Whole Fish Baked in a Salt Crust
A Simple Method For Roasting Whole Fish
- Servings: Depends upon the size of the fish.
In this roasting method, a whole fish is covered in a crust of salt and baked. You might think the fish would become salty but it does not. What it does do is cook to the most amazingly tender, juicy result with a delicate, refined flavor. I've had dinner guests tell me that fish cooked this way is the best fish they've ever tasted.
This is the time to buy a whole fish from an excellent fish monger. Tell him or her how you're going to cook it so that they can prepare the fish correctly. The fish should be left whole, with the head and tail left on, but it should be gutted and scaled.
When you're ready to cook the fish, remove it from the refrigerator, rinse it in cool water, and pat it dry using paper towels. Fill the fish cavity with sprigs of fresh herbs and slices of fresh lemon, and yes -- add some salt and pepper because despite the salt crust, the fish still needs to be seasoned.
It is essential that you use kosher salt, which is coarse. Do not use fine grained salt because the crust will not hold together. I personally avoid using salt to which iodine has been added because I know I get enough iodine in my diet and don't need more and don't like food additives in my ingredients.
If you can only find smaller fish, you can cook two smaller fish at the same time, under a single salt crust on a large rimmed sheet pan. When you're ready to serve, be prepared to make a bit of a mess when you crack open the crust which will have baked to a hard surface. Crack it open with a mallet or back of a heavy chef's knife and lift the pieces off to reveal the fish. Remove the upper filet, then the skeleton, and then the fish meat below. Discard all of the salt crust.
The number of servings will depend upon the size of the fish but a 2-pound whole fish will generally make 2 servings.
- 1 3-pound box of kosher salt (Diamond Crystal, in a red and black box, is perfect for this recipe but any brand is fine)
- 6 egg whites
- 1 whole fish, about 2 pounds. Sea bass or branzino are both perfect choices; the fish should be left whole with its head and tail, but gutted, cleaned and scaled
- 2-3 sprigs of fresh thyme or rosemary
- 1/2 fresh lemon, thinly sliced
- 1-2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
- Freshly ground pepper
- Preheat the oven to 375º F.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the salt with the egg whites. Using your clean hands, mix the salt and egg whites together until combined. The texture will seem like wet beach sand.
- Use a large rimmed sheet pan and line it with a piece of parchment paper.
- Remove the fish from the refrigerator and rinse it with cool water. Pat it completely dry, inside and out, with paper towels. Place the fish on the parchment-lined sheet pan.
- Season the fish cavity with salt and freshly ground pepper and add the sprigs of fresh herbs and 3 or 4 slices of fresh lemon. Rub the fish with a teaspoon or so of olive oil.
- Using your hands to scoop the salt-egg white mixture, cover the fish with the salt until it is completely covered. The salt will make direct contact with the fish's skin and should create a covering that is about 1/2-inch thick. Pat the crust all over to make sure it's intact and sturdy and that every bit of fish is covered so that when the crust bakes it makes an air-tight surface that keeps in the moisture.
- Place the pan in the center of the pre-heated oven and roast for 25 minutes. The crust will become a light golden brown, especially around the edges, and it will have completely hardened.
- Remove from the oven and let rest for about 20 minutes (it will stay warm for up to an hour). When ready to serve, use a small hammer, the back of a chef's knife, or another kitchen tool to crack the salt crust which will have become hard during the roasting. Break the crust off in pieces until the fish is entirely revealed. Discard all the pieces of the salt crust.
- To remove the cooked meat, carefully slice around the fillet and remove it to a serving platter. The meat will be very tender so handle it carefully so that it won't fall apart.
- Serve with slices of fresh lemon.