It’s a rare week here at Macheesmo when I post a poll and the thing that I actually want to win is the one that wins. But that’s exactly what happened in last week’s poll.
The poll winner, a fish baked in salt, left me standing in my kitchen last Sunday night, giggling like a school boy, as I played with a very good looking 3 pound red snapper and six pounds of Kosher salt.
It was an awesome and fun cooking experience.
If you can’t tell, underneath all of that salt there, is one whole fish.
At first I was very excited to make this meal, then I was slightly nervous, then scared, and finally excited again. What’s funny about this dish is while it looks intense, it’s actually one of the simpler ways to cook fish because it basically ensures a tender result unless you forgot about your fish in the oven and went to the movies or something.
1) Pat your whole fish dry and stuff it with thinly sliced lemons, fennel, and orange slices. Also add a few sprigs of thyme and parsley.
2) Mix salt, egg whites, and water in a large bowl to form a rough paste.
3) On a large baking dish, completely pack the fish in the salt mixture. Use parchment paper to make for easy clean-up. Add about 1/3 of the salt mixture on the bottom of the dish and sit the fish right on top. Then completely surround the fish with the salt but don't pack it super-tight or you'll damage the fish. Be gentle.
4) Bake the fish at 450 degrees for 25-35 minutes for a 3 pound snapper. If you have a digital thermometer you're shooting for an internal temperature of 130 degrees.
5) Let the fish rest for 5 minutes when it comes out of the oven.
6) Use a mallet to lightly crack open the salt casing and break it all away. Then use a sharp knife to cut away the top skin layer. Then just gently lift the fish out with a spatula. It'll be too tender to lift it all out in one piece so just take it in pieces. Lift out the fish skeleton and then also lift out the bottom segments of fish meat.
7) Serve immediately!
Adapted from an Alton Brown recipe.
Preparing the fish
There’s only a few important things to remember about the fish in this dish. As always, get the fish as fresh as you can. I got this red snapper from my local fish market and they even cleaned it to my specs which was lovely of them.
There’s really no way you could do this with anything less than a whole fish (although you can use two smaller fish). Without a whole fish though, the meat would get too salty. Have your fishmonger (or do it yourself if you are privvy) remove the gills and fins on your fish. Leave the skin and scales on. That’s right, you don’t even need to worry about the scales. If your fish already happens to be de-scaled that’s just fine though.
The only chance we’re really going to have to flavor this fish is right at the beginning so let’s stuff it with lots of citrus and herbs right away. These for example:
Slice up everything pretty thin so it’ll fit nicely in the fish cavity.
Once you have your fish, rinse it with cold water and pat it dry with a paper towel. Then stuff it full of the herbs and fruits.
Playing with salt
When your fish is ready, you need to make the salt mortar. I’m not really sure if that’s the right word for what this is, but basically it’s a mortar like you would use for laying brick I imagine.
Whatever you want to call it, it’s really fun to make.
To make the mortar, just mix the salt, egg whites, and water in a large bowl. It should be slightly moist and clump together if you press it.
Next, line a baking sheet with parchment paper and then scoop about 1/3 of your salt mortar onto the parchment paper diagonally. Make sure that there aren’t any whole or gaps in the salt crust! Then lay your stuffed fish right on top of the salt. It’s okay if the head and tale stick out a bit.
Next, start packing the fish in salt! You want to form a dome shape around the fish. Try not to press really hard or you might damage the fish. Just gentle shape the salt. Try not to get in a hurry. It’s kind of fun!
Make sure your oven is preheated at 450 degrees and then bake this very heavy thing for 25-35 minutes depending on the size of the fish. For a 3 pound fish, mine was actually a bit overcooked after 30 minutes (although it’s fine to overcook this fish a bit. It’s still very moist).
If you have a meat thermometer you can poke it through the salt crust after 25 minutes or so and get the temperature of the fish. 130 degrees or above and you’re all set. Be sure to let your salt dome rest at room temp for 5 minutes before cracking into it.
The Fun Part
Getting the fish out of the dome was actually very easy. Use a small hammer or mallet to lightly crack the salt shell all the way around the fish. It should lift right off. Use a small pastry brush or something to dust off any salt that’s stuck to the fish.
Next, use a sharp knife to gently slice all the way around the top layer of skin and then just peel it back. It should come off really easily in one piece. It’s pretty amazing actually.
After the skin is off, use a knife or small spatula (or pie server) to gently lift the pieces of fish from the top side of the fish. That should expose the spine and bones which you should be able to grab by the tale and gently pull off.
Then you’ll have the same amount of fish underneath the spine which you can scoop off the bottom layer of skin.
If any of that was terribly confusing to you, Alton has a video of the whole thing. If you want to skip to the end part of getting the fish out of the salt, it starts around 7:30 in that video.
If you wanted to be really crazy, I guess you could just serve the fish intact at the table, but I thought it was nice to pull off all of the fish fillets and serve them with some lemon slices.
This is a lot more food than it looks.
I served my red snapper with some brown rice and a quick salad using the fennel and orange I had left over from the stuffing. I should’ve just went the extra step though and made this fennel and orange salad which goes perfectly with fish.
Not only was this meal very delicious, I think it would’ve been pretty hard to mess up. Like I said, I actually overcooked my fish by about 10 degrees and you would’ve never known. The salt keeps all the moisture and flavor trapped in so it gives you tons of room for error in the cooking.
So if you’re in the market for something different and fun, I thought this was a fantastic dish!
Have you ever tried this? How’d it go? Cooked anything else in salt?