ROAST A WHOLE FISH!
Roasted whole fish are a common dish throughout the world, but less common in the United States. US consumers seem to be uncomfortable with the idea of cooking fish this way and even buying fish this way. Most home cooks buy their fish already filleted. That’s boring! There are many benefits to both the end user and the planet when you buy whole fish. Let’s start with why you should buy whole fish:
The consumer can be assured that they are getting the right fish. Mislabeling is rampant in the seafood industry. A whole fish is much harder to mislabel and therefore, the consumers usually get the fish on the label. This allows the consumer to make sure that they are making responsible purchases and buying only sustainable fish.
It is easier to determine the age and quality of the fish. The gills, eyes, and cut edges give the best indication of how long the fish has been in the case and how well it has been cared for. Since freshness is the most important aspect of any fish meal, this is a great benefit.
It is often possible to determine the method of take. If the best choice is a line caught fish and the label does not indicate the method, look for a hook mark in the corner of the mouth.
There is less waste. When a fish is filleted there is inevitably going to be meat left on the bones. When a fish is cooked and then the meat is flaked from the bones, it comes off cleanly and completely. This is particularly true of small fish, where the ratio of waste can be much higher.
Fish cooked on the bones often tastes better. The bones of any fish impart a more full flavor into the meat and the fish is less apt to dry out when cooked without exposing the meat directly to the heat source. Plus, meat from different parts of a large fish can have different properties. Buying a whole fish allows the end user to get a more thorough sense of the flavors and textures that a particular species offers.
The bones can be used to make a nice fish stock. This is an underutilized technique. A large fish frame can easily be turned into a hearty fish stock that can serve as the base of a seafood soup or can be used as the backbone of a great risotto.
For fish nerds, there are some very interesting whole fish out there. I enjoy seeing and working with different species of fish and each one can be an anatomy lesson or an art lesson. My favorite fish are the ugliest ones. I like taking a unique and alien-looking fish like a monkfish or a sculpin and turning it into something tasty. Cooking a whole pompano will give you a look at a very interesting skeleton.
Whole fish preparations offer opportunities for some dramatic presentations. A roasted snapper will really show its big sharp teeth when roasted. A roasted cabezon will feed several people and will look truly impressive.
Go out and grab a standard shaped fin fish like a snapper or a sea bream and remove the scales and guts. Then cut a few hash marks in the sides of the fish and rub it down with an interesting spice rub. Roast it in the oven or over a flame. When it is done or nearly done, you can brush it with a wet spice mixture or creole sauce to give it even more of a flavor kick.
The difficulty with roasting fish is in determining how long to cook it. Cook times will vary quite a bit based on temperature, species, and size. I like a temperature of 400 degrees for most fish, but a thin-skinned fish might scorch a bit. In that case, I would reduce the temperature to 350. A typical 1 lb fish at 400 degrees will probably be done in 15 to 20 minutes. A 3 lb fish will probably take 25 to 30 minutes. Time is a general guideline, but to successfully roast fish, you need to be able to tell when it is done. This can be done either with a meat thermometer or visually. With a meat thermometer, insert the probe into the thickest part of the fish until it hits bone and then back it off about 1/8”. It should reach 145 for a completely cooked fish. For fish that can be eaten raw or cooked rare, you might want to take it out before it reaches that temperature, but for most white fish, that is a good number. To determine if a whole fish is done by looking at it, you need to get down to the spine. I like to stick a fork in just beside the dorsal fin and gently lift upward on the fillet. If it lifts off cleanly and meat doesn’t stick to the bones, the fish should be done. If it is still fibrous, translucent, or has pinkish liquid under it, then it needs more time. If it takes a lot of force to tear it from the bones, it needs more time. Other clues are that the eyes should turn white and the skin around the cuts should shrink up a little bit. I usually let the fish cook for 15 minutes and then start checking it, regardless of size. Those are the basics. For those of you that prefer more specific instructions, here is a link to a recipe for roasted red snapper and one for salt crusted sea bream.