by Tony Rosenfeld
from Fine Cooking #110, p. 48-55
Salt-crusting fish has always seemed magical to me. I first learned about the technique during an apprenticeship at Bastianelli al Molo, an upscale seafood restaurant just outside Rome. Every couple of minutes during the dinner rush, waiters would speed away from the roasting station, balancing platters of whole fish encased in mounds of hardened salt. Working tableside with a large fork and serving spoon, they would crack open the salt crust, carefully extract the pristine, steaming fish fillets within, and serve the fish with a drizzle of good olive oil. From my perch at the grill station, I studied every moment of the process, taking careful mental notes.
Though salt-crusting has all the drama of a restaurant technique, it’s easy to do at home. All you need is a large baking sheet, a remote probe or instant-read thermometer, a big box of kosher salt, some oil, water, egg whites, and a fresh whole fish. (Almost any round fish will do. You'll find recipes below for trout and salmon, but striped bass, black sea bass and black cod are also great choices.)
The salt of the matter
You’ll need quite a bit of salt for this technique. Kosher salt works better for salt-crusting than table salt because its larger crystals give you a sturdier crust. To know how much to buy, refer to the chart and keep the following in mind:
• A 3-lb. box of Morton’s kosher salt contains about 6 cups of salt.
• A 3-lb. box of Diamond Crystal contains about 9 cups.
|FISH||SERVES||OLIVE OIL||KOSHER SALT||EGG WHITES||WATER||COOK TIME|
|12 oz. to 1 lb.||1 to 2||1/2 tsp.||3 cups||2||1/4 cup||15 to 20 min.|
|1 to 2 lb.||2 to 3||1 tsp.||4-1/2 cups||3||1/4 cup + 2 Tbs.||20 to 30 min.|
|2 to 3 lb.||3 to 4||2 tsp.||6 cups||4||1/2 cup||30 to 45 min.|
|3 to 4-1/2 lb.||4 to 5||1 Tbs.||7-1/2 cups||5||1/2 cups + 2 Tbs.||40 min. to 1 hour|
|Optional aromatics for the cavity: fresh rosemary, dill, or thyme sprigs; bay leaves or fennel fronds; thin slices of garlic, shallots, or fresh ginger; thin slices of lemon or orange|
|Salt-Crusted Trout with Lemon-Dill Beurre Blanc||Salt-Crusted Salmon with Fennel and Green Olive Relish|
|Fennel, Green Olive, and Mint Relish||Lemon-Dill Beurre Blanc||Caramelized Onion and Sherry Vinaigrette|
First, stir together the salt, water, and egg whites—this will be your salt crust. Make a bed of the salt mixture on the baking sheet, set the fish on top, and cover with the rest of the salt, patting it around the fish to enclose it completely.
Roasting the fish inside this crust essentially creates an oven within your oven. The crust maintains an even temperature so the fish cooks gently, and it protects the fish from the oven’s dry heat, locking in juices and absorbing steam. This way, the finished fish has the silky texture you expect from roasting, not the sogginess you get from steaming.
Even the fish’s skin plays a part, adding another layer of protection for the delicate flesh inside. Because the skin is removed before serving, the fish is never overly salty, just well-seasoned.
Salt-crusting is going to be your new favorite way to cook fish. It’s foolproof, and the results are dramatic and delicious—no magic required.
Photos: Scott Phillips