100 Techniques

Technique #80: Cook Whole Fish for Rich Flavor and Moist Texture

There are many benefits to whole fish—learning how to cook it perfectly lets them shine.

Published Aug. 13, 2023.

This is Technique #80 from our 100 Techniques Every Home Cook Can Master

Each technique is broken into three sections: why it works, key steps, and recipes that use it. Learn these recipe building blocks and you'll be set up for a lifetime of cooking success.

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Order whole roasted or grilled fish at a restaurant and it will arrive with its skin crisp and browned and its meat mind-bogglingly moist and juicy.

Cooked on the bone—with the head attached—the fish possesses a deeper, more intense flavor than fillets or steaks.

But it’s easy to end up with abysmal results at home. The skin sticks fast to the pan or grill. The meat overcooks in spots and remains raw in others, and instead of tidy fillets, the fish crumbles into embarrassingly messy piles.

Two grilled whole fish.
Grilled whole fish. Is anything better?

Consider Variety and Size

To successfully cook whole fish, first consider variety and size. Choose a semifirm fish like red snapper, trout, or striped bass. Though a large fish sounds impressive, it’s harder to maneuver and takes so long to cook through that the skin is likely to burn before the fish is cooked, no matter how low the heat. We suggest avoiding whole fish over 2 pounds.

The Cooking Method Matters

Think of a whole fish for what it is: no more than two fillets clinging to a central skeleton. There are, of course, many ways to cook individual fillets, but two methods we like that also work perfectly with whole fish are roasting them quickly in a very hot oven and grilling them over a medium-hot, single-level fire. On larger fish, the skin can shrink, leading to uneven cooking, so we make slashes along the sides to allow for faster, even cooking (and it’s also easier to gauge doneness).

For smaller, quicker-cooking fish like trout or sardines, slashing isn’t necessary. When roasting, you don’t need to flip the fish. When grilling, you need two spatulas and a little maneuvering. Slide a spatula about an inch under the back-bone edge and lift up. Slide the second spatula under the fish, then remove the first spatula, allowing the fish to ease onto the second spatula. Place the first spatula on top of the fish so it’s oriented in same direction as the second spatula and gently flip the fish.

A cooked whole fish needs just a few strategic cuts in order to cleanly, easily separate the fillets from the skeleton. A fish spatula, which is large and flat, is our must-have tool for lifting the meat neatly from the bones (and for flipping the fish on the grill).


The Outdoor Cook

Go way beyond burgers and basic proteins to become your best outdoor cooking self. Whether you use a gas or charcoal grill, flat-top griddle, open-fire setup, smoker, or pizza oven, you can revel in the outdoor cooking lifestyle. By learning to harness fire and smoke the ATK way, you’ll even be able to convert many of these recipes between different cooking methods.

Step by Step: How To Cook Whole Fish for Rich Flavor and Moist Texture

Crispy skin and tender, flaky texture are very possible to achieve at home so long as you follow one of two methods; each depending on whether you want to roast or grill your fish. Either roasting in a very hot oven or grill over a medium-hot, single-level fire will help to elevate your whole fish. Here are the key steps to this technique.

Step 1: Rinse and Season 

Rinse fish inside and out and pat dry with paper towels. For larger fish, make shallow slashes in skin about 2 inches apart to promote even cooking. Open cavity of fish and season inside. Close fish and season all over on outside.

Step 2: Roast or Grill 

Roast or grill as directed in recipe until desired temperature is reached.

Step 3: Make Vertical Cut 

To fillet, use sharp knife to make vertical cut just behind head from top of fish to belly.

Step 4: Make Horizontal Cut 

Make horizontal cut along back of fish from head to tail.

Step 5: Remove First Fillet 

Starting at head and working toward tail, use metal spatula to lift top fillet away from bones.

Step 6: Discard Skeleton 

Lift and remove tail and skeleton and cut away head from remaining fillet. Discard head and skeleton.

Follow along with our test cooks to learn how to cook a whole fish.

Recipes That Use This Technique

Now that you know how to serve the very best whole fish—no matter your cooking method—you can try out your newfound knowledge on our recipes below.


Whole Roast Snapper with Citrus Vinaigrette

It would seem that nothing could possibly be easier than roasting fish fillets, but roasting a fish whole is absolutely foolproof: The skin and bones allow for deeply flavorful, perfectly moist fish with minimal effort.
Get the Recipe

Grilled Whole Trout with Orange and Fennel

Grilling whole trout is quick and easy; plus, its crisp, smoky skin is a perfect complement to its mild-tasting meat. The only problem? Getting it off the grill in one piece.
Get the Recipe

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