Saturday, May 1, 2021


Sometimes, the easiest way is the best. That’s certainly the case with fish. Why bother with fiddly filleting when it’s easier to cook the fish whole? Fish cooked on the bone stays moister and tastier than cut-up fish. And, once cooked, it’s a whole lot easier to separate the flesh from the bones.

I´ve got a whole bonito (Sarda sarda), a blue fish related to mackerel and tuna (not the same as bonito del norte, which is albacore tuna). The fish weighs about 2 ½ pounds (gutted, with head). The recipe would work with any whole fish of similar weight—bluefish, salmon, sea bass, grouper, snapper, bream—although roasting time will vary with the thickness of the fish. Single-serving-sized fish such as trout, mackerel or bass can also be roasted whole. In this case, there’s no need to fillet them after cooking—let each person de-bone the fish once served.

Whole fish is roasted on a bed of sliced onions, lemons and tomatoes. 

This is a two-step procedure. The onions, sliced lemons and tomatoes get 30 minutes of oven time before the fish is added. Their juices with the olive oil and wine make a delicious sauce for the cooked fish.

“Carving” a whole fish is easy, but messy, so do it in the kitchen and serve the fish plated. While filleting the fish, keep the onions, tomatoes and pan juices warm in the oven. Have ready a heated platter to put the fish on. 

Here´s how: If you’ve roasted the fish with head on, remove and discard the head. Scrape the skin from the top fillet. (Discard the lemon slices in the slits.) Use a knife tip to pull away the dorsal fins (all down the back). Slide the knife blade flat along the spine to loosen the top fillet. Divide it lengthwise. Use a spatula or large spoon to lift off the top fillets. (It’s fine to remove them in several pieces.) Place them on the heated platter. With the knife tip, lift the spine in one piece and remove it. 

For the bottom half of the fish, remove any obvious fins and bones (fingers are useful for this) and divide it lengthwise. Gently ease each half off the bottom skin and place the pieces of the bottom fillet on the heated platter. With bonito and similar fish, you may wish to cut away the narrow strip of much darker flesh, the “bloodline.” It is edible, but has a stronger flavor than the rest of the flesh.

Divide the onions, lemons and tomatoes between four dinner plates (preferably heated). Place the fillets on top. Spoon the juices from the baking dish over the fish. 

If you plan to serve the fish cold, de-bone it while still warm. Store the fillets covered and refrigerated.

Serve filleted fish on top of the roasted vegetables. Pour pan juices over the serving.

Roasted fish stays moist.

Roasted Whole Fish
Bonito al Horno

Serves 4.

2 onions
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, slivered
1 lemon
1 large tomato, sliced
1 bay leaf
1 whole fish, gutted and scaled (about 2 ½ pounds)
½ cup white wine
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Preheat oven to 400ºF.

Roast layer of onions first.

Cut the onions in half and slice them lengthwise. Put 1 tablespoon of oil in the bottom of a baking dish or roasting pan big enough to hold the fish. Spread the sliced onions in the pan. Add slivers of garlic. Cut the lemon in half and slice it thinly. Add half of the slices to the onions. Sprinkle with salt. Drizzle 2 tablespoons of oil over the onions. Place in the oven for 20 minutes.

Place sliced tomato on top of the onions and tuck in a bay leaf. Return to the oven for 10 minutes longer.

Place fish, with or without the head, on top of roasted tomatoes and onions. The slits in the flesh help the fish cook thoroughly.
While onions are roasting, cut deep slits in the skin and flesh of the fish. Sprinkle inside and out with salt. Insert lemon slices in the slits on one side of the fish. Place the fish on top of the onions and tomatoes in the baking dish. Pour the wine over the fish. Drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil over the fish. Sprinkle with the parsley.

Roast the fish until the flesh easily separates from the spine, 25 to 30 minutes. (Use a thin skewer to test it.) Remove the fish from the oven and place it on a heated platter. Turn off the oven and leave the baking dish with the onions in the oven to keep warm.

Fish is easy to fillet once cooked. A messy job, so do it in the kitchen and plate the fish.

Remove skin and bones from the fish. Separate the flesh into fillets. Divide the onions, lemons and tomatoes between four plates. Place fillets on top, spoon pan juices over the fish and serve immediately.

Filleted bonito, enough to serve four.

Onions, tomatoes and wine make the "sauce" for the fish.

More recipes for cooking whole fish:

Another recipe with bonito:


  1. That's one of my favourite ways to cook fish and brilliant for dinner parties, because almost all the prep can be done in advance and the oven dish with fish or fishes looks great served at the table.

    1. Mad Dog: Roasted whole fish in the oven dish makes a great presentation at the table--but I would definitely return it to the kitchen for plating. That gets pretty messy.