Served fish Dealing with Tiny Fish

Some fish, like lake smelts, are best coated and deep fried whole, and eaten whole, "heads, guts and feathers". Others are too large or their heads and bones are too strong to eat and are easier to handle deep fired with the head removed.

Fish Page

Smelt, gutted
Smelt, gutted
Pinch fins
Scad, pinch fins
Cut spine
Scad, cut spine
Scad, gutted
Scad, gutted
Scad, draining
Scad, dusting
Scad, frying
Wire skimmer
Scad, draining


The examples here are Smelt, small enough to eat head bones and all, and Round Scad, larger and with spine and head too strong to be edible. While Smelt can be eaten "head guts and feathers", I usually gut them. Round Scad definitely should be gutted and it comes out much less torn up if you remove the head as shown.

  1. With small delicate smelts, just break in from the bottom and grab the gills, then pull down and forward. Along with the gills all the innards will pull out without breaking the belly.
  2. With a larger, tougher fish like the Scad, first pinch the bottom fins just behind the head and pull them off.
  3. With your kitchen shears cut just behind the head from the top just deep enough to sever the backbone.
  4. Now you can pull the head off and all the innards will come out with it leaving the body of the fish in good condition.
  5. Rinse the fish and drain cavity side down.
  6. Select an appropriate high temperature oil. See our Cooking Oils page for the best choices.
  7. Bring your oil up to temperature. A Surface Temperature Gun is great here, but a long probed thermometer that goes to at least 400°F/200°C can be used. The ideal temperature is 375°F/190°C. Keep your oil well below smoking temperature at all times.
  8. Dust the fish lightly with lightly salted flour, coating just enough for one batch and just before putting them in the oil or the batter will be soggy.
  9. Make sure your oil is at the right temperature and put the fish in (being careful not to splash). Stir occasionally until sizzling decreases and fish is lightly browned.
  10. Scoop out with a wire skimmer or other device that allows the pieces to drain freely. Drain further on paper toweling and keep warm in the oven until ready to serve.


  • Know Your Fish:   (hints for many kinds of fish are linked from our Varieties of Fish page (very large page). Some fish stay firm and manageable while others tend to break up.
  • Oil:   Use a high temperature oil - see our Cooking Oils page for good choices. I use Olive Pomace which has a high smoke point and almost no olive flavor so it won't overpower the fish, and it's quite economical. Peanut Oil is also pretty good. Don't use Extra Virgin or any other "unrefined" oil - they can't stand the heat.
  • Temperature:   Keep the temperature of your oil as close to 375°F/190°C as you can. Keep it well below smoking temperature at all times.
  • Don't Overload Your Oil:   Fry in small batches so the temperature doesn't drop too far or you'll end up with heavy, oily fish with a steamed flavor. Small batches finish faster so it won't take much more time.
  • Coating Fish:   While I fry some fish naked, most fish I give a light powdering of rice flour or all-purpose flour. Wheat flour will produce a darker brown than rice flour.
  • Batter for Fish:   Many recipes call for coating fish with batter, sometimes much too heavy a batter. If you want pancakes, make pancakes, we're frying fish here. A quick dip in buttermilk followed by a dusting of lightly salted (or seasoned) flour is generally plenty. Dipping in egg will make the coating thicker.
  • Marinading:   If you marinade fish, let them soak up the marinade for about 1/2 hour in the refrigerator. Fish spoil fast - don't leave them out. If you use leftover marinade for a sauce bring it to a high simmer for 5 minutes in a saucepan to make sure it's safe
  • Clean-up:   Clean oil off your stove as soon as possible. heat will dry the oil into varnish which becomes more difficult to remove with each passing hour.
  • Re-using Oil: Oil degrades with use, different oils at greatly different rates. Polyunsaturated oils (corn, soy, "vegetable") degrade rapidly and should never be reused, while Olive is relatively durable. See the "Oxi" column in our Oil Chart page for relative durability (low numbers are better). Oil that isn't yet tired and hasn't been overheated can be used again within a reasonable time. Heat it long enough it no longer "pops", indicating all water has been evaporated, then Filter it still quite hot through one layer of plain (not printed) paper towel. Store in a tightly capped jar. Don't use oil used for fish to fry other things (unless you like them fish oil flavored).


  • Fryer:   The ideal device for deep frying modest quantities of just about anything is the Indian kadhai, similar to a wok but with somewhat different geometry (photo to left). The sides are wide enough and high enough to contain most of the splattering and it requires a very modest amount of oil to fry a reasonable amount of fish. They do a lot of deep frying in India and can't afford to waste oil.
  • Basket Fryer:   The Western basket fryer is an efficient and effective device but requires quite a bit of oil and tends to splatter a lot of oil about, so be prepared to do clean-up, lots of clean-up.
  • Skimmer:   A wire skimmer will allow the fish to drain well as you remove it from the oil (photo to the left).
  • Thermometer:   An infra-red Surface Temperature Gun is ideal, but a thermometer with a long probe that goes up to at least 400°F/200°C can be used.
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