A plated dish consisting of whole fish with eyes and fins on display certainly doesn’t appeal to everyone. Some people just don’t like their food staring back at them. However, cooking a fish in its entirety produces unparalleled textures, flavors and aromas that can only be attained with skin and bones intact. It’s also great respect to enjoy the fish to the very last bite with zero wasted meat.
If you’re at all intimidated, cooking whole fish is surprisingly easy and a simple recipe with few ingredients preserves the natural flavors. One of the major benefits to cooking a whole fish is that the skin protects the meat and locks in moisture. It is also much easier to overcook a trimmed fillet compared to a whole fish.
Perhaps the most important aspect to achieving perfection where your dinner guests can’t stop picking at the rack is preparation. You must carefully clean the fish by scaling, gutting, trimming the pec fins, cleaning the collar, removing the gills and washing thoroughly with fresh water.
From here you can pat dry with paper towels and score the fish with three or four angled cuts in each side, slicing all the way to the bone. Now it’s time to enhance the fish’s natural flavors with your favorite herbs and spices.
For this whole mangrove snapper I chose a simple mix of thyme, smoked paprika, garlic and coarse grain Himalayan sea salt. Rub the fish inside and out with olive oil and apply seasoning to the cleaned stomach cavity and skin. Stuff lemon slices and thyme stems inside the fish.
With hardwood charcoal grill preheated to 400 degrees you’re ready to get started. If it’s your first time, then you may want to use a grill basket, but I generally skip the basket in favor of steady hands over high heat. Brush grill grates with olive oil to prevent fish from sticking and cook for approximately five minutes per side.
When it's time to flip, I've found it best to use two carving forks in lieu of a spatula or grill tongs. By inserting the fork tips through the grates you can lift and roll the fish, instead of scraping a spatula underneath and inadvertently damaging the delicate meat. Now it’s a matter of cooking through until the skin is slightly charred and fish flakes with a fork. Remove from heat and drizzle with olive oil. Serve, enjoy and don’t forget, you can eat the skin!