Be fearless with a whole fish, eyeballs and all
  • Tuesday, March 26, 2019
  • 74°


Be fearless with a whole fish, eyeballs and all


    A whole red snapper prepared with soy and citrus. A fish cooked in its entirety is much more delicious than one that has been filleted first.


Certain recipes are immediately appealing, beloved by most and attainable by all. Think giant bowls of gloriously cheesy pasta.

Then come the recipes that may seem unfamiliar or needlessly complicated, that may require a bit more convincing. Recipes like cooking a whole fish. With the head.

Cooking a whole fish is something many people would probably file under “not for me,” only ever ordering it at a restaurant, if that.

I get it: If you didn’t grow up eating whole fish, it presents a lot of bones to navigate, and those milky white, beady eyes, which are definitely looking at you. But I promise that cooking and eating a whole fish is not scary or complicated (and the fish is not looking at you).

So maybe this is the year you overcome your fear.

Many of the types of fish available in grocery stores are meant to be cooked whole — mildly flavored, relatively lean (meaning not oily), medium-size fish like snapper, bass and branzino. They will also be scaled and gutted, so you don’t have to pretend you just spent a day on the high seas to bring home a properly cleaned fish.

You want one that smells like the ocean (not too fishy, and certainly not like ammonia), with clear eyes. Leaving the head on is optional, but I say leave it — it adds personality.

Now comes the part where you have to cook it. Good news: If you can sear a chicken breast in a skillet, you can cook a whole fish. The skillet method in this recipe is a slightly more (but not much more) complex method than simply popping the fish in the oven, and it avoids the tragically soft and soggy skin that the oven method can yield, especially if your oven isn’t well calibrated or just doesn’t ever seem to get that hot.

A fish cooked in its entirety is much more delicious than one that has been filleted first. In the same way a piece of bone-in, skin-on chicken will always be juicier and more flavorful than its boneless, skinless counterpart, fish benefits from keeping its protective skin and bones. They make it nearly impossible to overcook and dry out the fish, as does the buttery, citrus-heavy, soy sauce-seasoned pan sauce you baste it with (again, very delicious).

I understand that, for some people, it’s not even the cooking part that freaks them out — it’s the “what now?” once the fish is done.

I just tell everyone I’m eating with to pick at one side of the fish with a fork, until we’ve eaten all the meat on that side and reached the bones. Then I’ll lift the head, spine and tail out in one fell swoop, leaving it looking as though a cartoon cat had its way with it. Properly cooked fish will almost always release from the bones effortlessly. You might even be shocked at how intuitive this part is.

While a few smaller pin bones may be left in the fillet, removing the whole spine takes care of the scary part. There you are, fearless, with your delicious fish.


By Alison Roman

  • 1 lemon
  • 1 lime plus 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1 orange
  • 1 red snapper (about 2-1/2 pounds), gutted and scaled (optional to keep head on)
  • Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce or tamari
  • Flaky sea salt, to taste
  • 1/2 bunch cilantro or parsley, for serving

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Thinly slice half the lemon, half the lime and half the orange.

Using a sharp paring knife, make two to three 1/2-inch-deep diagonal incisions on each side of the fish, not quite down to the bone, but enough to visibly score the flesh. Season fish inside and out with salt and pepper.

Heat oil in the largest oven-safe skillet you own (at least 12 inches across) over medium-high. Pick up fish by the tail and gently lower it into the skillet away from you to avoid oil splatters.

Use tongs or a fish spatula to lightly press the fish, so the skin makes even contact with the skillet. Cook, continuing to press lightly, for 1 to 2 minutes.

Remove skillet from heat and carefully place a few slices of citrus inside the cavity of the fish, letting a few escape and sizzle in the skillet.

Add butter and soy sauce to the skillet, letting the butter sizzle and foam up. Tilt the skillet slightly toward you to allow the buttery soy sauce mixture to pool on one side. Using a large spoon, baste fish a few times, letting sauce sizzle and foam up around the fish and into the incisions.

Transfer skillet to oven and continue to cook until fish is firm and you can see that the flesh has gone from translucent to white and opaque, 15 to 18 minutes. (You may need a few minutes more if you have an especially meaty snapper.)

Place fish on a large serving platter (leaving sauce behind), along with remaining halved lemon, lime and orange for squeezing over the top. Add lime juice to skillet and swirl to combine. Pour sauce over fish and sprinkle with flaky sea salt, serving cilantro alongside for nibbling between bites of fish, like a very spriggy salad. Serves 4.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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