Salt-Roasted Branzino

In Making Food on September 8, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Week 27
Salt-Roasted Branzino

Salt roasting — where you whip egg whites until they’re stiff, fold in a bunch of salt, pack an entire fish in in the salt-egg mixture then bake it, creating a hard crust/shell kind of thing in which the fish steams– has always intrigued me. One, because how can the fish possibly not be ridiculously salty? And two, what a waste of perfectly good salt.

But this week a bunch of things transpired to make salt-roasted fish an imminent reality.

First, whole branzino went on sale at the store. If you haven’t had branzino, you really should. Run, don’t walk. It’s a silver-skinned Mediterranean bass, a white fish, but really meaty-yet-delicate and flavorful and a little oily. It’s common in French, Spanish, Greek and Italian cooking, and in France it’s called loup de mer, or wolf of the sea, which is infinitely cooler than branzino.

Then, I was idly poking through the pantry, trying to take an inventory of heretofore unused ingredients I bought with the best of blogging intentions. (Ghee, steel-cut oats, Chinese sugar rock candy, and some weird kelly green spicy Bombay sandwich spread are all still kicking it on the shelves.) And I found a gigantic unopened three-pound box of kosher salt that I think was left over from our last apartment, which we lived in four years ago in an entirely different time zone.

And then while I was digging through the freezer looking for a package of bacon that I knew had to be in there somewhere, I found a tupperware full of egg whites from my Obsessive Ice Cream Making Era. (Never found the bacon, by the way. Or if I did, I couldn’t tell. Let this be a lesson to all of us: label whatever you put into your freezer, because I promise: you won’t recognize or remember it three weeks later.)

So the stage was set for salt-roasted branzino to rear its scaly head.

Mixed metaphors aside, I let the egg whites — I’m guessing there were about four in there — defrost overnight, then beat them with a whisk until they were foamy. Soft-stiff peaks would’ve been better, but I didn’t have the patience or the energy to do that by hand, and I couldn’t remember where the whisk attachment to my hand blender was living these days. Then I added the salt. The recipes I’d looked at called for one pound of salt per pound of fish, but here’s the thing about that: I’d already thrown away the wrapper with the scale tag on it, and couldn’t remember how much the fish weighed. So I just added enough salt until the egg-salt mixture looked like something that would hold together if I tried packing a fish into it. You’re sort of going for a sand-castle-buildability texture here.

I spread out a bit of the salt mixture onto a parchment-paper-lined roasting pan, then laid the whole (cleaned, gutted, scaled) fish on top of it:

Then I dumped the rest of the salt mess onto the fish, and patted it into a crust-type thing that covered pretty much the whole fish, though I will admit that I left a tiny airhole around the fish’s mouth and where I imagined its nostrils to be, because I felt weird suffocating it, even though I understand 1) the whole concept of breathing through one’s gills and 2) that the fish was already dead:

Then I wrapped the whole roasting pan in cling film, shoved it in the fridge, and headed out to work. The whole process took about four minutes. When I got home, some of the egg white had separated from the salt and leaked out onto the parchment paper. I didn’t sweat it too much; I just heated the oven to 400, shoved the fish in, roasted it for 20 minutes, then let it stand on the counter for 10 more. The stray weepy egg whites lent a cool kind of meringue halo effect to the whole dish:

I do think you’d probably get slightly better results if you prepared this right before roasting — that’d give the egg whites less time to weep and/or deflate — but I don’t think doing it in advance compromised the final dish too much. To gussy it up a bit more, you could shove some lemon or orange slices, crushed garlic cloves, or whole herb sprigs into the fish’s cavity.

To serve, you’ve got to whack the salt crust pretty hard with the back of a wooden spoon. The crust’ll shatter, and while this’d look pretty cool at a dinner party table, I’d worry about getting some flying salt fragments in your guests’ eyes. (Then again, maybe you don’t have to hit it quite as hard or as gleefully as I did.)

The skin’ll peel off easily, and you can lift the top fillet off the bones, flip the fish, peel again, and lift off the rest of the flesh. We served it with some chard that The Husband sauteed with ginger and garlic, plus some awesome Indian spiced tomato rice that I picked up at Patel Brothers and refuse to be embarrassed about using, even if it does come in one of those ridiculous boil-in-the-bag pouches.

The branzino was perfect — exactly done, tender and moist, and not overly salty at all. It did pick up a few of the salt crust crumbs while we were peeling off the skin and transferring the flesh to our dinner plates, but it turned out to be just the right amount of saltiness. We did wind up tossing the salt crust into the trash, though if we do this again in the winter, I’ll throw the salt onto our back steps, because why not?

  1. Awesome idea. I appreciate the wing-it approach to cooking. More often than not I’ve gotten good results.

  2. […] number of hits I get for ways to deal with pork belly, black currants, guanabana, palm sugar and salt roasting are encouraging — could Smart Cabbage actually be helpful? Because that would be […]

  3. […] weirded out by her gravitas. But what the hell, right? We all like fish. I’d steamed and roasted whole ones before. No bigs. We’d have it tomorrow night. (We’d already bought a […]

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