Cooking with Whole Fish Changes Everything

Easy, comforting, appealing and delicious. Three words that often describe recipes that are well loved by families all over the world. Though in some cases, certain foods cooked certain ways may not be immediately viewed as something both delicious and aesthetically pleasing. Like, for instance, recipes that encourage and instruct in cooking whole fish. All the fish—even the head.

Some of us didn’t grow up eating fish with tail intact let alone its entire head. Considering trying to do so at home instead of a restaurant can be rather daunting. Getting over the fish head may be a process but we promise—it’s not as odd or as difficult as you think.

When you buy a whole fish, it becomes much easier to tell if the meat you are buying is fresh or not fare more accurately. Cooking the fish with the head still attached can also make your fish comes out flakier, more tender and juicier than the headless kind.

Can you fry, grill, bake or roast a chicken breast? If you can, you’re already halfway to cooking amazing whole fish.

What kind of whole fish cook well?

Trout

Trout fries deliciously crispy. As a freshwater fish trout are closely related to the other fish favorite, salmon. Lake trout are exclusively found in freshwater lakes and rivers, while Steelhead trout spend two or three years in the ocean before returning to fresh water to spawn (like salmon do.) A more common Steelhead that lives entirely in freshwater is known as Rainbow trout.

The best seasons to find and eat trout is generally between April 1st and October 15th.

Trout flavor tends to be described as mild for taste or fishiness, which may make trout the perfect choice for those who dislike the smell and somewhat stronger flavor of other fish. But the problem with mild-flavored fish, of course, is that whether it tastes good or bland depends on where the fish is caught, fresh or farmed, saltwater or fresh, and finally, how it’s cooked and seasoned.

Trout is a great, quick-cooking fish that can be tossed in a favorite cast iron frying pan, on the grill, in the oven or even in the smoker for a quick delicious meal. The downside to using whole trout or any trout for a dish featuring fish is that trout are bony. They’re difficult to eat due to the structure of a trout’s ribs. Therefore, it's recommended to simply cook a clean, gutted trout whole.

Salmon

Like trout, salmon can be cooked in all manner of ways according to your taste. Grilled or pan-fried can help reduce the soggy outside that sometimes happens in baked fish. But baked fish is just as delicious and may be juicier on the inside than pan fried. How you decide to tackle your whole salmon for supper is up to you!

Salmon are native to the North Atlantic rivers and Pacific Ocean. They hatch and spawn in fresh water but migrate to the ocean. Ocean fish tend to have more robust flavors than freshwater. Fresh salmon is ultimately 99.9% farmed while Pacific Salmon is over 80% wild caught, and fresh caught or farmed can affect your flavor results like almost all fish.

Like trout, salmon is a great choice of fish for those who do not like overly ‘fishy,’ tastes. It’s mildly flavored meat that happened to come from the sea.

Different types of salmon, where and how they are caught can influence what sort of texture and taste salmon can have.

  • Chinook salmon is known to be purer in flavor with lots of fat.
  • Coho salmon has a rich, gamey flavor with firmly textured meat, best for poaching or steaming.
  • Pink, or Humpback Salmon is one of the smallest varieties and is known to be much milder compared to other salmon meat.
  • Atlantic salmon is popular for rich, full flavor taste and fatty meat.
  • Red or Sockeye is one of the fattiest and has the distinctive red-orange color. Like the larger salmon fish, it is much denser and full flavored.

Salmon season can vary from state to state across the US. In California, for instance, the seasons for recreational salmon and commercial salmon changes depending on what type of salmon is being fished and what size. Generally, commercial salmon fishing in California is allowed between May and September, if the fishing quota of 2,500 has not been met.

Bronzini

Bronzini, sometimes referred to as Brazino, is primarily a saltwater fish, is also known as European Sea Bass, a popular Mediterranean fish used in many dishes. It’s uniformly silver with occasionally blue color along its back. A whole Bronzini fish can make quite the impression on any table but is a favorite for traditional Italian and Greek cookery.

European Sea Bass is another fish in the mild flavor category with delicate, white flesh and a hint of a sweet aftertaste. It's very few or very small amount of bones make it an easier fish to filet and prepare whole. Being extremely versatile, Bronzini can be grilled, poached, baked or braised depending on your tastes.

Bronzini can be found at your local market and online relatively easily and its flavor can also be compared to Snapper fish.

Red Snapper

Snapper is a saltwater reef fish harvested in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean and South Atlantic waters. Seasons for fresh red snappers depend on where you live. For instance, Gulf Red Snappers in Florida were only in season from June 11th through July 12th, with no announcement yet of a possible fall reopening. However, many other establishments all over the country can and may offer you fresh Snapper thanks to transportation technology today.

Red snapper has a gently nutty, sweet flavor with lean, very moist firm textured meat. Like our examples about, Red snapper fish is versatile for cooking whole. You can bake, fry, steam, broil, poach or grill a snapper to cook it.

What spices work for whole fish?

There are some flavorings or spice additions that always work for most fish. Such as:

  • Citrus: bright, acidic citric zest and juice pair well with almost any fish. Lemon, limes, and orange are popular citric flavors.
  • Mustard: perfect for bringing out the flavors of a mild fish
  • Basil: experiments with different types of basil, sweet, holy, or Thai, for example, can bring entirely new complexities to a fish you are cooking.
  • Marinade: Simple marinades can help bring tons of flavor as well as enhance the fish.
  • Adding a fragrant olive oil with just a sprinkle of salt and pepper can sometimes be all a really good piece of fish needs.

What affects the flavor of a whole fish?

What your fish will taste like depends entirely on several things. The most important factor in creating a tasty, whole fish meal is its freshness. Second to that, considering where the fish came from—fresh or saltwater, farmed or wild caught can impact that as well. Fish that tend to live in freshwater and consume insects will have a milder, gamey taste. Fish that live in freshwater or fisheries may not have had the chance to build as much muscle or get exercise, which influences the texture, consistency, and flavor of meat as well. Knowing how to prepare the species of whole fish and the best spices to compliment it will help you overcome the hesitancy of cooking a whole fish.

Keeping the fish whole adds unique flavors and assists in keeping it flaky, juicy and making a meal for you, family or guests that they will talk about for weeks after!