On our Chefs on Bikes tours in the Veneto, we’ve enjoyed a very fun and entertaining cooking class with our hosts at Villa Margherita, the Dal Corso family. We prepare our own dinner in their spacious kitchen, then relax as they serve it to us in their beautiful restaurant. Our main course is Salt Roasted Branzino, a very simple technique in which we encase the whole fish in a bed of salt and roast it in the oven. The result is an amazingly flavorful and moist fish. At our post-cooking class dinner, it arrives at our table – a dramatic presentation as our hosts break open the browned salt shell and serve us the wonderfully moist fish that we’ve all prepared.
As to it’s place in Italy, I found the following description on the Salt Institute web site:
“For all those who have had the good fortune of attending one of Italy’s fabulous wedding celebrations, the endless supply and variety of unbelievably good food is always a wonder to behold. Starting with the antipastos and wending its way through the myriad courses through to the luscious desserts, the feasts are a delight for all the senses. Invariably, however, the crowning highlight of the meal will be a huge fish (or several of them) roasted in salt.
The platters are taken from the oven and brought before the assembled guests. Everyone gathers round in anticipation while the bride and groom swiftly crack the salt encrusted delicacy with small wooden mallets. Gently brushing away the salt, the servers take over and start doling out the succulent fish to the eager guests. No matter how often Italians or other Mediterranean people eat fish and other foods made this way, they keep returning to it. They know what’s good.”
Lest you fear that salt roasting would result in an overly salty product, let me reassure you, it does not. The salt is combined with egg whites, or sometimes even just water, and bakes into a hard crust. The salt doesn’t penetrate into the food itself. The crust that forms is a dense barrier that seals in flavor and moisture, combining the benefits of both roasting and steaming. This crust provides a dry heated surface next to the fish, perfect for roasting, rather than a moist one that you would get by simply wrapping it in foil.
I don’t make this as often as I would like back here in the US, as whole fish are not often found in my local groceries. This week, red snapper was available, so here was my opportunity. You can do this with any whole fish, of any size. I’ve done it with large whole salmon – about 8 pounds or so. Just make more of the salt mixture, and cook it longer. You’ll note in my photos that the tails are exposed, which is fine; I wasn’t going to make more of the salt mixture just to cover those. If you’ve been reluctant to cook a whole fish before, here’s the recipe for you. Ask your fishmonger – or grocer – to clean and scale the fish for you; often it is already done. Then just give it a quick rinse, stuff the cavity with whatever you may have on hand to season it – herbs, citrus, fennel – and encase it in the salt mixture as described below.
You can use the same technique on just about anything – chicken, beef, potatoes, vegetables – but that’s another post for another day! I’ve done this with the mixture below, a combination of egg whites and salt. I have also done this with just salt – no binding agent. It is a little more crumbly, and doesn’t make a hard crust that lifts off, but it does skip the only part of the recipe that requires any work! It still comes out delicious, and not overly salty.
Pesce In Crosta di Sale
4 whole fish, about 1 lb. each, scaled and cleaned, but with head and tail intact
4 egg whites
5 cups kosher salt
Seasoning for the fish – fresh herbs such as parsley, basil, rosemary, tarragon; fennel, sliced lemon or orange, garlic scapes, celery.
At our classes in Italy, we used fresh rosemary. Here, when I prepared the fish for these photos, I used fennel fronds, some basil and parsley pestos I had on hand, sliced lemons and a bit of garlic scape.
Preheat the oven to 350°.
Rinse the fish with cold water, and pat dry with paper towels.
Using a mixer, or by hand, whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Slowly add the kosher salt, one cup at a time. When done, you should have a mixture the consistency of soft sand.
Press a thin layer of the salt mixture on a sheet pan. This just needs to cover the surface, and does not need to be thick.
Stuff a bit of the seasoning ingredients into the body cavity of each fish. Lay on top of the salt mixture, overlapping them a bit.
Cover the fish with the remaining salt mixture. The shell does not need to be very thick, 1/4 inch or so. Too thick, and it will be very difficult to break!
Place in the preheated oven and roast for about 30 minutes. For larger fish, add about 8-10 minutes per pound.
Remove from oven, and serve at the table for the full dramatic effect! Crack the salt shell with the back of a spoon. Remove the pieces of the shell and expose the perfectly cooked whole fish. Fillet and serve, drizzled with some wonderful olive oil.
To fillet, remove the top layer of skin. Starting at the tail, carefully lift off the top fillet, and place on a plate. You should now see the exposed skeleton of the fish. Grab this at the tail, lift off and discard. You can then lift the bottom fillet off of its skin, and place on the same plate. Repeat with all four fish.