Fin to Fork: Salt-Baked Big Fish and Vegetables with Fresh Salsa Recipe

On a hilltop in Uruguay, Francis Mallmann peels away the skin of a salt-baked Chilean salmon.

I first learned this way of making fish from the Argentine grillmaster Francis Mallmann (I wrote the book Seven Fires with him). In the years that followed, I would salt-bake a fish and bring it over to the Orvis store in Manhattan each year. They’d get a winery or liquor company to donate something to drink, and we’d all have a fine old time.


If you ever want something different for a big family meal at Christmas or Easter (or whenever), this is as dramatic a presentation as any turkey or standing rib roast. Encasing the fish in wet salt seals all the moisture in so it’s pretty hard to dry out the fish.

Prep Note: 

If you don’t have an oven big enough to hold the whole fish, you can cut off the tail and/or the head and wrap the ends of the fish in tin foil. Then, when you roast the fish, put a large sheet pan under your roasting pan so if the wet salt bubbles over, you won’t get it all over the oven. For a bigger oven, you can put the fish, vegetables, and salt on a large sheet pan and then line the lower oven rack of the oven with tin foil to catch any spill-over.

When it’s all cooked, you crack open the salt crust. Do this right next to the sink. Spread out some newspapers. Put the roasting pan on the newspaper and then crack open the salt and toss it in the sink. You can run the water in the sink from time to time to dissolve the salt. Invite your guests to stand nearby while you de-mummify the fish and vegetables. Watching this happen never fails to delight and amaze folks.

Don’t be freaked at how much salt this takes. Compared to what you spend for an average rib roast or turkey, it’s not a wallet-breaker. The salt doesn’t affect the flavor of the fish at all. It simply seals in moisture and cooks everything evenly.

An added benefit; you don’t have to scale the fish. Just gut it.

This is what fish for 300 looks like before you cover with salt.

Salt-Baked Big Fish and Vegetables Ingredients (8-10 servings):

  • Five 3-pound boxes kosher salt
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 cleaned, unscaled 8-pound whole fish (redfish, salmon, weakfish, or bluefish)              *Make sure to check current fishing regulations when keeping a fish.*
  • 8 carrots, trimmed, brushed clean, and wrapped in foil
  • 6 medium potatoes
  • 6 medium sweet potatoes
  • Salsa (see the following recipe)

Directions:

Wrap the carrots in foil to make a sealed bundle and set aside. Heat the oven to 500 degrees (or 450 degrees if that’s as high as your oven goes). Pour all the salt into a very large bowl or the sink. Add 4 cups of water and toss the salt to dampen it. The consistency should be like spring snow, slightly wet and lightly clumping. If necessary, add more water.

In a large roasting pan, tamp down a 1-inch layer of moistened salt. Place the fish on top of the salt, diagonally in the pan. Arrange the potatoes, sweet potatoes, and carrots snugly around the sides of the fish. Insert an ovenproof (not instant-read) meat thermometer in the thickest part of the fish and leave it there so that you can monitor the temperature of the fish. Add more damp salt to cover everything, making a thick layer over the fish and vegetables. Tamp the salt down just like when you bury someone in sand at the beach.

Place a sheet pan in the lower third of the oven to catch any spillover and then put the roasting pan on top of it. Bake until a thermometer reaches 140˚ degrees, about 55 minutes.

If you want to go full-on fire, it’s quite a show. We did this for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

ShowTime! Invite your guests to watch as you take the roasting pan from the oven and let it rest at room temperature for 20 minutes. Tap the salt crust with a hammer or mallet until it cracks. Discard the salt. The plumes of steam that escape are pretty impressive. Remove the carrots. Brush any remaining salt from the potatoes, sweet potatoes, and fish; then lift off the fish skin.

To serve, use two large spoons to lift pieces of fish and plate them. Put some carrot, potato, and sweet potato on each plate. Pour salsa over the fish, and , while you’re at it, baptize the vegetables too.

Salsa Recipe:

  • 1 cup chopped parsley
  • 1/2 cup chopped garlic
  • 1/2 cup fresh oregano
  • Zest of two lemons, diced or grated
  • Flaky salt to taste
  • Cracked black pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl.
  2. Cover and set aside until you’re ready to serve.

This recipe as well as many more are featured in the new edition of Fly Fishing For Dummies To purchase this cookbook click the link here.

Peter Kaminsky is a long time fly fisherman and author. His Outdoors column appeared in the New York Times for more than 30 years. He was a contributing editor to Field & Stream. Among his fishing books, the classic The Moon Pulled Up An Acre of Bass. He fishes New York Harbor a lot. Be sure to check out his most recent book, Fly Fishing for Dummies below.

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The Only Grilled Fish Recipe You Need to Know

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