The Pacific jacksmelt, neither a jack nor a smelt, is the largest silverside fish in the Pacific. Nowadays, it is easier to get one by catching it than to find it in fish markets, because it isn't commercially fished anymore. Full-flavored and oily, this tasty fish is usually eaten whole but can be incorporated into plenty of other recipes that use just its meat. If the fish is big enough, it is worth filleting, breading, and frying in pieces, or baking it in the oven with onions, peppers, and aromatic herbs.
What Is Jacksmelt?
The jacksmelt (Atherinopsis californiensis) is one of the fish most commonly caught off docks, piers, and jetties on the West Coast of the United States. Known as horse smelt, blue smelt, or California smelt, it appears from Baja to Oregon and is typically nine to 15 inches long. Torpedo shaped with beautiful electric blue stripes on its back, it schools in shallow water less than 100 feet deep. Its tender and oily meat makes it a great and cheap choice for a wholesome and nutritious dinner.
How to Cook Jacksmelt
First, be aware that you shouldn't eat raw jacksmelt under any circumstances. A few may contain tiny parasites, but these are killed by proper cooking. The parasites look like tiny coiled worms. Although off-putting at first, just remember that all animal proteins have parasites that are harmless when the meat is properly cooked.
The finest fate for this fish is to hot-smoke it like a teeny salmon. Because of the fat content and bold flavor, brine and smoke will do it justice. Jacksmelt is also excellent when split, scaled, gutted, and stuffed with herbs and mushrooms, but frying it whole is perfectly fine. Alternatively, fillet the fish and make escabeche, cooking and then marinating the flesh, like a quick fish pickle. Grill it wrapped in a grape leaf over charcoal for a delicious entrée, or steam it en papillote using parchment paper.
What Does Jacksmelt Taste Like?
Jacksmelt has a robust and fatty flavor. With an all-white flesh and plenty of bones, this is a great and cheap choice for a fish its size and will make an excellent meal. Some describe the flavor of the jacksmelt as being between that of a perch and a bonito, with meat firmer than a corvina. It has an oily quality to it but not as oily as a mackerel.
Similar in appearance, jacksmelt, topsmelt, and California grunion are all members of the Neotropical silverside family. None are true smelt and not all are jacksmelts, as they are different species.
Jacksmelt can be cooked whole or gutted, with its flesh used in other recipes. If you prefer to fry it, deep-fry the fish covered in a beer batter, or dust the small fillets with seasoned flour and deep-fry it in peanut oil. Other options include grilling the fish whole, steaming it stuffed with lemon slices and garlic, steaming and topping it with a simple tomato sauce, or quickly searing it in butter and garlic to finish cooking in a very hot oven. Because it's small, be mindful of not overcooking it, or it will end up with a chewy texture.
Where to Buy Jacksmelt
Once commercially fished, jacksmelt might be found in Asian markets but call ahead because it's not common to find it on a weekly basis, or to have it at all. Because Jacksmelt is commonly caught off piers, it's easier to get this fish yourself than to find it at a market. If you do find it, it's usually sold per pound. Look for shiny scales and bright eyes and avoid fish with parasites on the outside. Do ask to look on the inside of each fish because some parasites can grow inwards.
Store in the coldest part of your refrigerator for up to three days once it has been scaled, cleaned, and gutted, keeping it covered. If you want to store the whole fish, use a covered container with ice and replace it as it melts. Do not keep the fish in ice for more than two days. However, it's recommended that you cook it and consume it right away if you caught the fish yourself. Freeze for up to three months once cleaned; wrap tightly in plastic wrap and place each individually wrapped fish in a zip-top bag to avoid fishy smells in your freezer.