Sea bass baked in sea salt crust and almost any whole salt-baked fish is an incredibly easy recipe with mind-blowing flavour. The roast fish is moist to perfection, lightly seasoned and inimitably delicious. And the crackable salt crust revealing the juicy flesh is impressive at the table, a real showstopper. With the minimum of ingredients and effort, and an easy yet smart ancient technique, you have a mouth-watering fish dish that steals the impressions demanding no refined culinary knowledge. Salt-baked fish is an ideal fool-proof recipe that guarantees excellent results every time.
The technique, which is workable for anyone who can just keep up with cooking times, highlights a good fresh fish. It is applied to any whole fish such as sea bass, grouper and white grouper, red snapper, sea bream (dorade), etc. By preventing the salt from entering the fish’s flesh, the method works even for those who are on a diet imposed on sodium.
History bites of a salt-baked fish
Baking in salt crust goes way back in food history and there are many theories about when and where all started. Many food historians considered it was from the East. According to one version, the Mongolians who traveled riding they used to stock salted meat to preserve it, before roasting in an open fire with its salt.
The earliest written reference of a corresponding salt baked chicken recipe is in China and it is of Dong Jing, in Guangdong, during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
However, Laura Kelley’s excellent Silk Road Gourmet blog detects the first written source of the recipe. It is in the epic “Hedypatheia” (meaning “Pleasant Living” or “Life of Luxury”) of the Greek Epicurean poet Archestratos, who lived around 330 BC. in Gela of Sicily, a Greek colony at the time. So, those who are looking for a Greek behind almost anything can gather some points.
Archestratos is considered to have written the first book of biology and dietetics in the world and worked as an ambassador of nouvelle cuisine in antiquity! He underlined the value of fish as healthy food, as most of the poem has been focussing on fish eating, advising on the use of robust flavours only with minor quality fishes. He also promoted simple cooking methods, usually amidst a few selected herbs and spices, which headed to a particular light, but remarkably gourmet cuisine. Archestratos was the first who disapproved the Sicilian combination of fish with cheese, a rule that is presently accepted by the Italian and other sophisticated cuisines.
Nevertheless, the ancient roots of the salt-baked fish written about by Archestratos are presumed to have its origins even further in the antiquity. Back in Carthage, the Phoenicians had established an entire empire based on the salt trade, salt-cured fish and garum (fermented fish sauce). Scripta manent though. So we may safely stay up to the point that the origins of the method are Greek. 😉
Archestratos’ recipe advises on gutting the fish, stuffing the belly with thyme sprigs and make a coating of coarse salt mixed with a little water and egg white … which is, exactly our sea bass baked in salt crust recipe.
What is a salt-baked fish concept
There are three versions of the salt-baked fish technique:
- The first and most basic in which the rock salt simply covers the fish.
- The second one sprays some water on the salt to somewhat bind the mixture and, in some cases, adds a bit of flour.
- Finally, the third and most sophisticated one, which we present, uses egg whites in a meringue. This binds the salt in the oven, creating a hard shell faster than any other version to immediately seal the content.
The concept of the technique is based on the fact that salt-baked fish traps the temperature. By sealing, the salt crust bakes the food equally resulting in a flesh that is never dry. It keeps its moisture, thus preserving the taste and flavor while saving significant time and the house of fish smell.
On the other hand, a fish baked in salt crust doesn’t become salty ever, because it is cooked with the scales on to effectively block any absorption.
Salt-baked fish – sea bass baked in salt crust
Preparation: 30 min. including the removing of salt crust and filleting. 25-30 for the baking. Ask your fishmonger to clean the fish keeping its scales on. Easy and rather quick recipe.
Ingredients (serves 2)
750 grams sea bass (one whole) or other largish fish
1.5 kg coarse salt (or more depending on the weight and shape of the fish)
2 egg whites
optional for the belly-stuffing: sprigs of fresh thyme or lavender flowers or verbena leaves or parsley and/or 2 cloves of garlic cut in slices
3-4 tbs capers rinsed
wild greens boiled al dente and seasoned with extra virgin olive and lemon juice
sea salt flakes
Preheat the oven to 220 degrees C.
Preparing the fish:
Clean the gut, remove the gills but keep the scales on to prevent the salt from entering the flesh while cooking. Rinse well.
Put the herbs – thyme, parsley or verbena – inside the fish belly along with 1-2 garlic cloves cut in slices (optional). Close the belly by bringing the two parts together, folding one side on top of the other.
Making the salt crust: Beat the egg whites in the mixer until stiff pics. Gradually add the salt into the meringue and stir gently to combine.
Building the salt covered fish: Line the baking pan in which you’re going to cook the fish with greaseproof paper and create a base of salt meringue on which the fish will sit. Place the fish on the salt base and cover completely with the remaining salt meringue, without leaving gaps. Put the salt-covered fish in the preheated oven.
Baking – filleting: Calculate 25-30 minutes for 1 or 2 fishes weighing 700-800g or 45 minutes for a large 2 kg sea bass or other similar fish.
Once the fish is ready, take the pan to the worktop or if you are brave enough on the table. Using a sharp knife and a tenderising mallet or even a regular hammer, break the hardened salt crust, collecting the pieces in another bowl to the waist.
Lift the salt crust from the upper part of the fish and carefully remove all the fish skin. Pick the juicy fish up and transfer to a serving dish to fillet.
Serving: Transfer the salt-baked fish onto hot dishes next to warm, bitter, boiled mountain greens seasoned with extra virgin olive oil and a bit of lemon. Alternatively, accompany with boiled fresh vegetables, add a few capers and sea salt flakes, a drizzle of olive oil and a generous spoon of homemade tartar sauce.
Wine pairing to salt-baked fish: Accompany the sea bass in salt crust with a Chablis, a nice Chardonnay or ideally with a crispy, dry Assyrtiko from Santorini island that perfectly matches the dish. Bon Appétit!