- 1 branzino (or other fish) about 500g (1 lb.), gutted but left whole
- 750g (1-1/2 lbs.) sea salt (or kosher salt) or as much as you need to cover the fish
For stuffing the fish(optional):
- A sprig of fresh rosemary, a sliced garlic clove or a few slices of lemon
- Best quality olive oil
- Lemon wedges
- Freshly ground pepper (optional)
- Chopped parsley (optional)
In a large bowl, pour in the salt and sprinkle with a bit of water. Mix well with your hands, adding more water as needed, so that the salt is ever so slightly moistened and the grains of salt begin to adhere to each other. The texture of the salt will turn coarser, a bit like wet sand.
Lay down a ‘bed’ of salt in a roasting pan large enough to hold the fish. Then lay your fish down as pictured above. If you like, you can place a sprig of rosemary, a few bits of garlic or a few thin slices of lemon in the fish’s cavity. Or you can simply leave the fish be.
Cover the fish entirely with the rest of the salt. Roast in a very hot oven (220°C, 450°F) for 25-30 minutes, depending on the size of the fish.
Let the fish cool for a few minutes (no more than five, however, or the salt will begin to penetrate the fish). Crack open the salt, which will have formed a hard crust around the fish, and uncover the fish. The skin should adhere to the salt as you remove it. If not, skin the fish. If you’re careful (more careful than I’ve been here) you’ll be able to lift the fillets out whole, to the admiration and wonder of your dinner guests. This particular evening, I wasn’t in the mood…
Serve the fish fillets drizzled with some best quality olive oil, a squeeze of fresh lemon and, if you like, a good grinding of black pepper. Some people like to sprinkle the fish with some freshly chopped parsley for color.
Branzino baked in salt admits a few minor variations. Many recipes omit the first step of mixing the salt with liquid. Rather, the raw salt is simply piled up around the fish. That makes it much easier to get at the fish afterwards, as it does not form the same sort of hard crust. But that also means that the salt will tend to penetrate the fish, leaving a saltier taste. No bother for a salt fiend like myself, but some people might object. Interestingly, most English-language recipes for this dish call for mixing the salt with egg whites. Only one of the myriad Italian-language recipes I’ve seen call for this. Not sure why, nor have I tried to use egg whites—seems like a waste of good eggs!—so I can’t tell you what difference it may make.
Some recipes for branzino baked in salt also call for a lower roasting temperature and a longer cooking time. That also strikes me as a risky proposition. Obviously, though, if you use a much bigger fish, increase the cooking time accordingly.
Branzino (sea bass) is said to lend itself particularly well to this cooking method, but just about any fish will work, so long as it is not too small (500g/1 lb. is a kind of minimum) and is left whole. Fillets will not work, since the skin acts as a barrier against the salt and the bones add flavor and help retain the fish’s natural moisture. In fact, many recipes call for leaving the scales on the fish as well for added protection.
The salt? Sea salt is best—not the very expensive finishing salts, but bult sea salt that can be had at reasonable prices. But kosher salt also works fine. Finely grained table salt does not work—its fine grain would allow the saltiness to penetrate the fish and render it inedible. And a lot of table salt has chemical additives so it won’t clump together, but that is exactly what you want it to do for this dish.
The garnish, as far as I’m concerned, should be as simple as possible, so as not to distract too much from the pure flavor of the fish. But some people do like to serve branzino baked in salt with a kind of salsa verde, as they would poached fish—which strikes me as gilding the proverbial lily, but to each his (or her) own as they say…