Whole Salt-Baked Sea Bass with Herb Lemon Sauce

Recipe from My Calabria by Rosetta Costantino
(W.W. Norton & Company, © 2010) reprinted with permission

Roasting a whole fish buried in salt is a cooking method common all over Southern Italy. Surprisingly, the cooked fish isn’t excessively salty, but it is exceptionally moist, much more so than baked or grilled fish. The thick salt coat seals the fish during cooking so none of its juices can escape. Mixed with egg whites and water, the salt forms a hard crust in the oven, like pottery, which you will need a mallet or hammer to crack. Because you can’t see the fish to judge its doneness, you must carefully measure its thickness before you pack it in salt to determine how long to bake it. I find that 15 minutes per inch measured at the thickest part—about 40 minutes for a fish that is 2-1/2 inches thick—is a reliable guide. If you are unsure about your oven, you might want to make this dish once for family to test the timing before you make it for guests.

Any whole fish can be baked this way. If you can’t find sea bass or striped bass, you can use red snapper or salmon. You can serve the fish simply with lemon wedges and a drizzle of good olive oil, but I usually make salmoriglio, a whisked dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and fresh herbs, to spoon over the fish before serving or to pass at the table.

For this recipe, please use only Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Morton’s kosher salt, another popular supermarket brand, is made by a different process so the crystals have a different shape and are less absorbent.

Serves 4

Salmoriglio sauce

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons Kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 fresh peperoncino, sliced (optional)

For the fish

  • 1 whole fresh sea bass or striped bass, weighing about 3 pounds, cleaned and scaled
  • 3 to 4 sprigs each of fresh thyme, oregano, and flat-leaf parsley
  • 1/2 lemon, thinly sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
  • 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

For the salt crust

  • 3 pounds Diamond Crystal kosher salt
  • 4 large egg whites
  • 1 cup water

Prepare the salmoriglio and set aside for at least 30 minutes to allow the flavors to marry, but no more than 2 hours ahead or the herbs will darken and lose their fresh taste.

Preheat the oven to 425ºF. With a ruler, measure the thickness of the fish at the thickest part to determine the necessary cooking time at 15 minutes per inch. With kitchen scissors, clip off all the fish fins and clip the tail to 1 inch so the fins and tail don’t poke out of the salt. Stuff the cavity of the fish with the herb sprigs, lemon slices, and garlic. Coat the outside of the fish with the olive oil

In a large bowl, combine the salt with the egg whites and 1 cup water. Mix with your hands until the salt feels like wet sand.

On a rimmed baking sheet large enough to hold the fish, make a 1/2-inch-thick bed of salt a little larger than the fish. Pat the salt into an even layer. Place the fish on the salt bed and cover with the remaining salt, patting the salt in place so it adheres and completely seals the fish.  No part of the fish should remain exposed.

Bake in the preheated oven for the pre-determined amount of time, approximately 40 minutes for a 3-pound fish.

Remove the fish from the oven. Using a small hammer or meat mallet, crack the hard salt crust. It will lift off in large chunks. Remove as much salt as you can from the top surface of the fish. Use a pastry brush to remove any salt that clings to the skin. With a fork, carefully peel back the skin to reveal the top fillet. Remove the top fillet—it will lift easily off the bone—and transfer to individual plates or a serving platter. Now you can easily lift out the skeleton with the head attached, leaving the bottom fillet still on the salt bed. With a fork or spatula, lift the bottom fillet off the skin and transfer to individual plates or a serving platter. Spoon the salmoriglio over the fish or pass the salmoriglio separately.

Copyright 2006, Rosetta Costantino. All rights reserved.