I’m never too excited about baking fish–fish in the oven usually means a smelly kitchen in my mind. Then there’s this concept of salt crusting fish. Maybe you’ve heard of it before–you start with a whole fish, cover it all over with a thick layer of salt (yes, its a lot of salt), and bake it. The way it works is the salt forms a hard crust while the fish cooks inside (stuffed with various aromatics), retaining a tremendous deal of moisture and yielding incredibly tender, delicious fish that quite simply highlights the inherent flavors of great fresh fish. I thought I’d give this a shot and made Salt Encrusted Yellowtail Snapper.
Now you might have gathered from my tone that I approached this dish with a bit of skepticism and hesitation. If you’ve never had it, reviewing the ingredient list certainly doesn’t suggest anything super exciting–if anything, it almost sounds bland and boring. Not to mention this tremendous amount of salt which you ultimately throw out. It just seems like a lot of work for what looks like a boring (and salty!) taste, right? I kept hearing about this though, and I always heard great things, so finally, I caved and was officially interested. Plus, what did I have to lose? I had emergency leftovers ready in the fridge, so no matter how this went, I’d have something to eat.
The end result: I was really surprised by this dish–it was amazingly delicious! The fish itself is not at all salty–the salt is just a necessary component for keeping the meat of the fish tender and moist. Instead, the fish just has a wonderful, vibrant, fresh, almost sweet flavor. Normally, things with the “fishy” smell/flavor can be off-putting, but this is a case where that fishy smell is…well, different…and its really attractive. This is just a reminder that some times simple food is the best food. I stuffed this fish with a mix of shallots, lemon, parsely, and thyme which really added a nice note to the fish.
Now if you’re like me, you might be saying “but wait, what about the sauce?!” That’s how well flavored the fish is–you don’t need any sauce (and trust me, it killed me not to make any while the fish was in the oven). Just an optional bit of lemon and extra virgin olive oil served with the fish is all you need. Plus, as simple as it sounds, this makes for a fun presentation if you’re serving a seafood loving crowd. I would definitely do this again–now I just need some more really fresh, whole fish!
- 1-2 lb yellowtail snapper (figure ~0.5 lb per serving)
- 13 oz salt
- 3 egg whites
- 1 shallot
- handful of thyme
- handful of flat leaf parsely
- 1 lemon
- olive oil
The first thing you need to do is to clean up that fish. Don’t be shy about asking whoever you bought the fish from to help you out on this–they’ll in all likelihood, happily do it and spare you the mess of flying fish scales in your kitchen. In case you have to do this task yourself, you’ll want to gut the fish (make a slice through the belly area and remove all of the organs through there), snip off the sharp fins (e.g. on the very top of the fish), and scrape off all of the scales (you can rake the fish with your knife for this–do it in the sink!).
Preheat your oven to 350°F.
With the fish cleaned up, you’ll want to get the stuffing ready. This isn’t so much for eating as it is for aromatics and flavoring the fish. So thinly slice a lemon (discard the seeds) and coarsely chop up the shallot and herbs.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Once you’ve reached this stage, gradually pour in the salt. The egg whites will thicken up and form a gritty (but surprisingly easy to work with) batter/paste.
Now, grab all of your stuffing and force it into the fish, packing as much of it in there as you can fit. Rub the entire fish with olive oil and do your best to seal the fish shut. Some would consider using toothpicks or something like that–I didn’t bother. Just try not to leave the fish wide open–the idea is to not load the inside of the fish up with salt!
So once the fish is stuffed and oiled, line a baking sheet with parchment paper and make something of a bed out of some of the salt/egg paste so that you cover the entire underside of the fish. Lay the fish on it and pack the salt paste all over. Don’t leave it crumbly–really sculpt it and do your best to cover every bit of the fish.
Transfer this to the oven.
Bake this for 35-40 minutes. The egg whites ought to have hardened the crust. There will be a great, delicate, sweet, fresh fish smell (and I normally hate the fish smell!) when you open the oven. With a mallet (or whatever), crack the crust open. You should be able to remove it in large chunks (try not to smash it into a fine powder) and discard it.
If the skin doesn’t peel right off with the crust, it should nonetheless be quite easy for you to remove (in one piece if you’re really lucky), so peel it off and toss it.
With the crust and skin out of the way, now all that remains is the fish and bones. I was a bit worried about this part, thinking I’d have 597536 stray bones in there, but not at all! It will be surprisingly easy for you to remove one whole side of the fish (and the meat will be incredibly delicate, so support it or else it will fall apart). Remove all of the stuffing. Now, you’ll see the bones running right down the center of the fish–lift the head of the fish, and nearly all of the bones should follow in one piece (phew!).
Now that you have both filets, run your fingers gently over it just to double check that no pin bones were left behind–you might find 5 or so in each filet, and its better that you do so now rather than your guests later.
Finally, you can simply plate the fish filets with a bit of extra virgin olive oil and lemon. I served this with some butter sautéed new potatoes, asparagus, and for no good reason at all beyond emptying the fridge, roma grape tomatoes.