Cooking a whole fish is badass, no doubt. But if you think it’s a technique best left to restaurant chefs and you’re better off baking salmon fillets night after night, you’re dead wrong. Baking a whole fish is a relatively simple process, you just need to know how.
That’s where chef Dave Pasternack—the guy who Frank Bruni once called the “fish whisperer”—can help. We enlisted the Esca and Barchetta chef to teach us his simple, go-to recipe for baked fish with potatoes. “The potatoes are the best part of the dish,” says Pasternack. “The fish has natural oil that cooks and crisps up the potatoes.” Why cook fish whole? Cooking fish on the bone gives it more flavor, and removing the fillets is a simple process (see the filleting demo below).
Before you begin, take a look at the do’s and don’ts of buying and preparing fish, according to Pasternack.
10 Commandments for Buying and Cooking Fish
1. Have a good relationship with your fish monger. “This is the most important thing when it comes to buying fish.”
2. Make your fishmonger do all the work. “Tell him if you want to cook the fish whole, then have him clean the fish. Or, tell him if you want a fillet. It’s all part of the service.”
3. Know the signs of a good/bad fish. “When buying whole fish, make sure the fish is shiny; its eyes should be bulging out of its head, the scales should be tight with the body, and it shouldn’t look like the fish has been bruised.”
5. Pull the fish out of the fridge 30 minutes before you cook it. “Put it on paper towels so it dries.”
6. When pan-frying fish, don’t season the skin until after you cook it. “The salt will draw moisture out of the skin, and it will stick to the cooking surface.”
7. Don’t overcook fish. “When you think your fish is done, 99% of the time it actually is done.”
8. Don’t under-season fish.
9. “Always let fish rest before you eat it, just like you would do with a piece of steak. This will let the juice go back into the flesh.”
10. Be patient when grilling fish. “When grilling fish, the big mistake people make is heating the grill, then oiling it, then throwing the fish on. The cold oil will make the grill loose temperature, then the fish will stick. Make sure you let the oil get hot.”
Now that fish fundamentals are in place, here’s Pasternack’s tried-and-true recipe for baked sea bass. It’s so easy, it’s sure to become a weeknight staple.
How to Make Baked Black Sea Bass with Crispy Potatoes
* ½ cup olive oil
* 1 Idaho potato
* Whole black sea bass (or branzino or porgie)
* Half a lemon, plus 3 slices of lemon
* 1 clove garlic
* 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
* Salt and pepper to taste
Cooking the fish
1. Heat your oven to 450°F. Drizzle olive oil onto a sizzler platter, sheet tray, or earthenware dish.
2. Use a mandoline or sharp knife to slice the potato into very thin rounds. (They should be so thin you can see through the slices.)
3. Fan the potato slices evenly over the baking tray. Layer the slices, and make sure they cover the entire plate. Drizzle olive oil over the top of the potatoes and season with salt and pepper.
4. Slice a lemon in half, then cut three thin slices. Cut those slices in half again.
5. Take the lemon slices, garlic clove, and sprigs of rosemary and stuff them into the cavity of the fish. (Note: Tell your fishmonger you’d like to “cook your fish whole” and they’ll clean the fish and create an incision like the one you see below.)
6. Drizzle olive oil over the fish and season it aggressively with salt and pepper. Flip the fish over and repeat.
7. Lay the stuffed fish over the potatoes. Put extra oil underneath the tail, so it doesn’t stick to the cooking tray.
8. Put the fish into the 450°F oven. “The oil from the fish drips down and cooks the potatoes,” explains Pasternack.
9. It should take approximately 15 to 20 minutes to cook the fish, depending on the size. How can you tell when it’s done? “If you look at it, and the skin is starting to separate from the flesh, that’s a good thing,” says Dave.
When you think it’s done, remove the fish from the oven. To make sure it’s ready, press down on the fish gently with your finger, right behind the gill where the flesh is thickest. “This is the spot that always takes the longest to cook. You’re going to push it, and you can feel that the meat is about to break. That’s when you know that it’s done.”
10. Drizzle a little more oil on the fish, then stick it under the broiler for a couple minutes to crisp the skin. (If the potatoes look like they’re getting too done—a.k.a. burnt—take the fish off of the potatoes and put just the fish underneath the broiler.)
11. Transfer the fish to a serving plate with a spatula. Pour the juices that have collected in the baking dish over the plated fish.
You just cooked a restaurant-worthy sea bass in 30 minutes. Pat yourself on the back.
How to Fillet a Whole-Cooked Fish
NOTE: Pasternack says, “If you really want the fish to be perfectly boneless, you can’t use this technique. If you don’t mind telling your guests that there’s going to be a couple of bones in the fish, then there shouldn’t be a problem.”
1. Remove the cheek—or as Pasternack calls it, “the best part of the fish”—and put it onto the serving plate.
2. Remove the “feather bones” that run along the top and bottom of the fish.
3. Remove the head. flip the head over, and take the other cheek out. Discard the head (along with the lemon, thyme, and garlic).
4. Peel the skin off the fish, leaving it attached to the tail. “The skin is delicate; you don’t want to destroy the skin,” warns Pasternack. Here’s how to do it:
– Using your fork, make a horizontal cut into the side of the fish, following the line of the spine from head to tail. This should separate the side of the fish into two portions, top and bottom.
– Using the fork, slide the top fillet up and off the bones. Push the bottom fillet downwards off the bones.
– Lift the spine and smaller bones out all in one piece, then cut through the spine near the tail, leaving the tail attached to the skin. “With the tail left on, it’s a nice presentation,” says Pasternack.
5. Put the bottom and top filets back together, and place the skin back on top of the meat.
6. Using a spatula, transfer the fish back onto the potatoes. Re-season the fish with salt, pepper, and oil. “I like a lot of oil—but that’s me,” says Pasternack.
7. Garnish with half a lemon and you’re good to go.