Funny thing about fish: Everybody loves a great fillet in a restaurant or mussels in a bistro, but few of us cook fish at home with any confidence, thanks to so many efforts that end with the ugly mess of a halibut steak stuck to the skillet, disintegrating before it even hits the plate.
"Fish is not a pork chop," says chef David Kinch, owner of two-Michelin-star restaurant Manresa, in Silicon Valley. "Rightly or wrongly, it's perceived off the bat as intermediate cooking."
Kinch grew up surfing the Gulf Coast of Texas – "I was an oil brat," he says – and now lives near the beach in Santa Cruz, California, spending his free time longboarding, standup paddleboarding, or sailing with friends. Winner of the 2010 James Beard Award for Best Chef in America, Pacific region, he has become a foodie cult figure for his imaginative, fish-centric cuisine. He also makes regular transpacific trips to Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, personally scouting out the freshest seafood on Earth. But the real strength of Kinch's approach lies in his mastery of precisely what the rest of us need to learn: the fundamental cooking methods applicable to every maritime meat.
"A few simple techniques make seafood so much more accessible," he says. "Once guys learn them, they won't hesitate to pick up a beautiful piece of fish."
Here, from Kinch and Las Vegas chef Rick Moonen, another seafood expert, is advice on buying fish, keeping it as fresh as possible, and cooking it. Thanks to their insights, you will forever interrogate your fishmonger like a pro, render skin crispy as a potato chip, poach crustaceans to perfection, and debone whole fish effortlessly. And finally, those tricky, delicate meats will become your go-to home-cooking staples. Time to get your sea legs.
Salt-Crusted Whole Fish
Cooking fish whole lets the skin capture moisture while the bones impart flavor. It's best done in a roasting pan set inside an oven – but Kinch recommends taking it one step further by sealing the whole fish inside a quick dough made from salt and egg whites, a classic Mediterranean approach. "The whites harden like cement under the heat," he says, "making the fish cook in its own little oven."
- 1 whole striped bass, 1.5 lbs–2 lbs, gutted but not scaled
- 1 sprig fresh thyme
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 2 sprigs fresh parsley
- 3 lbs coarse kosher salt
- 3 egg whites
Step One: Prepare the Fish
Using scissors, cut off all fins, but leave scales on. "One more layer of protection for the flesh," Kinch says. Bundle herbs and tuck inside fish cavity with a slice of lemon.
Step Two: Prepare the Crust
Put salt in a large bowl, add egg whites, and stir. "It should have the texture of wet sand," Kinch says. Place one-third of mixture into roasting pan, forming a bed about an inch wider than the fish will be when set flat. Set fish on top, mound one-third of the remaining mixture around the sides; use the final third to cover the fish. "Then tamp the salt down with your hands, like you're patting a sand-castle, to firm it up," Kinch says.
Step Three: Bake the Fish
Put fish in a 400 degree oven, and set a timer, figuring about 30 minutes for the first pound of fish and 7 minutes for each additional pound. Next, check doneness with a cake tester, as instructed on slide 3, inserting it into the thickest part of the fish, along the spine.
Step Four: Break the Crust
Hit crust all over with a hammer or the butt end of a knife. Remove in large pieces until fish is revealed. Pull off fish skin, using a fork to loosen it along the spine and peel toward the belly.
Step Five: Debone the Fish
Start by removing the fish's topside fillet. Use a knife to make a lengthwise incision down the centerline, from the gills to the tail, cutting that upper fillet in half. Use a spatula to lift each half away from the bones and over to a clean plate. Next, take hold of the tail and lift upward to remove the backbone, ribs, and head in one piece. The second fillet should now be exposed below. Again, use a spatula to transfer it to the clean plate, leaving the skin behind.
Step Six: Plate and Serve
Credit: Getty Images
Spoon a sauce over the fish. Kinch recommends a simple tomato-basil salad – heavy on extra-virgin olive oil, with a splash of red wine vinegar – but anything from salsa to guacamole to coleslaw will work.