Actually, the first question is not "how," but "why." So, why would you cook a whole fish? The same reason you’d cook a whole chicken – when the flesh is cooked on the bone, it tastes juicier and more flavorful. It also allows you to enjoy small fish that would turn out rather dry if filleted before cooking, like Mediterranean sea bass (branzino), and Sea Bream (dorado). Contrary to the belief of most cooks, preparing a whole fish is not a laborious undertaking. Here is how.
Find a good fishmonger that has a reasonable demand for whole fish. Since cooking whole fish isn’t very popular with home cooks, regular supermarkets can’t turn over their supply fast enough and the whole fish they are selling might not be as fresh as their fillets and steaks. How do you know if the fish is fresh? It has bright red gills and no fishy smell. The common wisdom about clear eyes does not always hold. I’ve seen fish with clear eyes that were starting to smell, and I’ve seen fish with slightly cloudy eyes that were still fine. In fact, the fish I cooked this weekend had one completely clear eye and one just barely cloudy eye – I doubt only half of it was fresh :) In fact, it was one of the best striped bass I've ever eaten.
Ask the fishmonger to scale it, gut it, remove the gills, and remove the fins.
Here is where the guts were:
Here is where the gills were:
And here is where the fins were:
Is that cheating? Not at the slightest. You don’t pluck the chickens or butcher cows yourself, do you?
Rinse the fish before cooking (to get rid of any blood that might have accumulated in the package) and dry very well inside and out with paper towels.
Cook the fish according to your recipe. For approximate timing consult the table in the Doneness Guide.
Check the fish for doneness by inserting a knife between the backbone and the top fillet and lifting the fillet slightly off the bone. If the flesh does not want to separate from the bone, cook the fish a few minutes longer and check again. Remember that the fish continues to cook after it’s off the heat, so it should be removed from the heat when a trace of translucency still remains in the center and you encounter a bit of resistance near the backbone bone when you try to lift the fillet.
Let the fish rest for 4 minutes per inch of thickness before filleting. You can serve small (less that 1 Lb) whole fish as individual servings and let each person take them apart. For larger fish (or for diners who prefer not to mess with the bones), here is how to take apart a whole fish. Note that you don’t have to remove the skin. In fact, any fish that is small enough to fit in your oven whole is likely to have a yummy skin.
Step 1: Make an incision along the dorsal fin from head to tail.
Step 2: Make an incision to separate the top fillet from the head.
Step 3: I prefer to separate the tummy and snack on it in the kitchen while filleting fish for all those lazy people. Even if you try to lift that part off the bone, the ribs are likely to come along with it. I find that the only good way to deal with the situation is to use my hands and pop those yummy fatty bits right into my mouth. The tummy is the fattiest part of the fish – if this was a pig, this would be the bacon.
Step 4: Gently slide two spoons under the fillet to loosen it from the bone and move it to a plate. The top fillet is tricky to remove whole, particularly for large fish, so don’t panic if you break it. It will taste just as good.
Step 5: Lift the back bone from tail to head and discard. Reach into the head on the dorsal fin side to make sure you got every bit of the fillet. If you are not squeamish, lift the hard shell above the gill openings and remove the cheeks. On larger fish they are lip-smacking good. As you might have guessed, that’s the bits I snack on when I am filleting fish for a crowd. If you want the cheeks, you have to take apart your own fish.
Step 6: Run your spoon on the tummy side removing the large rib bones near the head and a row of smaller bones near the tail.
Step 7: Run your spoon along the dorsal fin side separating a row of bones from the fillet.
Ta-da! You have a filleted fish.
Did you notice that a Striped Bass turned into a Spanish Mackerel half way through this post? In the world of food blogging, everything is possible :)