Although there might be something intimidating for you about cooking a fish whole — head, tail, skin and all — I assure you that the process is easy. It’s actually hard to flub up, as the delicate meat is enveloped in a protective layer of skin. And… if you’re up to the gills with the cost of seafood, buying fish whole is an economical way to go (check out the difference in price-per-pound next time you pass the seafood counter).
The first thing to do is purchase your whole fish. Buy them fresh from the seafood section — or if you’re lucky, from a seafood market or the dock itself — and avoid pre-packaged fish. Any small to medium-sized whole fish will do, but you’ll probably only find one or two available in most markets; the three most commonly displayed are trout, snapper or sea bass. If it hasn’t been done already, make sure the fish is scaled and de-gutted.
There are many ways to cook a whole fish; here are a few of the most common methods:
Broiled – This is a cooking technique where the heat is high and usually comes from above. The fish is placed close to the heat source to attain a browned or charred texture before moving the fish to the center of the oven to finish it off.
Directions (also see recipe below): Heat the broiler to high heat. Slash the fish in diagonal slices for even cooking. Place the fish directly under the broiler until the skin is charred, about 3 minutes. Remove to the center of the oven and finish for about 6 minutes, until the meat easily flakes with a fork and the meat is opaque throughout.
Pan-Fried - Pan-fried fish are usually cooked over medium to high heat. The skin gets crispy, while the inside stays nice a moist. Butter, ghee or coconut oil are the healthiest choices for higher heat cooking, as they have a higher smoking point than the more delicate oils. Olive oil is suitable if the pan is only moderately hot.
Directions (also see recipe below): Heat a couple tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the fish and cook for 5 minutes. Carefully flip with two spatulas or a long fish spatula and cook the other side for another 4-5 minutes, until the meat flakes easily with a fork.
Grilled - Although grilling is a tasty way to eat whole fish, extra care has to be made to keep the skin from sticking to the grill. Steady, medium heat is best, and always make sure to generously oil the fish and the grill before placing the fish on the barbie.
Directions: Heat the grill to medium heat. Oil the grill and the fish to keep it from sticking. Slash the fish in diagonal slices to help the fish cook evenly. Lay the fish on the grill with the tail furthest away from the heat to keep it from cooking faster than the thick middle section. Cook each side 4-6 minutes, carefully turning only once to prevent the fish from falling apart.
Clay Pot Baked - Clay pot cooking keeps food tender and moist; it’s almost foolproof. Clay pots are a popular method of cooking fish in the Middle East, Mediterranean and Asia. Shallow clay pots formed beautifully in the shape of a fish can be found in gourmet specialty shops.
Directions: Soak the clay pot in water for 10 minutes. Set the fish in the pot and place in a cold oven. Set the temperature to 425-450 and bake for about 30 minutes, until the fish is flaky and opaque throughout.
The simplest filling for a whole fish will suffice: Fresh herbs, lemon, olive oil or butter and salt is all that’s required. A simple finishing sauce made of butter, olive oil and a touch of white wine or lemon juice makes a perfect accompaniment. For an Asian flair, try soy sauce, sweet rice wine, garlic and ginger.
I like serving the fish whole with its skin, spine, head and tail intact. The rustic look invites romance and makes a showy presentation. Your guests can open it up like a book and flake off the tender meat, or they can pop the crispy skin into their mouths… one delectable bite at a time.
Whole Fish with Lemon and Rosemary Rosemary, lemon, olive oil… that’s it, and a little sea salt to bring out the flavors of this classic combination. Try this simple recipe with sea bass, trout, snapper or grouper. (Pictured here are trout.) A few of the cooked rosemary sprigs can be minced into a side of rice or quinoa…
Left-Over Fish Salad This is my favorite way to use up the left-over meat from a whole cooked fish. I use an avocado mash flavored with mustard and honey to replace mayonaisse and have included fresh asparagus and Egyptian walking onions from the farmers’ market. Use any diced vegetables you have in the fridge…