Have you ever roasted (or baked—here’s the difference*) a whole fish? It’s easy and a lot less expensive than fillets.
Here are the simple steps to serving succulent, low-caloric, healthful roast fish (or grilled, if you prefer). Our tip was inspired by these photos from Eataly Chicago.
1. CHOOSE A FISH
Start with one of these varieties, which should cost around $11-12/pound. Plan on one pound per two people.
Branzino, flaky and slightly firm with a mild, buttery flavor.
Dorade (a.k.a. orata and sea bream), a flaky white flesh with a rich, succulent, meaty flavor, similar to pompano or red snapper.
Rainbow trout, delicate and tender flesh with a mild flavor.
Have your fishmonger remove the guts and scales. See the next section, on how to pick the freshest fish.
Then, choose your aromatics.
But first, some tips on how to select the freshest fish.
Branzino with aromatics, ready to roast. Photo courtesy Eataly | Chicago.
*ROASTING VS. BAKING: Roasting and baking are both dry heat cooking methods that employ hot air, typically at 300°F or higher. Today the terms are synonymous, but before modern ovens and broilers, roasting referred to food food cooked over an open flame. Today, both roasting and baking are done in an oven, where the heat browns and crisps the exterior of the food. While used interchangeably, each term sounds better for certain types of foods. Would you rather have baked vegetables or roasted vegetables?
How To Pick Fresh Fish
Here’s the scoop, straight from our grandmother:
1. LOOK at the eyes. They should be clear and plumped out, not cloudy and sinking down.
2. CHECK the gills. They should look wet fresh-looking (like pulled from the water), the color red, orange or brown, depending on the fish. If they look dark brown and/or dried out, pick something else.
3. PRESS the flesh gently. If it springs back, the fish is fresh. If it leaves a permanent dent, pick something else.
4. AROMA. A fresh fish aroma is fine; a “fishy” aroma or whiff of ammonia is not.
What Are Aromatics?
Aromatics are herbs and vegetables that release delicious aromas and impart deep flavors into the dish.
They provide the flavor foundation in many dishes. Braises, sauces, sautés, soups, stews, stir-fries and stocks are some of the dishes that rely on aromatics.
For roasting fish, you don’t have to use one selection from every category below. We do use them all; but if you want to simplify your purchases, choose just one citrus and one herb.
2. PICK SOMETHING FROM THE CITRUS FAMILY
Slice it and insert it into the cavity (slice the grapefruit to fit). Buy an extra to cut into wedges for garnish.
One of the branzinos above, roasted and ready to eat. Photo courtesy Eataly | Chicago.
3. PICK SOMETHING FROM THE CELERY FAMILY†
4. PICK A FRESH HERB
Save some extra sprigs for garnish.
†The Apiaceae family of plants is commonly known as the celery, carrot or parsley family—mostly aromatic plants. Others of the more than 3,700 species are anise, caraway, chervil, coriander/cilantro, culantro, cumin, dill, fennel, lovage and parsnip.
5. PICK SOMETHING FROM THE ONION FAMILY
6. OPTIONAL: USE WHITE WINE
If you have an open bottle with two cups of white wine you want to use up, use a baking dish instead of the baking sheet indicated below. Add the wine before the fish.
7. ROAST THE FISH
1. PREHEAT the oven to 400°F. Soak the entire fish in salted water for 10 minutes. Pat it dry. If the fish is particularly thick, cut three half-inch slashes on each side, no more than a half inch deep, to help the heat penetrate. Rub olive oil over the surface. Sprinkle the surface and the cavity with salt and pepper.
2. STUFF the aromatics into the cavity of the fish and transfer it to a rimmed baking sheet. You can cover the sheet with foil or parchment for easier cleanup. If you have leftover aromatics (other than the pieces for garnish), you can place them in the center of the tray and lay the fish on top.
3. ROAST the fish until the fish is just cooked through (we actually prefer ours rare), and a cooking thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the fish reads about 135°F. The skin should be crispy. Cooking time will vary based on the weight and thickness of the fish, but it will be ready to test at 30 minutes.
4. GARNISH with citrus wedges and herb sprigs and serve. While this article may be long, once you’ve done it the first time, roasting whole fish is a snap!