It can be intimidating to think about cooking and eating whole fish - bones, heads, and scales, not to mention the sheer size of the main ingredient, can all pose a challenge for the uninitiated! But we’re here to show you that cooking whole fish doesn’t have to be complicated or scary… and the results are well worth it.
Whether it’s a large fish served on a platter as an impressive centrepiece, or plate-sized fish served individually, whole fish looks and tastes gorgeous. Many also believe that fish cooked on the bone has the best flavour, and as an added bonus, whole fish are great value as you aren’t paying for them to be filleted!
When purchasing whole fish, look for bright and lustrous skin or scales, firm flesh (that springs back when touched), bright pink-red gills, and a pleasant, fresh, sea smell.
To decide on the size of fish, allow 300-500g of whole fish per person as a rule. Once you’ve chosen your specimen, ask your fishmonger to scale, gill, and gut the fish, so it’s ready to cook.
Remove fish from the fridge 15-30 minutes before cooking so it comes to room temperature. Wipe the belly cavity well with a clean damp cloth to remove any remaining liquids. No matter what cooking method you use, you’ll know the fish is cooked when the eyes and flesh have turned opaque and the belly fin comes out easily when pulled.
Baking is a great way to prepare whole fish if you’re short on stove space, as oven trays are usually larger than most pots or pans.
Score large fish through the thickest part of the flesh to the bone 3-4 times on both sides, to allow even heat penetration. Once you remove it from the oven, cover and set aside in a warm place to rest for 5-10 minutes (depending on thickness) to allow the juices that have been drawn to the surface, to seep back towards the centre keeping it moist throughout.
Try one of these recipes for succulent whole baked fish…
You can order Rainbow Trout and Bream for delivery from Claudio’s Seafood.
Arguably the gentlest way to cook seafood, steaming is used to cook evenly, prevent drying out, while imparting as little flavour as possible. This makes it a perfect method to cook delicately structured or subtly flavoured species. Ideal species for steaming usually lack fat – think Whiting or Bream as opposed to Sardines. This is because steaming is a great way to ensure your fish doesn't dry out.
Bamboo steamer baskets are inexpensive and widely available. You can stack two baskets on top of each other to hold 4-6 plate-sized fish, rotating them half way through to ensure even cooking. Steam whole fish for around 10-15 minutes per 500g.
Here are two of our favourite steamed fish recipes.
Bream is available for delivery from GetFish, and you can order Perch from Peter’s Sydney Fish Market.
Small or plate-sized fish, such as Warehou, Whiting and Barramundi are great for being deep-fried whole.
A wok is the best cooking vessel because of its wide top; don’t fill it more than two-thirds full with oil to allow room for the level to rise when the fish is added. Pre-heat oil to 180°C, and carefully slide fish into the oil from the side of the wok to prevent splashing. Cook in batches if need be so that the oil returns to temperature quickly after the food is added.
If you prefer not to deep fry, these recipes would also taste great prepared with a shallow pan fry.
Warehou and Pomfret are two slightly rarer species, so if you want to use them specifically, call ahead to your favourite fishmonger at Sydney Fish Market and they will advise you. As alternatives for home-delivery, try a plate-sized Snapper, Morwong, Yellow-Belly Flounder, or Bream.
Eat the flesh from one side of a plate-sized fish, then carefully lift up the back bone, which should come away with the other bones attached, and eat the other side. Superstition says it’s bad luck to turn a fish over.
Use a spoon and fork to serve portions of meat from large fish (most of the bones will remain attached to the back bone). Once all the meat from the first side is served, lift the back bone from the tail, easing the bones away from the flesh and exposing the bottom fillet.
Some fish, such as Bream and Snapper, have fine edible skin. With thick-skinned fish, such as Trout, peel the skin away before eating or serving.