When you walk by the display at your fish department, what catches your eye and holds your attention? For me, it’s the gorgeous, colorful, iridescently shiny whole fish that seem to be cavorting in a mini-sea of crushed ice. But the display isn’t just visually intriguing: It also offers one of the simplest and spectacular seafood experiences out there.
A whole fish makes an awesome presentation, and the taste of the flesh cooked on the bone is uniquely deep and luscious. As a bonus, a whole fish is less likely to dry out during cooking, retaining more of its delicious juices and is naturally held together by that wonderful, sleek body structure you admire.
Hungry for more? Read on for everything you need to know to dive into whole fish cookery.
Whole Fish Basics
- Varieties. Most fish varieties work fairly interchangeably. Some great mild, white-fleshed varieties that typically come in sizes that feed two to four diners include snapper, black sea bass, branzino, perch and porgy. Some more strongly flavored varieties (often called “oily fish”) include mackerel, bluefish, and trout. Sardines and smelts are very small fish and have special cooking requirements.
- Size. If you’re cooking whole fish for the first time, consider a smaller size (1 to 1 1/2 pounds) for easy handling.
- Fishmonger's help. You’ll want the fish scaled, and the guts and gills removed. It’s not difficult to do yourself, but your fishmonger can do a quick and expert job for you too.
- Prep. Unless you’re squeamish, leave on the head and tail for best cooking results. But by all means lop off either if you find your fish won’t fit in the pan! Cutting a few slashes into the side of the fish with a sharp knife lets heat and flavorings into the flesh; cut deeply but not all the way to the bone for most effect.
- Seasonings. For the simplest seasoning, rub the fish inside and out with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Additions. You can also stuff some aromatics like herbs, fennel, lemon or green onions in the cavity of the fish for more flavor and aroma.
- Cooking. Cook the fish just until the flesh flakes with a fork. Overcooking fish dries it out and impairs its flavor, so start checking your fish a few minutes before you think it might be done.
- Flipping. Most fish will cook best if turned only once; turning more often risks having the fish fall apart.
- Presentation. What to do about that shrunken eye staring out as you present the cooked fish on a platter? I sometimes stuff a green olive or round piece of bell pepper into the socket to make it look more appetizing, but by all means don’t fuss if it doesn’t bother you or your guests.
A whole grilled fish is nothing less than spectacular, taking on the subtle flavors of smoke and caramelizing the skin in a ways that are both delicious and aromatic. Make sure your grill grate is scrupulously clean (rub it vigorously with a wire brush to remove any debris) to prevent sticking. You can and use a grill basket to help in turning smaller fish if you like, but two spatulas should also work well.
Grilled Whole Fish with Lemon and Garlic couldn’t be easier or more delicious and is ideal for almost any 1-pound mild fish. Grilled Mackerel with Tomato Salad is packed with summer flavors and is great for full-flavored fish like mackerel and trout. And finally, don’t miss this super-flavorful recipe for Grilled Spiced Sardines with Couscous; it’s so delicious it could convert just about anyone into a sardine fan.
The even heat of a hot oven is an ideal way to cook whole fish. Roasting crisps a fish’s skin while leaving the interior moist and flavorful. And most recipes don’t require flipping the fish, so it’s a good technique for very large fish or for anyone who’s hesitant about their turning skills.
Chinese-Style Whole Fish recipe is a good recipe to start with and will work fabulously with just about any 2-pound fish. Baked Basmati and Currant Stuffed Trout is a nice recipe for showing off delicious it can be to cook a stuffed fish, as is Trout Stuffed with Sundried Tomato and Basil Quinoa. Finally, Flash-Steamed Spiced Red Snapper cooks a 3-pound fish in the oven almost effortlessly.
Small fish can be easily pan-seared in a heavy skillet over medium heat. This is best for small fish like sardines, porgy, or trout; ideally you’ll want the fish 8 ounces or less to make sure it cooks evenly through. Use a generous amount of oil in your skillet will make sure the fish doesn’t stick and aid in even heat transfer. A stovetop steamer is also a great way to cook smaller fish: Line the bottom of the steamer with vegetables or a lettuce leaf to help removing it from the basket easy, place the fish on top, and place over simmering water.
Don’t overlook the microwave for whole fish; it does a fantastic job steaming and is ideal for mild-flavored white fish. Put your cleaned fish in a baking dish, partially cover it with a lid, and microwave on high until the fish flakes, somewhere around 5 minutes for a 1-pound fish. Delicious!