Ask Dave Pasternack about the pros and cons of cooking whole fish, and his answer is all pro without a trace of con. "First, you get to see the fish you're buying, so you can guarantee its quality," explains the fisherman-chef of New York City's Esca. A no-nonsense Long Island native who's always happy to talk fish and generously share his knowledge, Pasternack learned to fish almost as soon as he could walk, and when he has a day off from the restaurant, he invariably spends it out on the water with his rod. "Whole fish is also more juicy, because it's cooked on the bone and in its skin. Plus, it's typically a better value, and you get to eat all the different parts of the fish—I love the collar, while my daughter likes the cheek." Which begs the question: Why don't more of us prepare whole fish at home? According to Pasternack, it's because home cooks get nervous about judging doneness. "I always tell people, 'It's done when you think it's done.' Most people go an extra five minutes just to be safe, but that's usually when the fish gets overcooked." Here, he shows us three great methods—salt-baking, grilling and roasting—for cooking whole fish perfectly every time, along with three amazingly easy sauces. Plus, he offers a mini lesson on the neatest way to fillet and debone cooked fish, so it's beautiful to serve.
Fish Buying Tip
Fresh fish should be "cow-eyed": Its eyes should bulge out. Also look for shiny skin, with scales and gills that are tight to the body.
Whole Fish Cooking Tip
"Push down on the thickest part of the fillet, where it meets the head. If it starts to break away from the bone, it's done," says Pasternack.