Fish has a reputation for being difficult to prepare, and I’m not sure why. With the exception of fried fish—which requires extremely hot cooking oil—cooking whole, head-on fishes, is as easy as cooking a filet. The only thing you have to worry about is drying it out, and with a little care, that’s unlikely, especially if you use a meat thermometer.
How to choose and prep your fish
Preparing a delicious fish starts with choosing the right fish. Pick one with clear eyes. If you can, give it a poke and sniff. The flesh should bounce back when prodded, and—while it will smell like a fish—it shouldn’t stink. Unless you caught the fish yourself, you shouldn’t have to gut or scale it. Ask the person working the fish counter if you’re unsure of the state of the fish you wish to purchase; they will be happy to clean or “dress” it for you (that is their job).
Once your fish is home, it’s time for a bath. I like to employ a gentle salt water brine, using the ratio that Daniel Gritzer of Serious Eats learned from an omakase chef. It flavors the fish and keeps it from drying out. Dissolve a little salt in some water, let the fish hang out in it for about 10 minutes, then dry the fish off and season it one more time with a drizzle of olive oil and aromatics in the body cavity.
Then all you have to do is roast the thing. Some people score the skin to help the seasonings “better permeate the flesh,” but I’ve found that can lead to the fish drying out, and I’d rather just add a little more salt while eating than risk it.
How to roast a while fish
Cook the fish in a 400℉ oven until it reads 135℉ in the thickest spot, or give it a poke. If you can feel the fish flaking underneath the skin, it’s done. (I prefer using a thermometer, however, as it’s more reliable than my sense of touch.) Let the scale-y guy rest for a few minutes and then serve with lemon wedges. Consumption should be straightforward—if cooked correctly, the meat will separate cleanly from the bones.
Easy Oven Roasted Fish
- 1 whole dressed fish
- 2 quarts water
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt (use half that if working with table salt)
- Olive oil
- Lemon slices
- Fresh herbs sprigs (I like thyme)
- Salt and pepper, or garlic salt (my favorite)
Dissolve 3 tablespoons of kosher salt in 2 quarts of room temp water in a large bowl. Place the fish in the bowl and let it hang out for 10 minutes. In the meantime, heat your oven to 400℉. Drain the fish over the bowl and dry inside and out with paper towels. Drizzle olive oil inside and out and rub it around. Season inside and out with salt and pepper (or garlic salt). Stuff the cavity with 2-3 lemon slices and a few fresh herb sprigs.
Roast the fish for about 20 minutes, flipping once, until the thickest part reads 135℉ on an instant read thermometer. Let rest for three minutes and serve with lemon wedges.