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.
Step-By-Step: How to Salt-Bake Whole Fish
1. Form Base
Mix together sea salt and egg whites and layer some of the mixture on a sheet of parchment paper.
2. Bury Fish
Set the fish on the salt and mound the remaining salt all over it. Lightly pack down the salt.
3. Bake Fish
Cook until an instant-read thermometer inserted near the head registers 135°. Let rest for 10 minutes.
4. Crack Salt
Crack the salt into large chunks and discard. Brush off any excess salt, discard the skin and serve.
How to Serve Whole Fish
1. Remove Pin Bones
Using a serving spoon and fork, scrape away the small bones from the top and bottom of the fish where the fins connect to the body.
2. Remove Top Fillet
Following the natural division along the spine, split the top fillet in half with a serving fork or knife. Carefully lift off each piece of fillet.
3. Remove Bone Cage
Grasp the tail and lift: The entire bone cage and head should come off with it. Be sure not to discard the delicious meat from the head.
4. Clean and Serve
Scrape away any bones still clinging to the fillets. Reassemble the fillets, drizzle the fish with olive oil or sauce and serve.