How to prepare salt crusted fish

Here fishy fishy

Gifts of the sea | April 14, 2015 | By

So last night I did something I’ve never done before. I took a cooking class! Here’s where the sarcastic folks in the crowd chime in with “it’s about time.” And so go the curmudgeon voices in my head.

Anyway, my friend Jackie, who we call Queen of Roncy, because she knows everything about our awesome West Toronto neighbourhood first,


put me onto the class that was being held at The Cookery, which is a fairly new cooking supply store that holds classes at night and on weekends. All of their lessons look attractive to me — there are some about knife skills, global recipes, French desserts, kid cooking… but how could I resist a dangerous class about how to salt-bake a whole fish? As I mentioned, Jackie knows everything, including that I wouldn’t be able to refuse taking on the whole-Branzino-fish challenge.

How to cook a whole fish

 Here’s Jackie’s fish’s kissy-face

How to cook a whole fish

The class was taught by not one, but two experts from our neighbourhood who normally hang out a few doors down from each other. Jessica from the Cookery was joined by David from De La Mer — you might remember from when I cooked fish heads that De La Mer is my official local fishmonger. What I didn’t know before last night, though, was that David is also a trained chef, which totally makes sense because every staff member in that place is eager to chat recipes and share what they know about how to deal up everything that swims. They’ll also manhandle all of it for you, so that although I’ll explain what they taught me about how to prep a whole fish, if you go to a good place you don’t even need to know because it will have been taken care of. Woot woot! But just in case you’re feeling dangerous…


  • 1 – 1lb Branzino fish per person — this recipe should serve 4
  • 2 lemons, zested and sliced (use about 1/2 zest per fish)
  • 1 lb salt (coarse sea salt for purists, but other salts will work)
  • 1 1/4C water
  • 1 tsp chopped basil per fish
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds per fish


Preheat your oven to 450.

Step 1 – Scale your fish

How to gut a fish

So grab yourself a descaler (or the un-sharp edge of a big knife) and rub down that fish so that the scales fly off the fish and all over the place. Did I mention having an apron on and covering your work surface with newspaper might be good idea?

Step 2 – Snip off the fins

This is when I learned that my home kitchen snips were dull and I needed new ones, because proper snips should make this an easy task. Go against the direction of the fin (start from the underside of it rather than the top).

Step 3 – Gut that puppy

Take a sharp knife, and start at the little excretion hole at the bottom of the tummy (look at me, so polite with its name). Draw your knife along the tummy, not too deep in, up to the jaw of the fish. Open your little guy up and take everything out from inside there. 

How to gut and stuff a fish

Step 4 – Take out the gills

This is where you need a hint of muscle, but just grip yourself those pink gills and yank ’em out. The gills are a little bitey, but not crazy-sharp. They should be anything from light pink to dark red in a fresh fish, but not brown.

Step 5 – Stuff ‘er

Stuff the cavity with whatever your recipe calls for. We went for lemon, lemon zest, basil, fennel seeds, and salt.

How to gut and stuff a fish

Step 6 – Tuck ‘er in

Prepare a bowl of snowball salt. What do I mean by that? You’re going to add enough water (about 1 1/4C for 1 lb of salt) so that your salt has snowball consistency.

How to make a salt crust

Then make a salt bed for your fish on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and pack it on and around the top of the fish, good and thick. Pop it into the oven and let it go 30-40 minutes. The fish are done when they reach 140F with a thermometer, or when you stick a knife in and touch it to your lip and it burns you. See what you learn by going to a cooking class with real chefs? VERY dangerous.

How to make salt crusted fish

How to test fish for doneness

Step 7 – Dig in

Baked salt crusted fish recipe

Peel away the crusted salt which will now have become hard after the oven, and you’re good to go. Now. If you’re that person who gets kind of freaked out about where to start with eating a whole fish, don’t you worry. Start near the tail at the top, lift back the skin, and gently peel away the meat before you get to the bones underneath. When you’ve made it through to the bones you can just lift them away to get to the other half of the meat hiding underneath.

Whole fish recipe

Easy peasy. Delicious, fresh, and tender. This may be my new favourite way to eat fish. You need to try it! Quite the way to impress guests by slapping a cooked whole fish in front of them.

And hey, I didn’t even mention how we did the sides — warm fingerling potato, bacon, and green bean salad with dill, with blueberry tart with almond-oat crumble for dessert — because I didn’t want to reveal all of Jessica and David’s secrets. But they were delicious, too. 

Potato salad with bacon



Chef skills

Jessica from The Cookery spicing things up

Blueberry tart recipe

If you live in Toronto, I haven’t even scratched the surface about what I came away with after spending two hours with two chefs — you should take this class or another that interests you. I learned that I still have so much to learn. My knife skills suck. My french cooking vocab leaves a lot to be desired. I never pick through for “perfect blueberries” when I bake with them (my family has such a burden to bear).

But now I can clean and cook a whole fish.


  1. Leave a Reply

    April 14, 2015

    Great summary of a fantastic, educational AND delicious night!

  2. Leave a Reply

    April 15, 2015

    Well, this meal looks delicious. Did I ever mention that I had a cookery school my self?? Amazing experience for all, except of the day, a lady got allergic from the smell of shrimp and left the class choking!!!

    • Leave a Reply

      Ann Allchin
      April 15, 2015

      Wow! I had no idea you had a cooking school. I have a goal to volunteer teaching older widowed men basic cooking lessons, because I’ve known a number who have been left alone with absolutely none of those skills. I’ll have to keep your experience with allergies in mind! Yikes!

  3. Leave a Reply

    April 28, 2015

    This is a lovely idea. I had men of all ages as students and they were all really fanatic about cooking. One of them wanted to learn how to boil an egg! The other one wanted to learn cooking because his wife had arthritis and couldn’t cook anymore. the third, wanted to impress his much younger girlfriend, etc, etc…..

  4. Leave a Reply

    Trevor aka The Burger Nerd
    April 30, 2015

    I’ve never tried this cooking technique but would like to. I remember the first time I saw it a handful of years ago, I was like wtf, you can do that! All the food pics looked amazing and glad ya had a fun time. Great article as usual. Cheers!

    • Leave a Reply

      Ann Allchin
      May 5, 2015

      Thanks! You should give it a try. A whole fish burger might leave something to be desired for the palate, but it would make for cool pics.

  5. Leave a Reply

    May 17, 2015

    That sounds fun! I discovered that even though I like learning and I like cooking, a cooking class makes me extra shy and nervous. 🙂

    • Leave a Reply

      Ann Allchin
      May 20, 2015

      You wouldn’t have loved the knife skills, then! I was assigned chopping by process of elimination and was afraid I’d chop my hands off. #1 I never chop like a real chef at home, and #2 their knives were WAY sharper than mine ever are. But it was fun! Don’t be shy!

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