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How to Cook a Whole Fish

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Last week on Project Recipe, Bon Appetít recently asked me to bake a whole fish in a salt crust, and I didn't care for the experience, as you can read here. There's even a video on ba.com, showing exactly how to baked a fish in sea salt, but I didn't bite. Sure, a whole fish is an economical proposition (check the price the next time you're at the fish counter and see how much you're paying for the labor to skin and filet), but when you wrap it in $9 worth of coarse sea salt—which is then thrown away—the economical angle is compromised, to say the least.

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My editors, who are a remarkably tolerant lot, politely looked past my crankiness and asked the next logical question: Well {smart guy}, how would you cook a whole fish?

The answer is simple: in any way but a salt crust.

I'm not just being cranky; it's true. A whole fish, in addition to being cheaper than the same weight in individual filets, is an excellent container for cooking (hey, look, it comes wrapped in a tough, scaly skin!), so barbecuing, roasting, pan-frying, poaching, and deep frying are all excellent methods for producing a moist, delicious result.

The Best Way to Cook a Whole Fish:

Barbecuing: Last Summer my blogging partner Bridget Moloney and I cooked whole striped bass on the barbecue, and while we were both a little underwhelmed by the flavor of striped bass (I perhaps more than the ever-charitable Bridget), the technique couldn't have been simpler. A few herbs and citrus slices in the cavity of the fish, and onto the grill it goes. This is a super method for salmon, too.

Roasting: Another slam-dunk. Try Herb-Roasted Whole Branzino with Potatoes, Tomatoes, and Olives, a recipe from Rocca Kitchen & Bar in Boston.

Broiling: As I said, striped bass is not my fish, but what do I know? The Bon Appétit Test Kitchen raves about this 30-minute href=http://www.bonappetit.com/magazine/fasteasyfresh/2008/10/whole_striped_bass_with_lemon_and_mint>Whole Striped Bass with Lemon and Mint. They haven't been able to persuade me to try it, but give it a shot and let me know.

Pan-frying: Is there a better way to cook freshly-caught rainbow trout than to dredge the whole fish in cornmeal and fry it in bacon drippings? Of course not!

Poaching: Mmmm, poached salmon with Hollandaise. Feed a crowd at brunch. If you're unsure about the poaching process, check out this instructional video. Just a few inches from poaching is steaming, which is a marvelous way (particularly using Chinese aromatics) to cook, say, snapper.

Deep frying: This is probably my very favorite way to cook a whole fish, although it's strictly a restaurant dish; I don't have the capacity or equipment to handle it at home. Hideo Yamashiro (the executive chef at the restaurant where I had enoyed my brief, disastrous career as an kitchen apprentice) used to make a superb whole deep-fried catfish, which he served with a simple ponzu dipping sauce. He later opened his own place in South Pasadena, where it's still on the menu.

So I say ditch that salt crust and cook the fish any other way you can think of. You can't go wrong.

Chris Hall writes for bonappetit.com's Project Recipe and is cooking his way through the bonappetit.com's Top 100 Dishes.

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