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What Does Salt Baking Do?
In addition to the impressive presentation that uncovering a mound of salt to reveal a beautiful whole fish or chicken makes at a dinner party, salt-baking provides a few useful functions:
- Insulation: The salt layer insulates food, slowing down cooking and allowing foods to cook evenly. This makes salt-baking ideal for foods that are easily overcooked, such as fish, or beef tenderloin.
- Seasoning: Whole fish cooked in a salt crust will be perfectly seasoned—not too salty—once you remove the skin.
- Moisture retention: The salt traps moisture within the food so that it cooks in its own juices (similar to sous vide), retaining more flavor.
4 Types of Food You Can Salt-Bake
Although whole fish is the most common vehicle for salt-baking, it’s not the only food that benefits from the salt crust’s moderating effect on heat. Since the outermost layer of food is generally touching the salt, salt-baking is ideal for foods with removable skin, such as beets or fish. Try salt-baking:
- Whole fish: Salt-baked fish may have its origins in Sicily, where the Greek writer Archestratus resided during the fourth century BCE and recorded a recipe similar to what’s found in today’s cookbooks: White, round fish is stuffed with thyme and encased in a mixture of salt, water, and egg white, then baked and served with a drizzle of olive oil. Salt-bake whole fish such as sea bass, red snapper, branzino, or salmon.
- Root vegetables: Instead of roasting beets in aluminum foil, try baking them in a layer of salt. Salt-baking also works for carrots, parsnips, and celeriac. All types of potatoes, from new potatoes to russets, can be salt-roasted for an easy, impressive side dish.
- Chicken: Salt-baked chicken has been an important part of Hakka Chinese cuisine for thousands of years. To make yim guk gai, a whole chicken is seasoned with salt and ginger, then wrapped in parchment paper (traditionally, lotus leaves or clay). The salt is heated and then the parchment-wrapped chicken is covered in the hot salt and cooked in a clay pot or covered wok on the stovetop.
- Beef: Salt-baking is a popular technique for pricy cuts that are easy to overcook, such as beef tenderloin, but it can also work for other cuts of beef, such as eye of round. Brown the beef on a stovetop before covering with salt crust.
What’s the Best Salt to Use for Salt-Baking Food?
Salt-baking will probably require you to use more salt than you ever have in a single dish. Since most of the salt will be discarded, this isn’t the time to use artisan flaky salt. Kosher salt, sea salt, and non-iodized table salt all work fine. Keep in mind that salt crystals come in different sizes, so use a recipe that measures by weight, or stick to the same brand of salt that your recipe calls for.
How to Salt-Bake Whole Fish Step-by-Step
Use this method to prepare perfectly tender salt-baked fish:
- Prep the fish: Leaving the scales on will make it easier to peel off the salty skin later. Gut the fish and remove the fins and gills, then rinse and pat dry. Now is a good time to preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Make the crust: In a large bowl, combine salt with enough egg whites (or water) to create a wet-sand feeling. If you want, you can add herbs or spices, such as black pepper, coriander, star anise, oregano, bay leaves, sprigs of fresh rosemary, or fresh thyme.
- Line the vessel: You can use almost any oven-safe baking dish for salt-baking whole fish. An oval roasting dish has the most fish-like shape, but you can also use a rimmed baking sheet, roasting pan, or casserole. Line your baking dish with an even layer of salt about ⅓-inch thick. (If your pan is much larger than the size of your fish, just line the area that the fish will occupy.) This salt layer on the bottom will protect the fish from the heat of the pan.
- Stuff and cover the fish: Fill the cavity of the fish with thinly sliced citrus and sprigs of fresh herbs. Use the remaining salt mixture to completely cover the fish. It doesn’t have to look perfect, but make sure to cover the entire fish, since anything exposed to air will cook faster than the parts covered with salt.
- Bake the fish: Remove the fish from the oven when a thermometer inserted through the crust into the thickest part of the fish registers 125°F, about 20 minutes for a one-pound fish. After removing the fish from the oven, let it rest for 5–10 minutes but not longer.
- Remove the crust: Use a serrated knife or the sharp end of a fish spatula to slice around the circumference of the crust, carefully avoiding cutting into the fish. Lift the salt crust off. Brush off excess salt with a pastry brush. Remove the skin and fillet the fish tableside or in the kitchen. Serve fillets with lemon wedges and olive oil.
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