One of the most lauded dishes in fine Italian restaurants’ armoury, it is the salty armour that presents a problem: it is not very easy, while cooking the fish, to check if it is done.
There are three ways around this:
- The commonest: overcook the fish, that way you are sure it is done (and that way, there is no point baking it in salt — the whole point is to cook the fish more perfectly than it could otherwise be).
- The most flexible: use a thermometer probe (leave a little spot unencrusted to insert it, free from salt, just behind the head of the fish) — bake it to an internal temperature of 38—40°C, then rest it until it reaches an internal temperature of 50-55C. Do this if ever you buy your own fish and are not sure of the cooking time.
- The easiest: practice 1,000 times, until for a given oven temperature, size of fish, and thickness of salt you just know how long to leave it in. For a fish approximately 750g when caught & 600g when gutted, this amount of salt and this oven temperature, it will take 14 minutes, plus 5 minutes to rest.
If the fish is super-fresh (ours is), and if it is correctly cooked (yours will be), salt-baking is miraculous: the salty sarcophagus protects the fish from the heat of the oven, and allows the flesh within to cook very evenly to just the right temperature – cooked but unimaginably moist and juicy – and be perfectly seasoned the way through. Note to the wise: do not eat the salt, or the skin (both will be very, very salty).
To cook the fish:
- Preheat the oven to 250°C (fan), 270°C (conventional) — this for most ovens, is maximum.
- I like to salt the body of the fish but leave the head exposed. You should do the same, if only because that is the basis on which we measured your salt crust. Take an oven tray and place around a third of the salt mix on it, patting it down to form a compact oval large enough for the fish to sit on.
- Oil the fish lavishly on both sides (easiest with your hands), and lay it flat on its salty pedestal.
- Embalm the fish in the remaining salt, taking care to cover the entire fish in an even thickness and to leave the head exposed. Leave the salt very thin along the dorsal spine and ventral seam – this makes it easier to lift the salty lid off after cooking.
- Put the fish in the oven for 14 minutes then take out and leave to rest for another 5 minutes.
- Remove the top layer of salt from the fish, brushing off as many crumbs as you can. Gently lift the fish from the salt, and put it on a plate you don’t plan to serve it on.
- Peel the skin from the top side of the fish. Make sure also to remove the collar bone, the fins between the belly slit and the tail on the ventral side, and the spines all the way from the head to the tail on the dorsal side.
- Carefully (easiest using your hands), flip the fish over onto the plate you’re gonna serve it on – so it is skinless side down. Peel the skin from what is now the top side. Voila!
- If you want to serve your fish filleted: Take a blunt knife and nestle it in the darker seam (the lateral line, that divides the upper (epaxial) muscle group from the lower (hypaxial) muscle group). Push the knife sideways, to slide the upper muscles dorsally (above the fish), and the lower muscles ventrally (below the fish). Lift the spine up from the tail, leaving the other half of the fish also filleted on the plate. Pick out as many of the bones you can find (you should be able to get rid of all the ribs, but the pin bones will always remain as surprises. Serve with lemon.