Sprats, sometimes called by the more generic name of whitebait, are easier to cook and eat than you’d think. Deep fried sprats can be eaten whole but it’s easy to remove heads and guts. A chilli dip to go with them is a must!
Are sprats and whitebait the same?
First things first: all sprats are whitebait but not all whitebait are sprats. I think. It could be the other way round.
Anyway, they are the stupidly cheap, clean and bright tiny fishes that are a complete treat in terms of price, ease of preparing and taste.
Can you eat sprats whole?
You might think, like I used to, that they are full of bones and impossible to eat. You might think ‘eeeww, I’m not eating fish head!’ - I did. Like kippers or jellied eels, I’d never grace them with a second glance on the fish stall. Who on earth eats that stuff?
So I’m not entirely sure what made me order them for a starter in a restaurant a few months ago. Maybe it was the set menu I was keen on that had sprats as a starter?
Maybe I wanted to swap or share; or I was challenging the (really good) restaurant to deliver the goods out of barely edible products? Either way I got a mini bucketful of tails sticking out in the air.
Reader, I ate them. Heads and all and I looked for more.
Eat them, bones and all
So it's time to debunk the bias. Bones are not an issue: they are even less discernible than in salted anchovies and the main bone pulls out like a dream if you want to discard it.
Heads are certainly edible but it’s not a problem to lop them off before cooking as you’ll see in the recipe instructions.
Healthy and cheap!
Sprats are nicer than sardines and cheaper than anchovies. And super-good healthwise being, albeit tiny, oily fish full of omega-3 fatty acids. Sprats should be on the menus everywhere!
And sustainable to boot
The very next time I saw them in the market, I naturally bought a kilo for something like £4. The only thing that still bothered me was whether they were sustainable and if it was all right to eat tiny fishes instead of letting them grow into big halibuts.
My fishmonger says they are and it is, but then he would. Thankfully the Marine Conservation Society agrees, giving them a ‘Best Choice’ rating. Phew.
How to clean sprats?
You can see it clearly if you scroll down to the video, but basically, lop off the head with a small knife and the guts will drag behind. It’s a little gross, but much less fiddly than deveining prawns.
Sling the beheaded ones into a large bowl of water and change the water once or twice. They will spit awfully in the oil if not dried so best spread them on a kitchen towel-lined tray and leave for a while before dredging in flour.
How to cook sprats?
It’s the same as with fish and chips: oven baked is all very well but it is blatantly an ersatz and nothing beats the real McCoy, oil-fried and crisp.
Sprats too are the best deep fried – but thanks to being such small fishes, they only spend a minute or two in the oil.
If you really don’t want to deep fry, drizzle them with oil, season with salt and spices and spread on a foil-lined baking sheet or rack. Slip it under the hottest grill and cook for a couple of minutes on each side.
Turning them over is a chore but vous l'avez voulu, George Dandin.
What to serve with sprats?
My favourite dip is mayonnaise with a swirl of sriracha hot sauce in it. If you don’t like it hot, plain old tartare sauce is fine too, or mayo and ketchup.
They are generally meant to be served as a starter but I don’t see anything wrong with serving them as a main course, with coleslaw and – ideally – a few chips.
More fish starter recipes
Thai style fishcakes, served with cucumber dip are a classic starter, easily made ahead.
Japanese breaded and deep-fried prawns, ebi fry, are the exotic equivalent of scampi.
As they are so expensive, king scallops are a classic appetiser. Try them flash fried, with discs of crispy chorizo.