Tuesday, March 7, 2006

How to cook a whole fish

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 :)

26 comments:

Ivonne said...

Oh, Helen!

How wonderful! We have rarely cooked whole fish, except on the BBQ a few times. There's something about it that seems slightly intimidating.

But you have demystified it! And I love the photos ...

Thanks, Helen!

bix said...

An easy way to find out if the fish is done is by pulling at the fins: if they can be pulled out easily, the fish is done :-)

Helen said...

Hi Bix,

Thanks for the tip!

Cheers,
-Helen

Another Outspoken Female said...

I love your techncial term "doneness" :)

I don't know why people find a whole fish so daunting - strew some herbs and spices, wrap in baking paper/parchment and throw in the oven. What could be simplier? And no messy pans to clean too!

Raj said...

steam it in banana leaves and then broil or grill it until there are brown spots on it

Anonymous said...

I must be retarded, I cant seem to find any info on actually cooking the whole fish like the title suggests.

Helen said...

here are some recipes for whole fish that tell you how to get it on and off the heat and some flavoring ideas.

Cheers,
-Helen

Anonymous said...

hi .what if the fishmonger did not take the top fins off??is it o.k to cook it or should i take them off somehow.thank you

Helen said...

if the fishmonger didn't trim the fins, don't worry about them. cook the fish with fins and they'll come out very easily when you fillet it after cooking.

Anonymous said...

Today, I wanted fresh fish and didn't feel like getting dressed up and going to a fine restaurant. Instead, I made a trip to the local fish market. It was the first time buying a whole fish--head, guts, fins and all. Hard to believe a fish could intimidate me the way it did, I was nervous wondering what to do with this fish when I arrived home. Surely, I had made a mistake, should have bought the typical fish fillets.

I googled whole fresh fish and found you. You did a wonderful job of explaining the fresh fish process, and the pictures were beautiful. Needless to say my fish turned out awesome, and no more fillets or frozen fish for us. I am hooked on cooking the whole fish in my oven or grill. Delicious!!!

Next time I won't let the eyes scare me either, I want the head left on!

Simple recipe. Wash fish, pat dry. Drizzle fresh lemon over meat of fish. Rub slivers of fresh garlic, or garlic powder on meat of fish. Place a few chunks of butter on meat of fish. Sprinkle fresh dill over fish. Place thinly cut slices of lemons over meat of fish. Fold fish in half, and wrap with foil. Bake at 350 degrees for 1/2 hour. Yummy!!

Sean said...

Love that striper became Spanish Mack. I saw the teeth and said what the he!! is that thing! Great primer. Check out Cape Ann Fresh Catch Fish Co-op for the latest in fresh fish, will be delivering in Beantown too!

Erinn said...

I have 5 little perch that my boys caught and we brought home from Maine last night. I was planning to cook them tonight - here is my challenge - they are headless & gutless, but they still have scales, fins and gills, ... I'm pregnant and with the gagging, just not up to butchering these guys. Can I just roast them in foil as is??

Helen said...

Hi Erinn,

Yes, you can roast them with scales and then remove the skin before eating.

Cheers,
-Helen

Erinn said...

Thanks Helen, I did not cook them as I had read that the scales can contaminate the fish with bacteria if you did not take them off when you cleaned the fish. Should I now throw them away??? My kids caught them Saturday night. Thanks. Erinn

Helen said...

Hi Erinn,

About scales contaminating the fish with bacteria... where did you read it? it's a ridiculous claim. some fish are cooked in scales on purpose, like a whole fish baked in salt. besides, cooking kills bacteria. so even if there is somehow more bacteria because of the scales (which i would find hard to believe because scales protect the fish from oxygen exposure), you'd kill it all by cooking the fish.

Cheers,
-Helen

Erinn said...

Helen, Thanks so much for your reply. I had just done a search on google for "cooking a fresh caught fish" and here is one of the links that indicates the scales carry bacteria. http://www.streetdirectory.com/food_editorials/cooking/seafood_recipes/preparation_for_fresh_caught_fish_cooking.html

There are many others that all seem to have copied the same text - not sure where it originally came from.

My boys love to fish and your site will really help me as I learn how to prepare their fish for them to eat! Thanks for all of your help with this scale-y question!

Erinn said...

Helen, Thanks so much for your reply. I had just done a search on google for "cooking a fresh caught fish" and here is one of the links that indicates the scales carry bacteria. http://www.streetdirectory.com/food_editorials/cooking/seafood_recipes/preparation_for_fresh_caught_fish_cooking.html

There are many others that all seem to have copied the same text - not sure where it originally came from.

My boys love to fish and your site will really help me as I learn how to prepare their fish for them to eat! Thanks for all of your help with this scale-y question!

Kate said...

Get tip on how to determine whether a fish is fresh or not. I used to base my opinion of how fresh a fish is through its eyes. Now I know I have to look for bright red gills and no fishy smell. Funny, I've always thought that all fish have a fishy smell. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm baking a 20 lb snapper, stuffed with onions and peppers over a bed of sliced potatoes , onions and cilantro. I like advice on temperature and time. Inside temperature on convection oven will be great.
Thanks,
Mike

Anonymous said...

Hi,
Thanks for your site and comments. Very helpful.
One question. I fried/cooked 5 whiting that I got from the fish store. They usually clean them for me and remove the heads. These heads were removed but apparently not gutted. I thought something was up but cooked them anyway. I am hesitant to eat them. Should I throw them out?

Thank you,

Sabrina

Helen said...

Don't throw them out! Just remove the fillets carefully avoiding the stomach cavity.

Cheers,
-Helen

Pamela said...

Thanks for this primer. Very clear and helpful. Now I'm filled with confidence!

Anonymous said...

Love love love the instructions...I'm a fairly decent cook but whole salmon scared me! so much cheaper than fillets though, so I thought WTH. Thanks for the awesome instructions! Vanin

Anonymous said...

Beautiflul!! thank you Helen!! how do u have such beautiful hands even if you cook so well?? jen

Atsuko Arai said...

Allow me to join in the voices saying "great post"! I actually first started cooking fish like... on Tuesday this week, literally two days ago. I prepared some salmon cakes and used 2 lbs of fresh salmon, which the guy at the grocery store didn't skin. So I got to do that!!! I have NEVER cooked fish before except Vandecamp's lol because ... I don't know why, I've just been scared.

Well, now that I have discovered (here) how to ACTUALLY skin the fish (...not by holding it vertical and sawing my way down top to bottom...) I'm ... very ready to start cooking these things.

But what do I do now?! What're some great varieties of whole fish that can singly feed three-four people? The only distinct fish flavors I know are salmon and tuna. Beyond that... I'm a clean slate. Lemme havit.

Helen said...

Hi Atsuko Arai,

Congrats on making salmon cakes. Here are some whole fish recipes to try. Some of these fish (branzino and orata) serve 1-2 people, but you can easily cook 2 fish at the same time. Sea Bream with Fennel and Oranges, Mediterranean Bass with Fennel, Preserved Lemons, and Olives. Don't worry if you don't have all the ingredients for the toppings. You can always improvise with those. By the way, don't forget fillets and steaks. Many fabulous fish are too large to cook whole. Here is a list of some recipes to get you started. You can also search my blog for a name of some fish to get ideas.

Cheers,
-Helen