Saturday, October 13, 2018


I used to regularly lunch at a beachside restaurant on the Costa with friends, editors at the magazine where I free-lanced. Our favorite meal, after starting with plates of tiny wedge-shell clams, grilled shrimp and fried calamares, para picar, was a whole fish baked in a salt crust. The waiter would display the oversized roasting pan with the fish buried under its mound of salt before proceeding, tableside, to crack the crust and serve the moist fish onto our dinner plates. Accompanied by steamed potatoes and a simple alioli garlic mayonnaise, the fish was pure heaven.

A whole gilt-head bream baked in salt.

The fish, usually dorada, gilt-head bream, or lubina, sea bass, was a big one, weighing 3 or 4 pounds whole (restaurants charged by weight), enough to serve four of us. Nowadays, wild-caught fish of that size would cost an arm and a leg and then some. However, markets now sell high quality farmed fish, usually individually-sized, de ración. Acuicultura (aquaculture) and de estero (from the “estuary”) are the terms seen on the labels. 

Spain is the fourth largest producer of farmed gilt-head bream on the Mediterranean, after Turkey, Greece and Egypt. Valencia, Murcia, Canary Islands and Andalusia are the regions with the greatest production. More about aquaculture in Spain here. Spain also produces sea salt, both artisanal and industrial. Fish baked in salt originates in the salt flats of Murcia, Alicante and Andalusia.

Whole fish weigh just under 1 pound, about right for one serving.

Finding dorada at a great price, I decided to try baking small ones in salt. The supermarket fish person knew just how to prepare the fish, removing the guts through the gills, so there was no open cavity for salt to get inside, and leaving on the scales, which also keep the flesh from absorbing salt. What the salt does is keep all the juices inside the fish and absorb any excess fat that seeps out during baking.

In my kitchen, cooking was absolutely simple—mound salt over the fish and bake. Serving was simple, too. The salt crust cracks and is easily scooped away and removing skin and bones from cooked fish is pretty simple. While the fish was baking, I par-boiled some potatoes, sliced them and put them under the grill when the fish came out along with a few small tomatoes.

Fish dinner for two--filleted gilthead, grilled potatoes and tomatoes, green mayonnaise.

Instead of the typical alioli or salsa verde (green sauce with parsley), I combined the two, making green mayonnaise. Some people like the fish with nothing more complicated than a drizzle of good olive oil. The cooking method does not make salty fish, so be sure to serve table salt!

Two (15-ounce) fish make two generous servings. (I saved a couple fillets to make fish tacos the next day.) Here the fish is served with a dollop of garlicky green mayonnaise plus grilled potatoes and tomatoes.

Fish Baked in Salt
Dorada a la Sal

Coarse salt.

I used really coarse, rock salt, to encase the fish. I chose it because the package specifically said it was for use in horno (oven) and plancha (grill). I think a slightly less coarse grind would be better, making a more compact crust. 

The salt needs just a little moisture to bind it. Adding an egg white to the water compacts it even more. The layer of salt on the bottom of the pan is mostly to keep the fish from sticking to the pan. Lining the pan with foil or baking parchment makes it easy afterward to gather up all the salt for disposal.

Other fish that are suitable for baking in salt are other types of bream, such as besugo or pargo; sea bass; grey mullet; snapper, or grouper. 

Notice the fish have been gutted through the gills, so there is no slit in the belly.

If possible, have the fish gutted through the gills, without slitting it open along the belly. If this is not possible, make the smallest possible incision to pull out the innards. Don’t remove scales or fins.

If you like a herbal flavor, tuck bay leaves or sprigs of fresh herbs beneath the fish. I found bay really permeated the fish. Nice, but next time I will leave the fish in its pristine state. 

Use fish eye to tell doneness.
How long to bake the fish? Fish weighing between 14 and 16 ounces each will need 25 minutes in a preheated 400ºF oven. Add 1 or 2 minutes for every ounce over 16 ounces. If you excavate a peep-hole in the salt to expose one of the fish’s eyes, you can check to see if the eye has turned milky-white, indicating the flesh is cooked.

Fish is done when fin pulls free.

Another trick is to leave a fin on one fish sticking up out of the salt. If the fin easily pulls away, the fish is cooked. 

Use a table knife to crack the salt around the edges of the fish.

Let the fish set a few minutes before removing the crusted salt. Use a heavy table knife to break the salt all around the edges of the fish, as if tracing its outline. Use the knife and a spatula to lift cracked salt from the fish. You can use a spatula to remove the whole fish from the bed of salt to a serving platter or proceed to remove the fillets. 

It's easy to pull off the skin while fish is hot.
To remove the fillets, cut through the fish at the tail. Lift the skin and carefully pull it away from the flesh. Discard skin. Pull away fins on the sides. Cut off and discard head. Either use a large spoon to lift flesh off the bone or carefully lift the fillet off with a spatula or fish slice onto a heated platter or individual dinner plates.

After removing top fillet, lift out the center spine.

Lift the spine off. Serve the bottom fillet in the same manner, lifting it away from the remaining skin and salt.

One fish, filleted.

Serves 2, 3 or 4.

2 whole gilthead bream, each between 14 and 16 ounces
6 cups coarse salt (about 3 ¾ pounds)
1 egg white
2 tablespoons water
Bay leaves or sprigs of fresh herbs (optional)

If the fish have been gutted, they need no further prepping. Do not remove head, scales or fins. Rinse in cold water and pat dry.

Preheat oven to 400ºF.

Line an oven tray or sheet pan with foil or baking parchment. Spread a thin layer of salt on it (about 1 ½ cups). Place remaining salt in a bowl. Whisk together egg white and water. Stir the liquid into the salt to evenly moisten it.

Place bay leaves or herbs, if using, on the layer of salt in the oven pan. Place the fish on top, allowing at least 5 inches between them. Mound the moistened salt over the fish. Press the salt firmly around each fish, enclosing them completely. Poke a hole in the salt to expose the eye of one fish (to check for doneness).

Bake fish for 25 minutes. Check to see if eye has turned opaque white. Remove the pan from the oven and allow to rest 3 minutes. Crack salt crust and remove it. Serve fish on heated plates. 

Green Mayonnaise
Mayonesa Verde

Green sauce mixed with garlic mayonnaise.

Spanish salsa verde (green sauce) is primarily parsley. But you can add another fresh herb in addition to parsley. Try mint, cilantro, basil, chives, tarragon or oregano.

Use a mini-processor to chop the parsley, garlic and scallion or finely chop them by hand.

1 cup chopped parsley
¼ cup another green herb (optional)
3 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon chopped scallion
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup bottled mayonnaise
Add mayo to parsley sauce.

Finely chop the parsley, herb, garlic and scallion. Mix in the lemon juice, oil and salt. Stir the mayonnaise until smooth and whisk it into the parsley sauce.

More sauces to accompany baked fish:

More recipes for farmed fish:


  1. What do you do with the salt afterwards?

    1. Antigone: Salt is discarded. It will be permeated with fish juices after baking.