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Food

Chef Thomas Keller’s Salt-Baked Branzino Recipe (With Video)

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

“One of the reasons I love this is because we are encasing the fish in the salt and it’s actually steaming in its own juices.” — Chef Thomas Keller, of Napa Valley’s Yountville restaurants Bouchon, Ad Hoc, and The French Laundry, and New York’s Per Se.

You’ve probably baked fish fillets in the oven before—but this is not the same old oven-baked fish. This is whole branzino, also known as Mediterranean sea bass, or, in French, loup de mer, baked in a salt crust. The crust seals in moisture, allowing the fish to steam and cook in its own juices, while the fish’s crispy skin prevents the salt from penetrating its flesh. The crust is a mix of kosher salt and egg whites that looks and feels like wet sand on a beach.

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How to Prepare Branzino

Before packing the fish in the salt crust, remove its fins and gills. You may also need to trim its tail so that the whole fish fits in your baking dish. Take care not to pierce its skin or expose its flesh; you don’t want the salt from the crust to seep inside. Chef Keller stuffs the fish’s cavity with lemon slices and fennel tops. Don’t feel obliged to use that same combination, but it’s important to fill the cavity with something to maintain the fish’s natural shape.

How to Serve Branzino

Chef Keller serves the fish here with a red pepper vinaigrette that adds a beautiful, bright color and acidic pop of flavor, but he says the vinaigrette can be made with other vegetable and fruit juices, including carrots, beets, and oranges. Chef Keller encourages you to try some of these other options. “Experiment,” he says. “Let your imagination run wild.”

If you cannot source branzino, consult your local fishmonger for other similarly-sized round fish with thin skin and a robust bone structure, such as small striped bass or snapper.

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Chef Thomas Keller’s Salt-Baked Branzino Recipe

Prep Time
50 min
Total Time
1 hr 20 min
Cook Time
30 min

Ingredients

  • 1 1-pound whole branzino, scaled, gutted, fins and gills removed, rinsed and dried off
  • 725 grams kosher salt
  • 8 large egg whites
  • Fennel tops and fronds
  • 3 1⁄4-inch-thick slices lemon
  • Caramelized fennel bulbs
  • Red pepper vinaigrette
  • Lemon
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Picked fennel fronds for garnish

Equipment:

  • Mixing bowl
  • Cutting board
  • Chef’s knife
  • Serrated knife
  • Gratin dish or oval roaster Instant-read thermometer
  • Kitchen towels
  • Paper towels
  • Plating spoon
  • Fish tweezers
  1. Preheat oven to 350oF. Trim off the tail end of the fish, if necessary, to the length of the gratin dish.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the salt and egg whites and mix with your hands until the combination has the feel of wet sand. To ensure that you have added the right amount of egg whites, grab a handful of the mixture, squeeze it, then let it go. It should fall back into the large bowl without any of it sticking to your hand. If it sticks to your hand, incorporate more egg white.
  3. Overlap, or “shingle,” the lemon slices, then add the lemon and the fennel into the fish’s cavity until the branzino assumes its natural shape. Pack the gratin dish or oval roaster with a 1/3-inch-thick layer of the salt-egg white mixture. Place fish on the bed of salt-egg white mixture, and cover it with more of the mixture, gently patting it down into an even 1⁄2-inch layer that envelopes the fish. Fill in any cracks in the salt crust. Transfer the gratin dish or oval roaster to the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the fish from the oven when a thermometer inserted through the crust into the thickest part of the fish registers 125°F.
  4. After removing the fish from the oven, let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes but not longer. Use a serrated knife to slice around the circumference of the crust, carefully avoiding cutting into the fish. Lift the salt crust off. Transfer the fish onto a kitchen towel placed on the cutting board. Dust off any residual salt from the fish and cutting board. Transfer the fish onto two layers of paper towels on the cutting board to allow for ease of maneuvering the fish.
  5. Working gently, use a serrated knife to score the skin around the head and down the spine of the fish. Pull back the skin and remove it. Use the tip of the knife to gently scrape off the bloodline that runs down the length of the fish between the two fillets. Cut around the head down to the bone and then cut following the line of the fish’s verte- brae. Use the length of the knife blade to gently lift and remove the top fillet off the vertebrae and any remaining dorsal bones. Remove the bottom fillet in the same manner and place it skin-side-down on the cutting board. Gently scrape away the membrane from the rib cage. Use fish tweezers to remove the rib bones, then use a chef’s knife to trim the fillet on the belly side to achieve a straight edge. Carefully transfer the fillets to a plate, skin-side-up.
  6. Remove the lemons and fennel. Lift the vertebrae starting from the tail end and use a chef’s knife to cut the head off the fish. Separate the dorsal bone from the flesh. Gently scrape the membrane away from the rib cage and use tweezers to remove the belly bones. Trim any fin bones away from the flesh. Place two layers of paper towels over the fish. Holding the two ends of the top and bottom paper towels, flip the fish over. Remove the skin and bloodline as with the previous side. Separate the fillets and transfer them to another plate, skin side up.
  7. Finish the dish by squeezing lemon juice over the fish and adding a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Spoon the red pepper vinaigrette around the fish. Place a few caramelized fennel wedges atop the fillet, and garnish with freshly picked fennel fronds.

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