Whitefish

5 Flavorful Facts of Great Lakes Freshwater Whitefish

For 1000s of years, lake whitefish were an important food source for Native Americans around the Great Lakes well before the arrival of European settlers. When European explorers came to the Great Lakes, they praised the lake whitefish for its excellent flavor and abundance and began to recognize its importance in the region. We found five of the most interesting and flavorful aspects of this popular Great Lakes fish.

#1 Great Lakes Whitefish is Sustainable

Great Lakes Freshwater Whitefish
Courtesy of the Bay Port Fish Company

The Great Lakes is one of the most highly managed fisheries in the world. In the 1960s Michigan’s then named Fisheries Division placed an emphasis on managing Great Lakes fisheries for sports fishing and sought a diminished role for commercial fishing. There are defined zones for commercial fishing. Whitefish from the Great Lakes are caught by one of 13 small, family-based operations. These fish are cleaned, packaged, and sold from their own retail counters, to wholesale buyers or at local farmers’ markets. This results in a small ‘carbon footprint’ that contributes toward the fishes value as a sustainable food source. The closer the product is consumed where it was caught means less the impact on the environment.

#2 Great Lakes Whitefish is Healthy

Fresh Caught Whitefish
Fresh Caught Whitefish – Courtesy of the Bay Port Fish Company

Great Lakes whitefish boasts a long list of health advantages. The fish is considered high quality, low-cost protein option with beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. One 3-oz. serving of Great Lakes whitefish features omega-3 fatty acids including .35 grams of EPA and 1.03 grams of DHA. That is more than pink or sockeye salmon. There is also some early research showing that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

#3 Whitefish is delicious to Those Who Don’t Like Fish

Fried Whitefish – Courtesy of the Bay Port Fish Company

It was a common entry in early historical diaries, such as the 1820 expedition of Lewis Cass and Henry Schoolcraft and other Great Lakes explorers that lake whitefish is excellent to eat. It has a sweet, light flavor that is suitable for the picky eater who “doesn’t like fish”. Its mild, slightly flaky texture suits a variety of dishes, and with a little care, adapts to almost any method of cooking.

This fish was so universally revered for its taste. During the early explorations and missionary work of French Jesuit priest, traveler, and historian, Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix, he declared the whitefish, ‘that whether fresh or salted, nothing of the fish kind can excel it.”

#4 Whitefish is Versatile

Whitefish fillets
Fresh Fillets – Courtesy of the Bay Port Fish Company

When properly prepared the pin bones disappear to render a light flaky texture. It’s great when baked or lightly dusted and fried, or even coated and deep-fried like walleye. One entre at Marquette’s famous Vierling Restaurant includes whitefish in a fish chowder. Other creative recipes include smoked, formed into fish cakes, dips and spreads, and even sausages.

Great Lakes Whitefish Chowder Recipe

Whitefish Chowder in a White Bowl

Whitefish Chowder Ingredients

  • 4 slices smoked bacon diced up
  • 1 ½ cups Vidalia or Sweet Onion diced
  • One stalk celery diced fine
  • 1 ½ cups clam broth
  • 4 cups diced potatoes
  • 1 ½ teaspoon Sea Salt
  • ½ teaspoon Old Bay
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 3 cups whole milk or half and half
  • 1 or 2 whitefish fillet(s), skinless in bite-size pieces
  • 1 ½ sticks butter
  • 2 tablespoons Wondra flour
  • 1/2 cup dry vermouth or cooking sherry
  • Olive Oil

Whitefish Chowder Directions

Coat the bottom of a large pot with about 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Cook bacon pieces over medium-high heat until almost crisp; add onion, celery, and continue cooking until the onion is soft and translucent but not brown about 5 minutes or less. Add the vermouth and cook for about another minute.

Stir in water, ½ of the clam broth and potatoes, and season with salt, pepper, and Old Bay. Bring to a boil, and cook uncovered at a low boil for 15 minutes, or until potatoes are fork-tender.

Lower heat to medium. Pour in milk and add ½ stick butter. Add the whitefish chunks and the other ½ of the clam broth. Carefully stir the soup to mix. Simmer for about 5 minutes, or until heated through. Taste and season again if needed. Do not allow to boil.

In a small pan, melt a stick of butter and with a stout whisk, add Wondra flour, and a bit more oil to make a roux. Whisk into the pot enough of the roux to thicken the soup and create a true chowder. Serve in warm bowls with chopped fresh parsley.

#5 Great Lakes Whitefish is Excellent Frozen

Frozen Packets of Whitefish fillets
Frozen Boneless Fillets – Courtesy of the Bay Port Fish Company

What many Michigan cooks already know is that frozen freshwater whitefish retains its flavor. In a taste test study of 115 panelists conducted by Michigan State University, it found that people actually preferred the prepared frozen fish over fresh. Whitefish frozen from 1 to 4 months were preferred in their cooked appearance, texture, and overall acceptability. The panel could not differentiate a flavor difference between the fresh or frozen whitefish. Another secret; cooks know is that frozen whitefish tend to firm up a bit after being frozen. That makes it easy to deep fry.

Great Lakes Whitefish Cookbook & Products Online

Michigan Sea Grant teamed up with the Northern Michigan University Hospitality Management program to produce a whitefish cookbook featuring nearly 60 lake whitefish recipes. The cookbook, Wild Caught and Close to Home: Selecting and Preparing Great Lakes Whitefish offers recipes using whitefish collected from fishermen and chefs from all over the Great Lakes region.

The cookbook offers an introduction to purchasing, handling, and the health benefits of this Great Lakes fish. This cookbook offers a different lake whitefish recipe every week for an entire year. Recipes are divided into sections based on preparation techniques. This includes frying, sautéing, stir-frying, touching, soup making, and many others.

Great Lakes Whitefish FAQ

What was the largest whitefish ever caught?

In 1918 a lake whitefish was caught in Lake Superior weighing in at 42.67 lbs. The record has held for over 100 years.

What did native Americans call whitefish?

The Anishinabe (Ojibwe) word for Great Lakes Whitefish is Adikameg.

Where do whitefish live?

They need deep, cool-water to thrive. Because of this, they will move to cool, well-oxygenated water in the summertime.

What do whitefish eat?

Baby freshwater whitefish eat zooplankton and begin to expand their diet to include small bottom-dwelling insect larvae as they grow larger. Adult whitefish eat scuds, fingernail clams, snails, opossum shrimp, midge larvae, and even the invasive round goby.

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For 1000s of years, lake whitefish were an important food source for Native Americans around the Great Lakes well before the arrival of European settlers. When European explorers came to the Great Lakes, they praised the lake whitefish for its excellent flavor and abundance and began to recognize its importance in the region. We found five of the most interesting and flavorful aspects of this popular Great Lakes fish.
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