I first tasted branzino, a fish from the Mediterranean, while in Croatia on the Dalmatian coast. Delicate, flavorful and mild, it is one of my favorites. I’ve seen branzino even in U.S. grocery stores; it is sometimes labeled simply as “sea bass,” but if it is from the Mediterranean and small and slender in shape, it is likely branzino. You might also find it under the French name loup de mer or the German wolfsbarsch. We don’t have a huge variety of fresh fish here in Berlin, so when I saw these branzino, I knew what we were having for dinner!
For a long time, I’ve wanted to try salt-roasting a whole fish. Encased in an outer salt layer, the fish cooks beautifully inside while herbs and lemon intensify its flavors. Once it comes out of the oven, you crack open the salt bed, brush off any excess salt and fillet it. I’m telling you, the flavor is amazing, and it’s a fun way to cook a healthful meal!
If you can’t find branzino, dorade has a very similar flavor and texture and also hails from the great Mediterranean. Dorade is a bit shorter and wider/rounder and would be wonderful cooked this way too. Look for the freshest kind you can find. Enjoy, prijatno!
Above, left to right: The fish is prepped with lemon and herbs tucked inside and laid over the salt bed; the fish is then covered with the rest of the salt cake and ready to roast; 25 minutes later, the fish is cooked and you can break open the salt bed with a wooden spoon, brush off any extra salt grains, fillet, and eat (with a little drizzle of good olive oil and a pinch of fresh herbs).
Salt-Roasted Whole Fish with Lemon and Herbs
Adapted from Anne Burrell’s recipe on the Food Network
- 2 lemons, 1 zested and juiced; 1 sliced into thin rounds
- 1 bunch fresh thyme, half picked and half left whole, plus a pinch extra for garnish (or other fresh herbs of choice)
- 4 fresh bay leaves, coarsely snipped using scissors
- 3 cloves garlic, smashed
- 9 egg whites
- 8 cups kosher salt
- Two 1-lb whole fish (roughly 450 g., such as branzino or dorade, insides cleaned and fins and gills removed with kitchen shears; we left the tail and trickier fins on and it was fine)
- High-quality olive oil, for finishing
- Preheat the oven to 450 F/ 230 C
- In a food processor or blender, blend together the lemon juice and zest, the picked thyme, chopped bay leaves and garlic (add a bit of the egg whites if it needs more liquid to blend together); blend it until it becomes a thick paste. Add the rest of the egg whites and blend again until foamy and well incorporated (a few minutes). Then combine this mixture in a large bowl with the salt and mix well (I found doing this with clean hands worked best).
- In a baking sheet or roasting pan, spread less than half of the salt-cake mixture on the bottom, then place the fish on top. Stuff the inside of the fish with the lemon rounds and whole branches of herbs, then cover the top and sides with the remaining salt mixture. Press firmly to create a crust encasing all of the fish, ensuring there are no gaps or air bubbles.
- Roast the fish for 25 minutes; use a thermometer to poke through the salt cake in a few places to confirm the internal temperature of the fish is at a minimum of 145 degrees F (Ours was 165 at that point, and it tasted just right when we ate it). Let it rest for 10 minutes.
- Use a wooden spoon or mallet to crack open the salt cake and carefully remove the fish. Use a brush or clean towel to remove any excess salt and then transfer the fish to a cutting board. Fillet the fish by first removing the skin on top, then using a butter knife to slide under the top fillet right above the spine and transferring that fillet to a plate. Remove the spine from the tail end, then use the knife to remove the bottom fillet, leaving the skin behind. Repeat for second fish.
- Drizzle just a bit of good olive oil over the fillets, garnish with a pinch of fresh herbs, and enjoy.