The easiest and best way to cook a fish is to bake it whole. The flesh is at its juiciest and most tender, and it’s completely effortless. Cooking fish this way is easy enough for midweek meals, but still makes an impressive centrepiece for occasions! I’m using a whole snapper today, but this recipe will work for virtually any fish.
Welcome to the RecipeTin Eats Guide to Cooking Whole Fish!
Whole Baked Fish
Ask any chef, and they’ll tell you without hesitation that the easiest and best way to cook a fish is to cook it whole. The flesh is juicier and more tender, and with no filleting and faffing around it’s also dead simple.
For many though, the thought of cooking a whole fish is intimidating. Not just the cooking part either, but even buying fish. What fish is best to cook whole? How can you tell if it’s fresh enough? How should it be prepared for baking?
The good news is the answers to all of these questions are completely straightforward. I’ll be covering it all in today’s post!
Welcome to the RecipeTin Eats Guide to Cooking Whole Fish!
How to choose a fish to cook whole
The first step is to select a fish suitable for cooking whole. There are 4 key things to consider here:
How the fish should be cleaned and prepared (by the fish shop – or you!)
How big the fish should be in terms of portion per person
The type of fish
1. How to tell fish is fresh
It goes without saying that you should buy the freshest fish you can. One benefit of cooking whole fish is it’s far easier to how fresh a whole fish is than with fillets! Here’s what to look for when choosing a fish for freshness:
Eyes – The eyes should be clear, not cloudy. The older the fish, the more cloudy the whole eye becomes;
Gill colour – The gills should be bright red / orange, not brown. You need to lift the gill flaps to check this;
Smell – The single biggest clue to determining freshness. It should smell clean and of the ocean, not a rank fishy smell; and
Touch – It should feel plump and firm to the touch. When you poke it, it springs back. If a dent remains, then the fish is not very fresh.
TIP: Never be shy about insisting that your fish shop assistant pass the fish over the counter so you can inspect it yourself. Ask them to lift the gills to show you, get them to prod it, and give it a sniff yourself! Fish is expensive, and you have every right to know what you’re buying.
2. How to prepare fish for cooking whole
Fish must be cleaned, gutted and scaled before cooking whole. Whole fish on display at shops in Australia are usually are not gutted nor scaled. Ask the fishmonger to do both for you. This is a standard part of service offered at fish shops in Australia. If you are squeamish about the head, you can also get them to remove it!
Gutting – This is when the belly (underside) of the fish is cut open and entrails are removed. This should ideally be done as soon as possible after the fish is caught, even if this is often not the case at fishmongers. The reason is the fish’s organs degrade quickly and can taint the flesh of the fish. So for all you fishermen out there, always gut your fish as soon as you catch it, don’t even leave it overnight in the fridge with the guts inside;
Scaling – This is the removal of the scales of the fish. There are scaling tools that make short work of this, but you can also use the back of a kitchen knife (ie. the blunt side, not the sharp side), rapidly scrubbing it against the direction of the scales. It’s a very messy business though and sticky scales will go everywhere – hence get your fishmonger to do it!
Cleaning – This refers to wiping the fish clean after scaling and gutting using paper towels or tea towels. Avoid washing fish under cold water as this degrades the flesh of the fish! If you see your fishmonger washing fish, ask them not to wash yours and clean it yourself at home instead. Note sometimes fishmongers ask you if you want your fish “cleaned”, when they actually mean scaling and gutting. So, clarify!
Scaling and gutting a fish is a standard service provided by fish shops and is built into the price of fish. So always ask them to do it for you, even if they don’t ask first!
3. Whole fish size – How many servings?
As a guide, allow around 400g (14oz) of whole fish weight per person. A whole fish yields on average 40 – 50% of flesh, depending on the species (the remainder is guts, bones, head etc). This equates to 160 – 200g (5.5 – 6.6 oz) fish meat per person assuming a 40 – 50% flesh yield based on the weight of a whole fish.
So, calculating conservatively, for an 800g (1.3lb) whole fish say, this yields 800g (1.3lb) x 40% = 320g (11oz) fish meat. Between two people this is a 160g (5.5oz) each – good sized portions.
Whole fish size for roasting – Anywhere from 600g (1.2lb) up to around 2kg (4lb) per fish is a good size for roasting. Much smaller and it won’t be in the oven long enough to develop good flavour with the skin and will be more prone to overcooking since it will cook faster. Much larger and you’ll struggle to get the flesh to cook evenly (ie. outside will overcook before the middle finishes cooking; and
Multiple fish – To serve 4 people, either use 2 x 800g (1.3lb) fish, or 1 x 1.6kg (3.2lb) fish. If roasting multiple fish, choose fish that are very close to the same size, so they roast in the same time.
4. Best fish for Roasting
Almost any table fish is good for roasting whole, if suitably sized.
For this recipe and especially if you are new to roasting whole fish however, I would recommend mostly sticking to what are termed round fish. These are fish that are roughly cylindrical in the centre of their bodies, and swim upright (as contrasted with say flat fish like flounder, turbot, sole etc). Round fish fillets tend to be thicker, making them easier to cook.
I would also recommend, for this recipe at least, fish with large and flat fillets such as the snapper pictured. This is for ease of stuffing, for better flesh yield, easier cooking and also for serving. Torpedo-shaped fish like flathead or gurnard / latchet, or fish with very large heads like rock cod, will be a slightly more challenging.
Finally, I would avoid in general fish that tend to dry out easily such as kingfish, mackerel, or bonito. These fish are delicious roasted but have to be cooked very carefully.
With this in mind, here are some suggested fish that are suitably sized and shaped for cooking whole:
Bream / dorade
Blue cod / blue eye trevalla
Jewfish / mulloway
John Dory / other dories
Salmon (small ones)
What you need to bake a whole fish
To bake a whole fish, you only need salt, pepper and olive oil.
The empty gut cavity of the fish however presents a perfect opportunity to add flavour by stuffing it with some fresh herbs, garlic and lemon. Today I’m using garlic, lemon, parsley and dill – a very classic combination for a whole baked fish:
Note: The photo above show the quantities for 2 x 800g / 1.6lb of snapper. Each fish serves 2 people, so 2 snappers serve 4 people.
What you need for Garlic & Dill Butter Sauce
I’ve chosen a simple Garlic & Dill Butter Sauce that goes beautifully with a Whole Baked Fish. You just can’t go wrong with this one! Dill is probably the most classic herb teamed with fish. The fresh, lightly aniseed flavour is a natural pairing for any seafood. See below photo for more suggestions.
Here’s what you need to make the Garlic & Dill Butter Sauce:
More sauces for whole baked fish!
Here are some more sauce suggestions:
How to make Whole Baked Fish
At a bare minimum, all you need to bake a whole fish is as follows:
Cut slashes into the flesh – to help it cook evenly;
Sprinkle with salt, pepper and drizzle with olive oil.
That’s literally it. Everything else you see below are optional extra steps! But they are worth the effort if you have the time, as they result in a tidier and more flavoursome result.
Trim fins (optional) – Use scissors to trim the fins on the sides, top and underside of the fish. Basically, everything except the tail. Fins tend to curl, burn and stick out when they cook so this is for presentation purposes for neatness. It’s also make it easier to eat so you don’t have to navigate the fins when removing the flesh. It’s not a big deal however, so I’m marking this step as very optional!
Slash flesh (essential) – Cut 3 diagonal slashes on each side of the fish. Cut through the flesh until you hit the spine in the middle. This helps the fish cook evenly as well as giving us an opportunity to get seasoning into the flesh;
Stuff fish (essential, for this recipe!) – The fish will have a cavity where the guts were removed. Stuff the garlic, lemon and herbs inside. This step is optional in so far as I’ve said that you can bake fish unadorned, but for this particular recipe it’s not optional!
Tie fish (optional) – The purpose of this step is to hold the fish together so you get better infusion of flavour from the stuffing into the flesh, and a better shape (it stops the belly flaps from curling open as it cooks). It’s the “proper” way to make a stuffed and baked fish, but it’s not a big deal if you don’t do this step;
Season fish (essential) – Drizzle with oil and season with salt and pepper, being sure to rub it into the slashes. Do this on both sides of the fish;
Bake for 20 minutes or until the internal temperature of the flesh in the thickest part registers 55°C/131°F. Insert thermometer in the thickest part of the fish, not against the bone. Alternatively, use a small knife at one of the cut slits in the fish to prise a bit of meat gently away from the spine. If it flakes away from the bone without resistance, it’s done;
Garlic & Dill Butter Sauce (optional) – Make the sauce while the fish is baking. It’s as simple as melting butter, cooking the garlic for a minute until it starts to smell amazing, then adding in the dill at the last minute; and
Serve! Serve the butter on the side so you can either spoon it over the fish just before you serve, or let people help themselves.
As for how to serve the fish? I’m kicking myself for not filming the proper way to carve and serve a whole baked fish! So for now, here is a concise video from Serious Eats that is a good tutorial. (I will update this post with my own in the coming weeks!)
No photo can properly capture how beautifully juicy and tender the flesh is, but here’s a close up attempt!
How to serve Whole Baked Fish
The natural presentation of a whole fish looks like grand and impressive already, in my opinion! But I think it is nice to add a splash of colour to style it up.
In the pictured photos, I left the fish on the tray because fish juices are highly coveted in my world. Think: Deliciously intense seafood juice mingling with garlic butter, all mopped up with warm crusty bread!
Then I simply add:
Oven roasted tomatoes – Just drizzled with a touch of olive oil, and sprinkled with a pinch of salt and pepper. I popped this in a tray on the floor level of the oven while the fish was baking so it didn’t disrupt the circulation of hot air around the fish;
Lemon wedges – An essential garnish for any seafood dish, so people can help themselves to as much as they want; and
As for when to serve this? Most certainly this is easy and wholesome enough as a midweek meal to feed the troops. But honestly? It looks so great and wonderful seafood is such a treat for anyone that it’s a great centrepiece for gatherings too. In fact it was one of the mains at a buffet dinner party I recently hosted at home and it was a huge hit. It will be at yours too! – Nagi x
Watch how to make it
Whole Baked Fish – Herb-stuffed with Garlic & Dill Butter Sauce
- 2 x 800g / 1.6 lb whole snapper or other whole fish , scaled, gutted and cleaned (Note 1)
- 1 1/2 tsp salt , kosher/cooking (not table salt)
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup fresh dill sprigs, packed
- 1/2 cup parsley leaves, packed
- 4 garlic cloves , finely sliced
- 1 lemon , sliced (8 slices each lemon)
Dill Garlic Butter:
- 150g / 10 tbsp unsalted butter , cut into cubes
- 2 tsp garlic , finely minced
- 1 tbsp fresh dill , finely chopped
- Preheat oven to 220°C/430°F (200°C fan). Line a tray with parchment/baking paper.
- Trim fins: Cut all fins off the fish using scissors – both fins on the side, and the fins on the back and underside of the fish (but not the tail).
- Slash flesh: Cut 3 slashes on each side of the fish, cutting through flesh down to the bone (see photos in post and/or video, helpful!).
- Stuff fish (Note 2): Sprinkle a bit of salt and pepper inside the cavity of the fish. Scatter the cavity with garlic slices, then stuff with parsley and dill. Layer lemons on top of herbs.
- Tie fish (Note 3): Using kitchen string make 3 ties to hold fish together.
- Season skin: Sprinkle remaining salt and pepper on the skin (both sides), including a bit on the head of the fish. Then drizzle with olive oil. Rub all over the fish, including in the slashes.
- Bake 20 minutes (Note 4): Place fish on prepared tray. Bake for 20 minutes or until the internal temperature is 55°C (insert thermometer in the thickest part of the fish, not against the bone). Alternatively, use a small knife at one of the cut slits in the fish to prise a bit of meat gently away from the spine. If it flakes away from the bone without resistance, it’s done.
- Rest: Remove from oven, transfer to serving platter and leave it to rest for 5 minutes. The internal temperature will rise to 58°C (“medium”, ie. just-cooked and not raw at all, very juicy and moist).
- Serve with Garlic & Dill Butter Sauce on the side. Either pour over the butter just prior to serving the fish, or let everyone help themselves. See this video by Serious Eats for a concise tutorial for how to carve and serve a whole roasted fish.
Garlic & Dill Butter Sauce:
- Melted butter: Place butter in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Once melted, add garlic and cook, stirring, for 45 seconds to 1 minute until it smells ridiculously good and you’re salivating!
- Add dill: Remove from heat. Stir in dill. Use per recipe.
- Bream / dorade
- Blue cod / blue eye trevalla
- Jewfish / mulloway
- John Dory / other dories
- Trout (river)
- Salmon (small ones)
Life of Dozer
Classic Dozer-Nagi moment: me giving Dozer a big bear hug, Dozer desperately trying to wiggle out of my arms, busting to go out and play with his friends!!
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