How to Cook a Whole Fish in the Oven

If you want to achieve dinnertime wow-factor without breaking the bank, cooking a whole fish is absolutely the way to go.

What has two eyes, a tail and fins, seems intimidating to cook, and is extremely impressive to serve for guests at your next dinner party? A whole fish, of course. There is something about bringing out a platter with a cooked whole fish on it that feels so impressive and sophisticated, but also like an extremely involved and difficult undertaking. However, cooking a whole fish in the oven is quite straightforward, and all in all, it's a pretty inexpensive culinary endeavor. Here's how it's done.

Two Northern red snappers on ice
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Shopping for Your Fish

When it comes to the type of fish, you want to go for a round fish, such as snapper, branzino, bass, bluefish, or trout. Flat fish, like flounder or tilapia, have much thinner fillets which are more ideal for pan searing. The fish should have clear eyes and bright gills. If anything looks excessively gray or brown, it's probably not very fresh. Give the fish a good smell. Does it smell fresh and aquatic or excessively fishy? If it's the latter, it's probably best to find something fresher.

Prepping the Fish

The most intimidating part of the whole process is prepping the fish for cooking. The good news is that you can ask your fishmonger to do all of it for you. In fact, you should ask them. Make sure to let them know that you'd like the fish gutted and scaled. This means the body cavity, gills, and all scales will be removed.

Breaking down a fish on your own requires a flexible fish knife and the knowledge of a fish's anatomy, so you're much better off asking your fishmonger to prepare the whole fish for you. If you're not sure how much fish to buy, plan to get about 1 pound of fish per person that you're serving. (That may seem like a lot of fish for one, but keep in mind that not all parts of the whole fish are edible).

Scored Whole Fish
Sara Tane

Score the Fish

Once your fish is cleaned and gutted, it's time to get it all ready for cooking. First things first, you'll want to score both sides of the flesh with a knife. Three shallow, short cut marks on each side is sufficient. These score marks help your fish cook more evenly and allow for any seasonings or aromatics to better penetrate the flesh for a more pronounced flavor.

Whole Fish Patted Dry
Sara Tane

Seasoning the Fish

Pat the fish dry to remove any excess moisture. Place the fish on a parchment paper or foil lined baking sheet.

Seasoned Whole Fish
Sara Tane

Drizzle the fish all over with your go-to cooking oil, and season all sides of the fish with salt and pepper. Stuff the cavity with aromatics such as fresh citrus slices, garlic cloves, and oregano, thyme, or rosemary sprigs.

Whole Fish Stuffed with Aromatics
Sara Tane

Cook the Fish

The key to roasting a whole fish is to cook it in a hot oven. We're talking anywhere from 450 degrees F to 500 degrees F. The uniform heat of a hot oven is super ideal for cooking a whole fish, particularly compared to grilling (another popular cooking method for a whole fish), which can be a bit more unpredictable and uneven. A hot oven is going to cook the fish quickly while also creating some nice caramelization on the skin without burning or excessively charring it. The size and thickness of the fish will determine how long it needs to be cooked. The larger and thicker the fish, the longer it will need to cook. Once an internal thermometer registers 135 degrees F, your fish should be good to go. It shouldn't take much longer than 15 minutes.

After removing it from the oven, let your fish rest for a few minutes before serving it up and diving on in. You can serve it with crusty bread, pita, or rice. Give it a big squeeze of lemon juice and your fresh catch is ready to be devoured.

Whole Fish Cooked in the Oven
Sara Tane

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