Broiled Spice-Rubbed Snapper

A gutsy spice paste turns mild fillets into a fast, fresh dinnertime staple.

Published Sept. 29, 2020.

Spice rubs and pastes are great for adding complexity to proteins such as chicken, pork, or beef, but they can also enhance fish. In fact, brushing a few fillets with a potent paste and sliding them under the broiler is one of the best strategies I know for quickly putting a light, fresh dinner on the table.

To choose the best type of fish for this application, I cast a wide net, finding that moderately fatty, slightly sweet snapper worked beautifully with vibrant seasonings; tilapia and sea bass were also excellent choices. I started by salting the fillets to season the flesh and help keep it moist. Next, I smeared the fish with a simple paste of pantry ingredients: raisiny-sweet ancho chile powder, citrusy ground coriander, dried oregano, black and cayenne peppers, minced fresh garlic, and a couple tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil. After arranging the fillets on a greased, foil-lined baking sheet, I slid the assembly under the broiler. In just 10 minutes, the fish was starting to flake and had reached 135 degrees; carryover cooking would bring it to 140 degrees, the test kitchen’s preferred temperature for white fish. What’s more, the fillets had developed a deeply caramelized surface with edges that were crispy and beginning to blacken.

The Benefits of Hydrating Spices

We often soak whole dried chiles in hot water before using them in recipes, and it turns out that this treatment is beneficial for ground chiles and spices, too. Both types of ingredients swell as they absorb water, loosening their internal structure. When heat is applied, the particles’ structure becomes more porous so that oil can easily get to the interiors and dissolve any fat-soluble compounds. In our spice paste, boiling water also softens the pectin of the ground chiles and granulated garlic, improving their textures.

It was a good start, but the garlic had burned a bit and the paste was somewhat flat-tasting and gritty. The next time around, I switched to granulated garlic and tried to eke out flavor and soften the spices via a quick sizzle in hot oil. The taste improved somewhat, but not enough. (Plus, the entire paste now threatened to scorch because it was being cooked twice: first on the stovetop and again under the broiler.)

The oil was drawing out fat-soluble flavors, but spices have water-soluble flavors, too, so I tried drizzling 2 tablespoons of boiling water onto a fresh batch of spices. Once the mixture had thickened—a signal that the ingredients were well hydrated—I stirred in the oil. After brushing the fillets with the water-oil-spice paste, I broiled them as before.

Sure enough, the flavors were fuller and more pronounced, and the consistency of the paste had smoothed out, too (for more information, see “The Benefits of Hydrating Spices”). Finished with tart lime juice to balance the robust spices, here was a superflavorful—and superfast—midweek dinner.

Broiled Spice-Rubbed Snapper

A gutsy spice paste turns mild fillets into a fast, fresh dinnertime staple.
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