If you are unfamiliar with smelt, you may be more familiar with candlefish; smelt are also known by the latter moniker because their fat and oil content is high enough that they can be dried and burned like a candle for light. The high oil content also make a big flavor impact, and pairing these fatty fish with the right seasoning is key for bringing out their signature taste.
For pan fried smelt, keep seasonings simple. A citrus acid, such as lemon or lime juice, complements the natural oils and salt of the smelt. For pan frying, either marinate the smelt in lime or lemon juice for about an hour before cooking, or wet them with the juice while cooking. To crisp the skin, roll the smelt in plain flour before pan frying in a small amount of oil. For more flavor, season the flour with salt or pepper to taste.
Deep frying smelt is the typical method of preparation; deep frying crisps the skin and eliminates the need for deboning, though you may prefer to debone the fish anyway. A simple deep fried preparation may include flour seasoned with salt and pepper. For more flavor, try seasoned Italian or Panko bread crumbs, which typically include salt, parsley, oregano, garlic powder and onion powder. If you don't have seasoned breadcrumbs on hand, season your flour with similar spices. If you want more punch to your smelt, a dash of cayenne pepper adds heat to the sweet, deep-fried fish. Dip the fish in beaten eggs before coating with flour or bread crumbs.
Grilling smelt is a less common preparation but is a traditional option for fresh-caught smelt. Combine seasoning strategies of pan and deep frying and opt for lemon pepper; lemon pepper adds a bit of heat and the tang of citrus to smelt. A pinch of curry powder is also an option for grilled smelt. To seal in juices and keep the fish moist, wrap them in thin slices of bacon or ham before and during cooking.
Broiled smelt are best breaded and cooked in ample butter. Roll your cleaned smelt in melted butter or cream and then choose your seasoning breading; parsley is particularly tasty with broiled smelt because it pairs nicely with the butter flavor and texture. Oregano, standard seafood seasoning and thyme also can be used to add flavor to plain flour or bread crumbs.