A few years ago, when my husband transitioned from vegan to pescatarian, I became determined to find all the ways to wow him with my fish-cooking skills. By far the most impressive technique I tried was salt-baking a whole fish. Not only was the reveal incredibly dramatic and awe-inducing, but the fish also came out perfectly tender and moist.
My takeaway? Salt-baking a fish is easy enough for anytime cooking, but fancy enough to be a dinner-party showstopper — and it’s always delicious. Here, I’ll show you my favorite way to do it.
What Is Salt-Baking?
Salt-baking is a technique in which you surround an ingredient completely with salt, creating a hard salt shell that traps and absorbs moisture during the cooking process, adds flavor, and helps cook the food evenly. While you’ll sometimes see recipes for salt-baked vegetables like beets or other root vegetables, most often the salt-baked item is a protein, such as beef, chicken, or fish.
What’s the Best Salt for Salt-Baking?
While I prefer Diamond Crystal kosher salt for most of my cooking needs, when I salt-bake, I always use Morton Coarse kosher salt. I find Morton firms up nicely while it bakes, and, most importantly, it breaks apart more easily and cleanly during the reveal. (Diamond Crystal is finer than Morton, so it will shatter all over the place when you crack open the salt mound.) Conveniently, Morton is also available in a 3-pound box, which is exactly the amount you need.
Before you cover the fish, you’ll need to dampen the salt with either water or egg whites to make it easier to mold. I prefer to use water as the binder when working with Morton salt, but if you only have Diamond Crystal I recommend using egg whites, which does a better job of binding the finer flakes.
What’s the Best Fish for Salt-Baking?
Any whole fish that weighs 2 to 2 1/2 pounds is great for salt-baking. Any bigger, and the tail will be falling off the edge of the sheet pan. I personally like to use red snapper, black bass, branzino, tai snapper, or dorade.
Be sure to trim off the fins — especially the fin spines, which can poke you. There’s no need to descale the fish because the scales come off easily after the fish is baked. In fact, when you dig into the fish, it’s best to remove the skin altogether — the contact it had with the salt makes it a bit too salty, but the flesh underneath is seasoned to perfection.
Prepping and Cooking Your Salt-Baked Fish
Incorporating a variety of aromatics lends delicious flavors and aromas to the fish. For a double dose of deliciousness, I like to mix some directly into the salt mixture and stuff the rest inside the cavity. Here, I’m calling for cilantro stems (no waste!), fresh ginger, lemongrass, and limes, but any herb stems or citrus will work. Bay leaves and crushed spices are also great options.
Before you stuff your fish, you’ll need to create a salt bed: Place about 2 cups of the salt onto a baking sheet and shape it into the size of your fish. Place the fish on the bed, stuff the aromatics into the cavity, then cover with the remaining salt. Use your hands to press the salt into a solid mound that completely covers the fish, making sure there are no holes or cracks.
Now it’s time to send it to the oven. You’ll bake it at 400°F until the internal temperature reaches 135ºF. And yes, you need to take the temperature of your fish to make sure it’s done. Using an instant-read thermometer, poke a small hole through the salt and into the flesh of the fish. Once the fish is cooked, let it rest for five minutes before cracking into the salt crust.
Serving Salt-Baked Fish
The reveal is a dramatic event, so be sure to gather everyone around to watch you crack the salt to expose the gorgeous fish. Treat the process like you’re excavating a fossil: Crack the salt by gently tapping a spoon on the surface of the salt mound, remove any large pieces of salt from the fish, then gently brush away any remaining salt with a dry pastry brush. Repeat this until the fish is fully revealed, then remove the salty skin, break up the flesh with a fork, and pull out the spine. Serve family-style straight from the baking sheet.
How to Salt-Bake a Whole Fish
Prep time 10 minutes
Cook time 35 minutes
- 1 bunch
- 1 (1-inch) piece
- 1 (6-inch) piece
- 3 pounds
kosher salt, preferably Morton’s Coarse Kosher
- 1/2 cup
water or egg whites
(2 to 2 1/2-pound) whole fish, such as red snapper, black bass, Tai snapper, or dorade, scaled and gutted
Heat the oven and prepare the baking sheet. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 400ºF. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
Prepare the aromatics for stuffing the fish and the salt crust. Cut the stems from 1 bunch cilantro. Set a few long stems aside. Coarsely chop the remaining stems until you have 1/4 cup and place in a large bowl. Thinly slice half of a 1-inch piece of ginger (no need to peel), crush the slices, and set aside. Finely chop the remaining ginger (about 1 1/2 tablespoons) and add to the bowl. Finely chop half of a 6-inch piece of lemongrass (about 1 1/2 tablespoons) and add to the bowl. Smash the remaining half of the lemongrass. Finely grate the zest of 1 medium lime with a microplane directly into the bowl. Thinly slice half the lime, then cut the remaining half into wedges for serving.
Prepare the salt mixture. Add 3 pounds kosher salt and 1/2 cup water or egg whites to the bowl of aromatics and mix until well combined.
Prepare the fish. Trim the fins from a whole fish with kitchen shears. Rinse the fish, then pat dry with paper towels.
Make a salt bed for the fish. Place about 2 cups of the salt mixture on a baking sheet, shaping the salt in about the same size as the fish.
Add fish on top of salt. Place the fish on top of the salt bed. Stuff the reserved cilantro stems, ginger slices, lemongrass, and lime slices into the cavity of the fish.
Cover the fish with salt and seal. Cup by cup, cover the fish with the remaining salt and press with your hands into a solid mound that completely encompasses the fish. Press until there are no remaining holes or cracks.
Bake the fish. Bake until the internal temperature of the fish is 135ºF and the edges of the salt crust are lightly browned, 30 to 35 minutes. Let rest for 5 minutes.
Crack and remove the salt crust. Using a large spoon, tap into the salt crust to crack it. Remove the salt crust in big chunks. Using a dry pastry brush, brush away any excess granules of salt that may be on the fish. This fish is best served family style.