Salt Encrusted Yellowtail Snapper

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.

Enjoy!

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29 Responses to “Salt Encrusted Yellowtail Snapper”

  1. Ivy Says:

    I am glad you enjoyed it Mike. Just as you said it very simple and very tasty.

  2. Ning Says:

    I have heard of salt-crusted fish too, but I’ve never tried it. Thank you for a very detailed instruction on how to do this dish, and for the beautiful pictures! I love your very fresh fish!!!

  3. Meeta Says:

    I have never had the courage to go the route although I enjoy fish served like this. I wish you’d invite me when you make such extravagant dishes!

  4. Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) Says:

    I admit to a certain squeamishness about cooking whole fish (with the eyeballs and all), but I’ve always wanted to try this technique. Wonder if it would work with fillets?

  5. Peter Says:

    Mike, those FLA yellow-tailed snappers are delish and it looks like the salt-crusted fish was a hit.

    As you said, all that salt makes it as far as the skin (peeled off) and you’re left with moist, succulent fish.

  6. Judy Says:

    What a wonderful presentation. I can’t wait to try this!

  7. Fearless Kitchen Says:

    This looks great! I’ve never tried to do a salt-crust dish – I’ve always wanted to, but finding fresh whole fish is difficult.

  8. noble pig Says:

    Such a cool thing. I want to be the one smacking it with a hammer at the table, what a show! Soon I’m going to do a prime rib like this but a snapper would be snappy!

  9. clumbsycookie Says:

    Oh my oh my! That looks just amazing! I love that way of cooking fish, and the flavours you’ve used I’m sure made it delicious! Lovely potatoes as well!

  10. mikky Says:

    i can just imagine the aroma that came out of the fish once the crust was crack opened… amazing… :)

  11. pam Says:

    You need your own cooking show. Really.

  12. heather Says:

    ohh that looks lovely. i’ve been intrigued by this lately, too. it kinda looks fun to make!

  13. Y Says:

    That’s one serious mallet you’ve got there :D

    This is a great dinner party idea.. very inspiring!

  14. joanne at frutto della passione Says:

    I have been wanting to try this technique for ages. I’ve seen something similar for roast too. The pictures are amazing – as always and the fish looks delicious.

  15. grace Says:

    a burial shroud of salt. how lovely. :)
    seriously, i’ve heard of this method but never actually known it to be executed, so i’m glad to know it truly results in a tasty fish. :)

  16. kittie Says:

    I have no squeamishness about cooking whole fish – but have always wanted to try this anyway! Apparently chicken is wonderful cooked this way too :)

  17. Terry B Says:

    My concern with cooking whole fish has never been the eyes—it’s the bones. But it sounds like that wasn’t a problem here. And it sounds absolutely delicious with the stuffing mix you used!

  18. Toni Says:

    I’ve never heard of this technique before, but I’m game. I actually don’t mind any fish smell, but other people do, so it’s nice to know that we won’t have to eat outdoors!

  19. [eatingclub] vancouver || js Says:

    Haven’t tried baking fish in salt crusts yet. It seems to be eternally on my list of to do’s, but have never gotten around it. Glad to hear you had wonderful results. It makes me more at ease parting with a lot of salt.

  20. Jan Says:

    Love those pictures! I love the stuffing mixture you used – yummo!

    I have given you an award – please pop over to get it! Jan

  21. Alexa Says:

    Awesome post Mike! I had salt crusted fish years ago at my friends house. It was amazingly moist and flavorful. I have never made and it has been off my radar ever since–until now.
    The pictures are stunning.

  22. michelle @ TNS Says:

    jealousy! i tried this a few months ago, and it was a wreck! although the bits of snapper i managed to fish out were perfectly cooked and delicious, my crust was a mess and my fish spontaneously combusted when i tried to carve it. i’ve been waiting for a suitable period of time to go by before trying again.

  23. Nora Says:

    Hi Mike,
    Terrific post! I believe you when you said that this fish turned out beautifully. The first time I had salt-bakes fish was in Italy. I was so surprised that the fish didn’t turn out salty. In Singapore, they also sell salt-baked chicken, but I’ve not tried that myself.

    Have a nice weekend ahead,
    Nora

  24. Sandie Says:

    I admit, I’ve been tempted to try salt-encrusted fish, but, as embarrassing as this is, the whole fish head/eye thing really creeps me out.

  25. Hélène Says:

    I never heard of that method before. I love fish & I think I would have eaten it until the last bite.

  26. Jeff Says:

    :drool: salt and fish. :drool:

    I love salt crusting items before cooking them and makes them so freaking juicy.

    If I can find a whole fish you bet your mortage I am trying this!

  27. Kona Kampachi Sushi…and big news! from Mike's Table Says:

    [...] seen this before when you go fish shopping. Its a particular kind of Hawaiian yellowtail/hamachi (remember yellowtail? Other names for this fish that might ring a bell: Kahala, Almaco jack, Songoro amberjack, and [...]

  28. Janet_Gourmet Traveller 88 Says:

    Your pics are awesome! I have just made a salt crust fish too last night!

  29. Sushi Cake @ simmiecakes Says:

    [...] shaped (not flavored, don’t worry!) baked good to a fish based food product. And while some yellowtail snapper is most likely delicious, it doesn’t make a very pretty baked good. But sushi. Sushi is [...]

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