Sea Bass baked in a Salt Crust

Truth be told, far and away the easiest way I know to cook fish to a sublime, delicate, steamy, succulence.

But only if the fish actually winks at you on the fishmonger’s slab; if it’s not a definitively clear wink, don’t bother.

I grant you … a little bit of drama helps.  Bring the dish to table, and start serving by pulling a (clean and shiny!) hammer from your hip pocket!

No short-cuts – get the “common sense” bits just perfect.  I have on occasion made mistakes.  Better you learn from mine, than from yours!  As in …

  • This technique emphasises all the most subtle flavours of the fish – including even the slightest taint of staleness. So – only the freshest will do.  Once again – look for the wink on the fishmonger’s slab.
  • Don’t scale the fish – it’s a useless, messy chore. This is a real easy recipe; get the salt crust right, and it uses the scales and skin to steam the fish in its own juices … and then conveniently pulls the skin and scales off in large chunks to reveal the flesh to eat.
  • Do make sure you lay the fish at a slight angle, so that salt doesn’t invade the fish cavity!
  • Cooking one fish is pretty easy, and one fish big enough to serve 3-4 people is just sublime cooked this way.  The salt crust also works well with smaller fish, when you might be baking 2 or even 4 sea bass. Whatever else, leave plenty of space between them … and then a lot more. Use separate trays or dishes if necessary. Believe me, nothing quite matches the grief and aggravation of bringing four perfectly cooked fish to the table, only to find that you can not physically serve them, without salt getting all over your portions!

You’ve got the idea!

Ingredients

  • Very fresh sea bass – as large as you can get; guts cleaned, but scales, head and tail on.
  • Enough salt to cover the fish completely. You can use any salt, from your local supermarket’s large bag of “value table salt”, to coarser (more expensive, but easier to handle) rock- and sea-salts.

Method

  • Pre-heat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas Mark 6.
  • Pour a ½ inch/1 cm layer of salt over a tray or dish, large enough for the fish to lie flat, and <b>well separated</b>.
  • Wash the fish, but only dry the cavity. Don’t try to scale the fish, or even dry the outside – a bit of water left from cleaning will help the salt seal and form a crust. Lay the fish on the bed of salt. Just remember (yes, it is worth repeating, to avoid fish that is unpleasant to the point of inedible) …
    • lay the fish at a slight angle, so that the cavity can not fill with salt
    • if you are cooking more than one fish, give them plenty of room.
  • Cover the fish entirely with salt – the cover needs to be about ½ inch/1 cm deep all over. Dip your hands in cold water, and flick drops over the salt crust until it is well dampened.
    • Think building sandcastles at the beach – that fine line. You want the perfectly damp salt for construction and stability. Not so dry that it’s just a shapeless heap of sand. Not so wet that it’s a soggy, collapsed heap!
  • Slip into the oven and bake for about 20 minutes for smaller fish, 25-30 for a large one. The salt will bake to an impermeable crust, so that the fish steams in its own juices.

To serve – first make sure that everything you need is ready on the table!

The fish needs only the simplest of accompaniments to set it off – plain boiled rice (flavoured with onion or garlic, and black pepper) or boiled potatoes, and a green vegetable or a simple salad. Or a good home-made bread, a couple of bowls of fine olives, and a tomato and basil salad.

Bring the tray(s) direct from the oven to the table. Take a (clean and shiny!) hammer out of your back pocket, and gently crack open the salt crust.

It should be possible to lift the crust off in lumps, pulling the fish skin with it. And serve.

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