Salt-Baking a Whole Fish
As with many topics of culinary history, the origin of cooking foods encased in salt is up for debate. Several cultures lay claim to the invention — from the Iberian Spaniards and Portuguese, to the Mediterranean Italians and Greeks, and further east to the ancient Persians and Chinese.
Whatever the truth, salt-baking, or salt-roasting, has stood the test of time. Similar to tagines and clay pots, this centuries-old method traps steam heat to infuse moisture, amplify flavor and retain nutrients. So remarkably tender and succulent are the foods cooked inside these paradoxical salt igloos, that this otherwise humble technique has even been likened to the light-years-more-high-tech magic of sous vide.
I can sense the wheels turning in your mind: All that salt! Won’t the fish be unbearable? Take me at my word: It’s not.
A hot oven (or grill) is critical here. Immediately upon heating, the sandy mixture of coarse salt, egg whites and a bit of water hardens to surround the food (typically a protein or a veg) in a clay-like shell. The heat creates an instant seal and an intense moisture barrier that serves to retain the natural juices and flavors. A rubdown of the exterior of the fish adds another natural line of defense preventing the salt from penetrating the skin.
The result is flaky, flavorful and incredibly moist fish with only a hint of saltiness. Still don’t believe me? It might just be one of those recipes you have to try for yourself!
This gorgeous fish is a locally-caught Atlantic striped bass into which we tucked sprigs of rosemary and parsley, some peppery garlic scapes (chives are a nice stand-in) + slices of lemon for an infusion of fresh, bright flavors during the slow, even and delicate cooking process.
What’s in it for me?
Striped bass are high in protein and low in fat. At only 105 calories + 2.5 g fat (predominantly unsaturated omega-3s and omega-6s), one 3-oz cooked portion provides nearly 20 g protein. This serving also brings nearly 2/3 of your daily need for vitamin B12 + the antioxidant mineral selenium, is an excellent source of phosphorous, and a good source of vitamins B6 + B3 (niacin).
All types of Atlantic striped bass are designated as sustainable, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, with those caught by hooks and lines being “best choices” and those caught in gillnets and pound nets being “good alternatives.” Farmed striped bass are considered cleaner — low in mercury and other contaminants — than wild striped bass that live in and around the shore, and may be exposed to runoff.
Oregano and thyme are among the top fresh herbs highest in antioxidants. The former is being studied for its potential to slow or prevent the progression of cancer cells in breast cancer patients and is known for natural anti-bacterial properties, while the latter is a rich source of iron and vitamin C. Garlic scapes — the flowering stalks of garlic bulbs — taste like a cross between a very mild garlic and chives with thicker stalks. Both chives + garlic scapes provide antioxidant vitamins A and C, and contain sulfur compounds that boost antioxidant production and capacity; while oregano, thyme, scapes + chives all offer vitamin K.
Looking at fat, this tightly-sealed, moisture-saving method of cooking requires no added oils or solid fats, making it naturally low fat + low calorie. Furthermore, the hot salt actually soaks up some of the natural fats from the food being cooked, adding to the structure and strength of the crust. In fact, one (3-oz cooked) serving of this recipe is only 135 calories and just under 6 g total fat, with nearly 5 g of those being heart-healthy unsaturated fat.
Like its origin story, the question of just how much sodium infuses into the food being cooked is unclear. This knot requires a comb with a fineness of tooth I do not yet possess, and my research did not produce a definitive answer. My best educated guess is that because the salt mixture transforms so quickly into a veritable cement wall under heat, only a minute amount of sodium is actually transferred to the food itself. Together with the natural sodium of the fish, plus minimal additions from the herbs and lemon, my estimate is approximately 200 mg* sodium per serving.
For an impressive main course, serve each portion with warm roasted red potatoes and olives with garlic and shallots, fresh herb pesto and a wedge of lemon. Glass of rosé optional, but encouraged. Because we’re only two, a meal of this size makes plenty of leftovers to use later in the week for lunches, quick weeknight suppers, or even for breakfast on seedy toast with greens or as an updated version of hash.
Whether you’re trying to incorporate more fish into your diet, or you want to spice up your regular seafood routine, salt-baking a whole fish is a terrific method. It might look daunting, but really all you need are a few basic ingredients, a quality fresh fish, and a bit of time. Well worth the effort to turn out such a delicious, healthful and show-stopping meal!
Tell me… What do you think about the idea of baking food in a salt crust?
- 4 large egg whites
- 1/4 cup water, as needed
- 2 3-lb boxes coarse kosher sea salt
- 3-lb striped bass, pre-cleaned, gutted and scaled (see HGN Notes for tips + alternatives)
- 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing the baking tray
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 1/2 bunch fresh parsley, kept whole
- 1/4 bunch fresh garlic scapes, kept whole (or a small handful of fresh whole chives)
- 2 lemons, 1 sliced + 1 cut into wedges for serving
- Preheat the oven to 400° F, with a rack in the middle position. Bring the fish out of the refrigerator and let it stand at room temperature for 20 minutes.
- In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites until frothy. Add the salt and stir everything together until the mixture is sticky, a bit like the texture of wet coarse sand -- if too dry, add water 1 Tbsp at a time until it holds its shape when balled up in your fist. Brush the entire base of a large rimmed baking tray or large roasting tin with olive oil, and spread about 1/3 of the salt mixture around the base, in a shape slightly larger than the length and width of your fish, making a slight hollow in the middle for the fish to nestle into; set aside.
- Rinse the fish under cold water, then pat dry all over and inside the cavity with paper towels. Rub the exterior with the olive oil. Lay the fish on the salt bed and stuff the cavity with the lemon slices and herbs. Completely cover the fish with the remaining salt mixture and lightly pack it down (a layer approximately 1/2-inch thick). Using a skewer, poke a hole through the salt at the thickest part of the fish near the head.
- Transfer the tray to the preheated oven and bake until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the hole you made with the skewer earlier reads 135° F and the salt has formed a very hard crust, about 45 to 50 minutes. Remove the tray from the oven and set aside, untouched, for 15 minutes.
- When ready to serve, present the fish at the table on its baking tray. Using the back of a metal spoon, give the crust a whack all around the edges to break it open and remove the salt in chunks or (if you're lucky) one big piece. (It's handy to have a bowl to put the baked salt discards into.) Brush off any remaining salt and peel back the skin to reveal the perfectly cooked flesh. Allow diners to take what they will, or carve and transfer portions onto a platter or individual plates. Serve with the lemon wedges and fresh herb pesto.(See HGN Notes for more carving tips.)
If you wish to carve the fish, never fear -- it's totally doable, and once have the gist of it down, this kitchen "trick" will make you look like a rockstar! Bon Appetit Magazine has a very helpful tutorial here: http://buff.ly/2cmms4c.
+ Any fresh herb will do for stuffing, such as parsley, cilantro, basil, marjoram, tarragon, sage, dill, mint, bay leaves, rosemary, etc.
+ Add sliced fresh chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and/or tomatoes to the stuffing!
+ For an extra infusion of flavor, add the zest of 2 lemons or 1 large orange, and/or a handful of fennel or coriander seeds to the salt-egg white mixture.
+ Use ground flaxseeds gelled in water in place of the egg whites.
Recipe adapted from Earth To Table.
*Note: Because I was unable to definitively determine how much sodium truly infuses into foods cooked with the salt-baking method, the approximated value is an educated, but still very rough, guess. If you are on a very strict low-sodium diet, or following MD recommendations to restrict added salt in your diet, please consider another recipe, like my Whole Grilled Mahi-Mahi with Lemon and Herbs!
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