Michigan’s Smoked Whitefish Dip Recipe


Everyone has their own. It’s like Lebanese seven-spice mix: which seven depends on who is doing the mixing, but the mix is happening, everywhere you go there. And for the record, it’s not always seven. I grew up on three (salt+pepper+cinnamon).

Here in Michigan, where whitefish dinners reign supreme (and lunches too–I ate the finest whitefish sandwich of my life at American Spoon’s Gelato Café recently in Petoskey–God bless them), we do find lots of other ways to eat the abundance of the mild, tender fish that comes from our cold, generous waters.


Whitefish takes to smoking like a boat to water. Like all of the best flavors of summer that come from smoke, from char, smoked whitefish tastes deeply of the outdoors, of both lake and bonfire, an ironic synthesis. Not too many smoke their own fish at home, far as I can tell. I like to think I would if I could stand the steady scent of the smoke. The one project in culinary school that left me intrigued yet somewhat woozy was hot and cold smoking. I tended the wood and the fire and the meats and fish, and by the time we were through, I was through too, so smoked out I vowed I would never eat a smoked anything ever again.

A little time and distance got me back on track, at least enough to embrace smoked whitefish when I headed back to Michigan. Recently my mom and I took a drive over to Charlevoix to watch the whitefish gurus in action at John Cross Fish Market. The fourth-generation, family-owned business is the whitefish heartbeat of the region, supplying pretty much every store and restaurant with its fish, both fresh and smoked.


When we stopped in unannounced the other day, Kellie Cross Sutherland took us in as though she’d been waiting for just such a visit all morning long. That’s the Up North way. The fishery handles a ton of fish every day, turning out filets and smoked whole and hunked whitefish, along with their own smoke whitefish pepper sausage, so delicious, and their family-recipe pate or dip.

The pate and dip monikers are interchangeable. As far as I can tell they end up being the same thing—smoked fish with some sort of creamy binder along with spices and whatnot—call it what you will. I call mine dip because I’m such a huge fan of liver pate that anything else just feels like a fake-out to me. It’s like hummus with no chickpeas. NoCanDo.


I didn’t dare ask what was in the John Cross dip, knowing how protected, how proprietary whitefish dips are in this neck of the woods—every grocery store and restaurant in these parts offers its own special recipe, and puts a pretty price tag on it. And that’s okay, because like every proud cook, I like my own the best, by a lot, of any whitefish dip I’ve tasted (I know, kitchen arrogance is not pretty). We’re talking cream cheese, we’re talking labneh. See?

But Kellie did tell me everything you’d want to know about the process of preparing the fish, which was made that much more real as I stood in a pool of fish guts (next time I won’t wear flip-flops): the fishing in waters all over the place here, the scaling and heading, dressing, fileting, pin-boning, and finally brining before smoking over a maple wood fire.


Our porch time is getting into full swing up north now, which is just the place for lemonade and cocktails, Michigan’s ubiquitous smoked whitefish dip with vegetables, Neva Betta crackers, and happy summer-talk that every year feels as though it’s really never been better.

Michigan Smoked Whitefish Dip

1 hunk smoked whitefish (about 2 cups flaked meat)
3 ounces best-quality cream cheese, softened
1 1/2 cups labneh or Greek yogurt
2 scallions, thinly sliced
pinch kosher salt

Remove the skin from the fish and flake the meat into small shreds using your fingers and a fork, taking care to remove any pin bones and tough edges.Flaking the fish finely is key, so take your time.

In a medium bowl, stir the cream cheese until it is smooth. Add the labneh and stir until the mixture is smooth, using a whisk if needed. Stir in the smoked whitefish and scallions, taste, and season with a pinch of salt. Serve the dip with vegetables and crackers.

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21 Responses to Michigan’s Smoked Whitefish Dip Recipe

  1. Diane Nassir (my maternal grandmother was an Abowd from Ammun, Leb.) says:

    Yes! Salt, pepper, cinnamon–grew up on that and that is how I cook!!!

    • allison F. Lange says:

      I LOVE today’s blog/posts!!!! You do such a WONDERFUL … Colorful job!!! I just LOVE reading them… I don’t comment very often, and I should… Because, I LOVE them! :) Hope all is well with you… Busy Busy Busy for the 28th? We must CHAT SOON!!!! I want to hear about your trips & all the good things going on… ;) I can’t wait til you POST this one on Facebook!!!! I’m going to “share” if that’s okay!!!! :) xoxo’s….. :)

      • Maureen Abood says:

        So good to hear your voice here Allison, and thank you so much!! Can’t wait to see you and I’d love for you to share this, with my thanks!! Soon soon! xoxo.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Here here!

  2. Geoff Batrouney says:

    Here in lower Westchester county, NY we have a beautiful reservoir, Kensico Reservoir, that supplies drinking water to NYC. We are allowed to fish the Reservoir, but only in a rowing boat, and only after passing a security check. In this huge Reservoir are some of the largest Lake Trout and Brown Trout you can imagine–10 pound fish are quite common. I bring them home (3 allowed daily) and cure them for 4 hours under a blanket of brown sugar and kosher salt, then smoke the “planks” over alder wood on the grill. The smell, the taste are both stunning! Loved your article and the photos.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Oh my gosh Geoff, thanks for sharing that–your smoked trout sounds divine, absolutely divine!! I can smell and taste it from here!!

  3. Adele Miller says:

    I grew up on bagels, cream cheese, lox and smoked whitefish every Saturday night. Smoked sable was seved on special occasions. Whitefish salad, as we called it, was another delicacy that we had at every family brunch celebration, so happy I have a recipe for it now.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Adele, whitefish salad–how great. Your bagels and lox sound soooo goooood….thanks for sharing….

  4. Mary M-S says:

    I am definitely going to try this one! I know exactly what you mean about everyone having a favorite. We get some as soon as we cross the bridge (Mackinac Fish Company) but the gas station/general store in Brevort (Gustafson’s) sells their own version. Friends like one but not the other … you know what I’m talking about :-) We stopped taking any to parties just to avoid taking the wrong one! Next time I’ll just make this!!

    Enjoy your summer, Maureen!

  5. This sounds just incredible. I love smoked fish, and I could make an entire dinner out of this!

  6. James finch says:

    We have our favorites too! Amical in
    Traverse City and a small grocery
    Store (maybe an iga??) Next to
    Bakery of the 3 o’clock baguette.
    Very nice. Have u ever thought of
    adding capers? We love em in there.

  7. Stacy says:

    John Cross Fish Market!

    Brings back memories of riding with Grandpa Spaniolo from cottage up to Charlevoix to pick up fresh fish, never leaving without a container of whitefish dip!

    We’ll be at the cottage in July and can’t wait for fresh whitefish!

  8. Fun post—–and I love smoked fish. Living in the Pacific NW, of course our smoked fish is generally salmon. I would love to taste this smoked fish.

  9. Chef Edgar says:

    Nice Job! I enjoy your blog. Nice to see a true culinarian writing about the great food traditions of Northern Michigan!

  10. Laura says:

    Maureen, I’m a Charlevoix native and your pictures of John Cross made me tear up! I don’t live there currently—I’m nearly as far west as you can get from there—and reading this post made all the memories of waiting while my mom picked up whitefish every single week flood back. We had the whitefish paté at every party my parents threw while I was growing up. I can’t wait to make your smoked whitefish dip the next time I’m visiting, and I’m looking forward to devouring the rest of your blog! Hope the summer is as glorious as ever Up North this year!

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Laura, thanks so much–I love hearing from people from around here, and I’m glad to hear you’ll be visiting and making smoked whitefish dip, hopefully soon….

 

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