
- Soak your fish in water mixed with 1/4 cup of vinegar or 1/4 cup of lemon juice before cooking.
- Try to prevent the odor by using a splatter screen, a vent fan, or an air purifier. Run the exhaust fan for an hour after cooking fish. If you can remove the exhaust filter, wash it.
- Take a few whole cloves (the prickly thing you stick in a ham) and simmer it in a little water. Cinnamon, citrus peel, and rosemary work as well too.
- Stick a fan in the kitchen window while cooking fish and leave it on for a while afterward. Or keep the windows open while you cook if it’s a nice day out.
- As soon as your meal is over, tightly wrap and refrigerate leftovers, wash the dishes and take out the trash. Getting the source of the odor cleaned up and out of your home as quickly as possible will reduce the smell in your home.
- Light a candle. Lemon and peppermint scents work exceptionally well to combat food smells in your home. Light your candle before you start cooking, and let it burn well beyond your meal and kitchen clean-up time.
Other delicious fish recipes to try:
- CUBAN MARINATED GRILLED SALMON
- FILLO PASTRY FISH AND CHIPS
- THE BEST CRUSTED SALMON RECIPE
- BELGIAN SIMPLE FISH RECIPE
- CHINESE PAN-FRIED SALMON
- HONEY-MUSTARD GLAZED SALMON
Norwegian Pan-Fried Smelt Recipe
- Mixing bowls
- Cast-iron or a large non-stick skillet
For the fried fish
- 1 pound small smelt fish
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons cornmeal or matzo meal
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- Olive oil for frying
For the dressing
- 2 tablespoon olive oil
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 clove garlic minced
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- In a small bowl, combine the 2 tbsp of olive oil, juice of one lemon, 1 minced garlic clove, and 2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley; refrigerate.
- In a bowl, combine 1 cup flour, 2 tbsp cornmeal, 1 tsp salt, and 1/4 tsp pepper.
- Coat 1 lb smelt on both sides with the flour mixture. Heat the oil (about 1-inch deep) in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add fish, shaking off the excess flour. Fry both sides of the fish for 2-3 minutes each.
- Serve hot drizzled with dressing.
- Thaw your frozen smelt in the fridge.
- If serving as an appetizer, aim for six to seven per person and twice that for the main course.
- To clean smelt, gently pry open the head of the fish and slowly pull the gills along with the entrails. Rinse under cold water and pat dry.
- Make sure not to crowd the fish. Fry in batches, if necessary.
- Let the fried smelt drain its excess oil on a wire rack set over a baking sheet or line with paper towels.
- If you prefer baking the smelt in the oven instead, you can do that too. Just make sure to grease your baking sheet well. Bake on 350 degrees F preheated oven for 10 minutes, flipping the fish over half-way through the baking.
- For the best results, read additional tips in the post above.
- Nutrition information is approximate and meant as a guideline only.