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How to Oven Bake a Whole Fish

by Liam Williams
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As summer starts to roll around, Texans all over are taking out and respinning their fishing rods, ready to hit the great lakes or the warm Gulf of Mexico to catch them some bounty. 

Fish are beautiful things both swimming in the ocean as one of God’s fine creatures or gutted, flitted (or not in the case of this read), and fried in some hot oil. They’re rich in all sorts of nutrients and minerals (which depends highly on the type of fish) and that very special omega-6 oil we’re always hearing about. 

Why Even Bake a Whole Fish?

Other than the fact that it looks super cool there are a few reasons you might want to bake, grill, smoke, or fry an entire fish. The first and foremost are flavor and texture. Like meat bones, fish bones are filled with delicious bone marrow. Bone marrow has incredibly rich and delicious fat molecules in it that render and laces the meat for great flavor and some extra nutrients. 

The second biggest factor is that whole fish are much more forgiving than individual filets. The bones and enclosed skin act almost like insulation keeping moisture in. Stuffing the carcass of the fish with something like citrus also helps to keep the inside of the fish as flaky, flavorful, and steamy as possible. 

How to Select a Whole Fish

With such a huge variety of fish to choose from today, although there are some general guidelines to follow, every fish is different. One of the biggest factors of fish freshness is its gills which are often described to be ‘bright and red’ when they’re fresh. The problem with things like that is that there are fish whose gills range from pale pink to a deep ruby red.

That being said though, as mentioned before, there are a few general guidelines to follow when choosing a fish. If you have a specific fish in mind, look into that fish’s availability, season, its particulars and features, etc. 

What to look for

  • Firm meat that springs back to the touch 
  • Clean, bright red gills
  • Clear, glossy eyes
  • Fresh, sea-like smell (should only be a little fishy)

What to avoid

  • Grey, mushy meat
  • Tan or brown or overly slimy gills
  • Cloudy, dry eyes
  • Pungent, foul, or overly fishy smell

How to Bake an Entire Fish

Assuming you have the fish already descaled and gutted, make sure you bring the fish down to room temperature before cooking. Preheat the oven to 450ºF; this may seem a little high, but the key to this is getting super crispy skin while not overcooking the fish. Another way you can guarantee that is by lightly scoring the fish. Keep in mind that you’re just scoring the skin, don’t cut into the flesh. 

So again, assuming you have the fish descaled, gutted, and rinsed, and your oven is preheated, stuff the fish with aromatics. In my experience, it’s hard to go wrong when you stuff a fish. Make sure you season the inside with some salt and freshly cracked pepper. Citrus is a pretty standard got-to-stuffer because it both steams and flavors the fish. Fresh herbs are the way to go always, just don’t overdo it. Let the fish speak for itself. The aromatics are just supposed to add notes. 

After scoring and stuffing, transfer the fish to a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Lightly brush both sides of the fish with olive oil and season with coarse salt and freshly cracked pepper. 

Place the baking tray into the oven then (depending on the size of the fish), bake for around 20 minutes or until the internal temperature reads 145ºƒ. 

After that remove the fish from the oven, cover it with foil and let it rest for 5-10 minutes, then serve hot with lemon wedges.

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