How to Prep and Cook a Whole Fish
Forget the fillets for a minute and hear us out—cooking a whole fish, head, tail, body, and all, is WAY easier than you might think it is. Perfect for a special occasion, company that needs to be impressed, or just an excuse to treat yourself to a fresh catch of the day, a whole fish of your choosing is a perfect and deceitfully easy entree for the home cook to master.
Despite the fact that I consider myself a competent, adventurous home cook, there still remains an area of unchartered territory regarding what I will attempt to make. For the longest time, cooking a whole fish was smack dab in the center of things that I was too intimidated, nervous, and frankly, a little grossed out, to try. There’s a level of drama and sophistication that goes along with serving the entire carcass of a fish that seemed just a couple notches outside of my culinary caliber (and trust me, I have stacked bundt cakes on top of each other, so it’s safe to say my caliber isn’t exactly what you’d call weak).
However, in the interest of #serviceable #internet #content, I threw these hesitations to the back-burner, strapped on my big girl boots, and decided to give it a whirl. After gathering some pro-tips from Time Inc. Food Studios recipe developer, Robin Bashinsky, I was as ready as I’d ever been to try my hand at cooking a fish—in its entirety.
Step One: Buy It
In retrospect, I can confidently say that this first step is the most important part of the whole process, and you’re not even the one that’s doing the dirty work. When you go to the fish market to purchase your prized lil’ fishy, tell your fishmonger that you are cooking it whole, and ask to have it “dressed.” In fishmonger speak, that means they take the gills out, gut it, and scale it. As far as the kind of fish you cook, that decision is largely up to you. I cooked a snapper, but bass, trout, mackerel, or branzino are all fine options. As long as the skin is edible (so, not grouper, for example), it’s a go.
If you’re like me and know the absolute bare minimum about fish biology and varieties (seriously, the only whole fishes I ever see are the ones being held up by Oakley-wearing males in their Tinder pictures), just chat up your fishmonger. They’re likely more than happy to guide you in the right direction (Hint: the more confused/traumatized you present yourself, the more likely they are to provide you with a bounty of useful tips/tricks). Any fish between 3-5 pounds is going to be a good size for your home oven. Don’t get too carried away here and buy the biggest catch of the day—you want to impress your guests not terrify them.
Step Two: Flavor It
Once you’ve secured your fish, it’s time to get cooking. A super hot oven is going to get the skin nice and crispy, so I cranked mine up to 450°, per Bashinsky’s suggestion. He also recommends starting with a parchment paper-lined sheet pan, and generously spreading extra virgin olive oil across it. Lay the fish onto the pan, and drizzle more oil around the outside and inside the cavity of the fish. Then, salt and pepper the entire body of the fish generously. Aren’t you having so much fun? Can you believe how easy this is? Do you feel rugged and brawny, as though you were aboard the boat that reeled in this fish? Or is it just me?
To stuff the cavity, the slit through the chest of your fish, which your fishmonger has been so kind as to clear out, and fill ‘er up. You can really get creative with what you choose to fill it with. Following Bashinsky’s advice, I opted for a Mediterranean-inspired flavor profile and filled the cavity with smashed garlic cloves, coarsely chopped fresh herbs (oregano, basil, parsley), and lemon slices. Another route to take draws from Asian-inspired flavors, in which case you would stuff your cavity with lemongrass, fresh ginger, and quartered limes (Pro-tip: swap out your salt for soy sauce for added umami-rich, sodium goodness). The cavity is your opportunity to stuff your fish full of whatever aromatics make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, so have fun with it.
Step Three: Cook It
Once your cavity is stuffed, Bashinsky advises cutting 4 deep, vertical slits in the skin across the upward-facing side of the fish to promote even cooking. He offers that you can garnish the top of your fish with additional citrus slices for presentation, if you so please. Now you’re ready to cook—it usually takes anywhere from 40-45 minutes at 450°, depending on the size of your fish, but it’s a good idea to keep an eye on it throughout the baking process. You’ll know it’s ready when the fish has crisped up and turned slightly golden brown on the outside, and the flesh is white (assuming that you are cooking a white-fleshed fish).
Step Four: Finish It
At this point in the process, I was on a total high from this revolutionary discovery that prepping and cooking a WHOLE FISH is crazy simple. Because I am not a heathen, I continued on my path towards culinary righteousness by using the leftover herbs I had to make a chimichurri. In other words, I was feeling pretty mighty and had already begun brainstorming names for my upscale, waterfront seafood restaurant concept. Spread atop the fish after it was taken out of the oven, this vibrant herb and oil condiment was just the kick of flavor and heat that the snapper needed. #BOOM
Step Five: Pat Thyself on the Back
All this to say, I’m not sure if I impressed any of the recipe developers who I forced bites of this fish upon because they probably (definitely) understand the simplicity and general ease of this task. However, I sure as hell impressed myself with this one. The next time I need to cook for a special someone and play up my culinary chops (FYI, this never happens...), I am definitely going to break out this newfound skill of mine, and maybe throw a crunchy slaw or a fresh salad on the side. In the meantime, I can cross “whole fish” off my list of culinary conquests, and basque in all of my “hard-earned” glory.