Can You Eat Minnows? (Nutrition & Recipes)

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Can You Eat Minnows? (Facts, Nutrition & Recipe Examples)

A small minnow in a person's hand
Minnows tend to be small and are often used as live bait to attract a wide variety of game fish. Image by Bishnu Sarangi from Pixabay

The common term “minnow” refers to quite a handful of fish species, and may even refer to the young of larger fish. They are often used as live bait to attract a wide variety of game fish, including bluegill and perch. General use of the term to describe pretty much all small fish has led to much confusion. Taxonomically speaking, “minnows” are species that belong to the extensive Cyprinidae and Leuciscidae families. These include shiners, chubs, daces, fatheads, and even larger carp species.

These diverse families have a widespread distribution and are present in almost all types of freshwater habitats. They play a vital role in the food chain, especially in rivers, lakes, and ponds with commercially important fish. Though some species can grow quite large, such as the common carp, goldfish, or river chub, most reach a maximum length of just 4 inches or less. For the purpose of this article, “minnows” from hereon will refer to smaller and short-lived cyprinids.

Though seldom spoken of as edible fish for human consumption, minnows from clean water sources are actually safe to eat! Understandably, they will seldom be the first choice when larger and meatier fish are present. Considered a survival food, they are generally abundant and much easier to catch compared to many other fish. They can also be cooked in many types of ways and are deemed a fairly rich source of proteins.

Common Edible Minnows

A fathead minnow in a person's hand
There are quite a few edible minnows, including the fathead minnow (pictured). NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory / CC BY-SA 2.0

Listed below are some minnows that are commonly used as fish bait but are also occasionally used as human food. In particular, these species are distributed in North American or European territories. On average, they grow to less than 6 inches and are generally not protected by state laws. You should be able to fish for them without restrictions, but always double-check with your local wildlife department just to be sure.

  • Common shiner (Luxilus cornutus)
  • Fathead minnow (Pimephales promelas)
  • Lake chub (Couesius plumbeus)
  • Finescale dace (Phoxinus neogaeus)
  • Central stoneroller (Campostoma anomalum)
  • Bigeye chub (Hybopsis amblops)
  • Eurasian minnow (Phoxinus phoxinus)
  • Emerald shiner (Notropis atherinoides)
  • Golden shiner (Notemigonus crysoleucas)
  • Redfin shiner (Lythrurus umbratilis)

A Note On Misconceptions About Minnows

A topminnow fish swimming underwater
Many fish outside of the minnow family are frequently called minnows, even though they’re not. This includes the topminnow (pictured). Brian.gratwicke at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Due to its colloquial use as a term for small fish, many species outside of the minnow family are mistakenly lumped in with them. Even topminnows (Fundulus spp.) and mudminnows (Umbra spp.) are not actually considered true minnows, though they may have similar uses as bait and as food for larger fish. Killifish, silversides, and mosquitofish are frequently called minnows as well. Although these are not true minnows either, they are known for their edibility as small fish.

Safety Concerns & Downsides of Minnow Consumption

Group of European minnow fish underwater
The safety of eating minnows is linked to the water quality in their habitats. The cleaner the water, the safer minnows are to eat. Ryan Hodnett, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The dangers of consuming wild minnows are usually associated with the water quality in their habitats. As they are naturally devoid of toxins, those that are fished out of clean waters should be safe to consume when cooked. Those in polluted water sources may, unfortunately, have trace amounts of potentially toxic compounds. They may also contain microplastics, but concentrations should be much lower than those found in highly carnivorous game fish.

If you are averse to consuming even small and incredibly delicate fish bones, such as those found in canned sardines, you will likely be put off by bony minnows. Due to their small size and fine bones, minnows are incredibly challenging to fillet. When they are consumed, they are usually eaten whole – bones and all.

As some small fish are known for being eaten raw, eating freshly caught minnows has been hyped by a few daring individuals. In terms of sanitation, this is not safe due to possible contamination. Pathogens and parasites in raw fish can result in days to weeks of digestive ailments. You may choose to eat minnows raw if you’ve raised them in an aquarium or clean pond, or if you’ve fished them out of pristine waters. However, if you do end up having to take sick leave, don’t say we didn’t warn you!

Historical Consumption of Minnows

A Native American spearfishing in a river
Some Native American tribes used spearfishing techniques to catch pikeminnows, which are considered to be a larger part of the Cyprinidae family. Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

Many Native American tribes relied on rivers to provide a major portion of their food. As a result, they consumed a wide variety of fish types, including minnows. They fished for these using specialized traps made out of natural materials, such as the branches of balsam fir.

There are records of tribes based in Saskatchewan, Vancouver Island, and throughout British Columbia that would fish for an assortment of shiners, chubs, fathead minnows, and cutlip minnows. These were considered a sufficient source of key nutrients in times of food scarcity, such as during winter. Some tribes would use spearfishing techniques to catch pikeminnows, which is considered a large member of the Cyprinidae family. 

Large schools of chub could supposedly be found from spring to autumn. Fishing locations would be monitored by observing the movement of fish-eating birds. Minnows were considered easy prey; hunting them involved minimal effort and reaped considerable rewards. Traditional methods of preparing minnows involved air drying them for later use and frying them in grease from wild-caught bear and deer.

Minnow Taste, Preparation Techniques, and Recipes

Dori-baenbaengi, a Korean dish that consists of pan-fried freshwater minnow
Minnow can be prepared in many different ways. In this Korean dish, called Dori-baengbaengi, the minnow are pan-fried. bunkdong yu, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Minnows have been described as a highly palatable and sweet fish, with the unfortunate downside of being quite bony. Some species have a taste that is likened to liver, others need to be thoroughly seasoned to mask their distinctly fishy taste. They are supposedly a delicacy in Brazil, where the fish are deep-fried and eaten like crisps, usually as an accompaniment to alcoholic beverages.

To prepare minnows for consumption, they must be gutted. This can be done with the help of a knife, or in extreme cases, can be done by squeezing out the waste matter with your fingers. The fish can then be dried, smoked, or coated in a variety of ingredients for maximum flavor. Removing fish scales, the head, and fins are optional. Listed below are some of the most common ways to cook and serve minnows.

  • Deep-fried whole: Once gutted and cleaned, minnows can simply be tossed into a pot of boiling oil and fried to a crisp. To enhance the flavor and crunch, they can be coated in a mixture of flour, cornstarch, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and eggs beforehand. You can experiment by adding herbs, cayenne pepper, and all sorts of spices to the mix. This same procedure is used to prepare a popular Asian dish called “crispy dilis”. Just make sure not to skip the gutting part, as this step is vital in ensuring the cooked fish don’t taste bitter.
  • Steamed: This is a healthier way of consuming minnows. If you’ve managed to catch larger or meatier species, this can bring out the sweetness of the meat. This method is commonly used for carp.
  • As French-style fish fingers: The French serve small freshwater fish, called Goujon, whole. They are thoroughly deep-fried so that all bones become crispy. Generously seasoned with lemon and parsley, this dish perfectly complements an aperitif in a seaside restaurant.
  • Savory and salty: This pan-fried, versatile dish can be made with all sorts of fish, and there are seasonal trends that depend on the availability of ingredients. Fortunately, savory minnows can be prepared throughout the year. A pleasantly acidic base stock can be made by cooking gutted and salted minnows in a mixture of vinegar, rosemary, and molasses.
  • Breaded and baked: Minnows can be baked, just like other fish. To add a crunch, they can be generously coated with breading beforehand. The resulting dish can be paired with all sorts of dips, such as tartar sauce or even a fish dip made with food-processed minnows.

Nutritional Composition of Minnows

A large group of Eurasian minnows swimming together
Depending on the minnow’s size, it can consume both primary feeders and bottom feeders. Bernard DUPONT / CC BY-SA 2.0

In the wild, minnows enjoy a highly varied, omnivorous diet. Depending on their size, they are able to consume both primary producers and bottom feeders. They may also occasionally consume fish eggs and fry. As a result, they grow into protein-rich fish, able to sustain the dietary needs of high-energy carnivorous species.

Their consumption of algae and plankton also make them good sources of healthy fatty acids (but not as great as their predators). It’s no wonder why they prove to be such an effective bait fish! Those that are fished from well-balanced ecosystems are an abundant source of essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.

How to Catch Minnows

A man fly fishing in a river
You can catch large minnows with a few fly fishing techniques. Bear in mind that these techniques may be too hard for beginners, but to an expert they will most likely feel like second nature. English: Neal Herbert, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Minnows are reputedly some of the easiest fish to catch. They can be lured and caught using all sorts of techniques, and sometimes through sheer luck! For protection, minnows may remain close to shore instead of in open water. All sorts of near-shore fish traps (homemade or store-bought) are quite effective at catching them. They can be baited using breadcrumbs, live worms, shellfish, and even other freshly-caught minnows.

If consuming minnows as a survival food, you may struggle to find tools that can help you create a trap. Luckily, minnows are easily stunned. You can simply take a club-like object, aim for a minnow in the shallows, and forcefully strike the water. This seems like a primitive means of catching fish, but this may just work for you in dire situations!

Larger minnows can be fished using a few fly-fishing techniques. This method of catching minnows may be quite tricky for novice fishermen, but should be second nature to seasoned ones. The best time to fish for them would be early morning. When casting a line into the water, keep in mind that it need not be submerged. With live waxworms or artificial nymphs as bait, you should manage to attract a few curious and hungry minnows, which you might want to use as bait for larger fish or eat as non-conventional treats.

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