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How to Roast a Whole Fish

April 21 2014 - 9:00 AM

I consider myself an ambitious cook, yet there are certain dishes that I’ve assumed I should leave to the experts. I’ve tackled complex cakes and even homemade pastas. A whole fish, on the other hand, is not a dish I ever envisioned myself making. When you see a perfect red snapper staring you in the face, you know you just have to try it out.

Whenever I am out to dinner with a group, I always gravitate towards the whole roasted fish. I’ve tried some incredible variations on this dish at Mott Street and Tanta (seriously, don’t miss the Pescado Frito), leaving images of succulent, flavorful fish swimming in my mind long after. It’s something about the experience of sharing that dish and cooking the fish whole that really seals in the flavors. I knew I had to try it myself. I’m not expert, but here’s what I learned from my experience.

1. Become friends with your fishmonger
If you have never cooked a whole fish before, chat up your fishmonger. Voice your concerns and ask for any suggestions. Ask which fish would be a good choice to buy whole based on what is freshest that day and your taste preferences. Also, if you’re intent on doing everything yourself, be sure to ask a few key questions. Is this fish descaled? Has it been cleaned? Are the gills removed? Unless you’re buying from a wholesale fish market, the fish monger should be removing the scales and cleaning the fish.

2. Take the shortcuts whenever possible
Don’t be ashamed if you’re a little queasy at the thought of removing the fish fins or gills. Ask the fishmonger if they can help you out to remove any undesirables. They should offer to do so with no additional cost – after all, they are the ones slicing out those beautiful filets you buy so often. Also, many fish departments will sell whole fish that are seasoned and ready to go into the oven. Check out Plum Market or whole Foods if you’re looking for something like this. You’ll still get the impressive presentation and the flavor you’re looking for without the extra work.

3. Don’t go in unarmed
In order to take on a whole fish yourself, you’ll first need a plan of action. Do you plan to roast it whole? Stuff it with fresh herbs, or throw it on the grill? They’re all great options; just make sure you have the proper ingredients and tools. Grab your phone or computer and pull up YouTube if you want a real, step-by-step tutorial on how to take on a whole fish.

4. Surround the fish with flavor

Unlike a filet, you can’t just pour your marinade over the top of a whole fish and hope for the best. Depending on your cooking method and the type of fish, you may not want to eat the skin at all. Score the skin with diagonal cuts, and pour your marinade here as well as inside the fish. Using whole or fresh herbs is a best practice to really bring out all the flavors. Note that, as with anything you roast, if there is any sweet element in the marinade it may burn as it will caramelize upon cooking (i.e. orange juice, honey, a sweet teriyaki sauce).

5. Beware of the bones

The fish should easily separate from the main bone structure easily. Still, you may find tiny bones throughout depending on the type of fish you opt for. If you don’t want the extra work while you’re eating, you can attempt to debone prior to cooking or see if you can find a deboned version at your fish store. Otherwise, a more easily manageable filet may be the preferred option for you.