Of all the basic cooking methods, baking - cooking uncovered food in an enclosed oven - is the most recent.
We often talk about ‘roasting’ fish or meat (or vegetables such as potatoes), when we really mean ‘baking’. ‘Roasting’ originally meant to cook in front of an open fire, usually on a spit. This much older method of cooking was popular in medieval times when enclosed ovens were less common. In 19th century Europe only wealthy people had an oven at home, with most baking being done in a communal wood-fired oven in the village square or the local bakery. The advent of gas and electric ovens in the 20th century brought the means of baking into almost every home, with kitchen fireplaces and roasting becoming less common. Other earlier improvised forms of ‘baking’ included putting wrapped food in the ashes or embers of a fire or enclosing it in a camp oven, or Dutch oven, with hot coals packed around it.
Baking is a versatile cooking method with many popular variations, including Indian tandoori, New England clambakes, French en papillote (wrapped in paper parcels), fish and poultry cooked under a salt crust or in salt dough. It’s a great way to prepare whole fish, as oven trays are usually larger than most pots or pans; to gently heat shellfish, such as scallops and oysters, without overcooking them; and of course, for seafood pies and open tarts.
It’s also sometimes combined with other cooking methods:
- Steaming by placing food in a covered casserole dish or wrapping in foil, baking paper or leaves (such as Red Mullet Baked in Paper).
- Braising by adding liquid and covering (such as Braised Octopus with Tomato & Olives).
- Pan-frying initially for colour then finishing the cooking in the gentler heat of the oven (such as Silver Warehou Fillets Baked with Winter Vegetables).
Tips for Successful Baking
- Score whole fish through the thickest section to allow even heat penetration.
- Baste occasionally to keep food moist.
- Once fish is removed from the oven, cover and set aside in a warm place to rest for 5-10 minutes (depending on thickness) to allow time for the juices that have been drawn to the surface by the heat of cooking, to seep back towards the centre keeping it moist throughout.
- Remember food will continue cooking in the residual heat once it’s removed from the oven, so the trick is to take it out just before it’s fully cooked.
- Stuffing in the belly cavity of whole fish or as a crust on the top of fillets helps keep them moist and adds flavour.