Baking is one of the easiest and most versatile ways to cook fish. Baking allows for precise and consistent temperature control, unlike grilling, pan frying, sautéing, and poaching. Medium high to you may not be medium high to me, but 350 degrees is always 350 degrees. Baking allows you to prepare your dish ahead of time and pop it in whenever you are ready, which can free you up to drink wine or chat with your guests. It is almost foolproof, provided you understand one basic fact: Ovens work by surrounding the food with hot, dry air. That means that baking will dry out your fish unless you employ one or more techniques to counteract this. Fortunately, there are many options available.
Cover the dish – When cooking any white fish fillets, it is a good idea to keep them covered for most of the cooking time. Aluminum foil is a perfect barrier for keeping moisture in. Some species of fish can develop a slimy, unappetizing appearance when baked covered. To make the fish look better, uncover for the last 3-5 minutes of cook time or broil on the top rack for the last minute or two. For most fish 350 to 400 degrees will work. Baking covered is the only way to go for fish that are prone to drying out, such as: flounder, sole, and tilapia.
Wrap the fish in parchment paper –This method traps the moisture around the fish in the same way that covering the dish works, but with the added benefit of a dramatic presentation, easy serving, and easy cleanup. Simply put all the ingredients on a piece of parchment paper and fold it to form a sealed bag. Then bake according to the size of the fish fillets. Try this recipe for SNAPPER AL CARTOCCIO.
Coat the fish in oil or butter – This method prevents moisture from escaping by forming a barrier of oil on the surface of the fish, but also penetrates the fish and lubricates the meat. This is a good idea anytime you cook a fish uncovered. I prefer the flavor of fish baked with butter, but olive oil is always a good choice. Coconut oil, duck fat, or bacon grease can add some extra flavor to a baked fish dish.
Coat the fish in salt – This interesting preparation looks cool and traps moisture better than any other technique I have found. It preserves the fish as if it was still alive while subtly flavoring the fish. Contrary to what you might think, It won’t be overly salty. Combine 4 cups of salt, 3 egg whites, and 1/3 cup of water to make a slurry of salt that is thin enough to spread but thick enough to stay where you put it. Adjust the consistency by adding more water or salt. Use this with a whole fish, gutted and gills removed. The challenge here is that you cannot look at the fish until you break the salt, so you have to have a good idea of how long to cook it. Generally, the fish will be done when the salt starts to brown, but to be safe, cook a 1 lb fish at 400 degrees for 25 minutes. Add 3 more minutes per quarter pound when using this technique. This method is pretty forgiving, so when in doubt go a few minutes longer. Try this recipe for SALT CRUSTED SEA BREAM.
Add liquid – Bake fish with wet ingredients like white wine, vegetable stock, lemon juice, coconut milk, or prepared sauces. These add back the moisture that is stripped away in the baking process. For baking, the liquid should coat the top of the fish and accumulate just enough liquid on the bottom of the baking dish to last the duration of the cook time and allow for basting with a spoon. Other techniques like braising can have much more liquid.
Bake fish with vegetables – carrots, zucchini, onions, peppers, tomatoes and other vegetables contribute moisture to a fish dish. As the liquid in the vegetables escapes in the form of steam, it helps to prevent the fish from drying out. It also infuses the fish with the flavor of the vegetables. The liquid that accumulates at the bottom also helps. Try this recipe for BAKED ROCKFISH WITH VEGETABLES.
Top with a sauce – If you can’t or choose not to prevent the fish from drying out, you can always use a sauce to put moisture on the fish. Sauce won’t get any moisture back into the fish, but topping fish with a sauce puts moisture back into each bite on the outside of the fish. It won’t save a piece of fish that is overcooked, but it will go nicely on baked fish that is just slightly dry.
Leave the skin on – The skin will hold in a lot of moisture. For fish like trout, gently brush off a few scales and then cook them whole with guts and gills removed. For fish like branzino, which is known for delicious skin, scale the fish thoroughly and cut a few slashes in the skin before baking. This works for snapper or striped bass as well.
Baste the fish – For most uncovered baking preparations, it is best to make sure there is some liquid in the dish. Baste several times during the baking process. Of course, this one can be combined with most of the other counter-measures described above.
Choose fish that are not prone to drying out – Salmon is a great fish for baking. Often, salmon can survive a long cook time in a hot oven. I generally bake salmon with dry spices and skin on the bottom side. They don’t really need oil as they have plenty of their own.
Baking fish is pretty simple. For the most part, just add all the desired flavors to the dish and pop it in the oven. Now, armed with 10 techniques to prevent fish from drying out, you can probably freestyle your own baked fish. Here are a few more tips to make it even simpler:
- Always preheat your oven before you put the fish in. Starting from a cold oven, it will be impossible to judge the right cook time.
- Avoid temperatures below 250 degrees, as the long cook times will ruin some species of fish.
- Avoid temperatures above 450 degrees as scorching can occur.
- Particularly dense vegetables like carrots or beets may take longer to cook than the fish, so add them at the beginning and add the fish later to balance the cooking times.
- Make sure you adjust your cooking time based on the size of the fish. I generally follow recipes until I understand how a fish behaves with different temperatures but you can add or subtract 2 to 3 minutes per quarter pound of fish to adjust a recipe to match the size of your fish.
- Fillets will cook faster than whole fish and are more prone to drying out, so use one or more of the above techniques to keep them moist and tasty.
All of the guidelines mentioned here can be helpful, but the one way to make sure that a baked fish comes out right is to check it as it cooks. When the fish is nearing the end of the cook time, pierce the fish with a fork at the thickest point and then gently twist. If the fish flakes easily and is white all the way down to the bone, it is done. If it is still translucent in parts, it needs more time. If it is hard to turn the fork or if it feels like it is tearing fibers instead of flaking, it needs more time. Knowing when a fish is done, and checking as often as necessary, will alleviate most mistakes that you might make in baking fish.