Salt baked fish is a common sight in local Thai markets and for sale by Thai street food vendors. Salt crusted fish laid on BBQ’s or spiked on a skewer and then placed over large troughs of hot charcoals, are a part of the local Thai scene.
If you prefer fried fish you might like to check out our Deep Fried Sea Bass with Mango Salad recipe too!
Video showing How to Cook Salt Baked Fish
The Origins of Salt Baked Fish
Records show that the Egyptians and Chinese used to use coarse salt to preserve fish thousands of years ago.
Trading ships en-route to southern Europe needed provisions that would last and so the salt crust fish would be cooked on those long journeys.
Salt baked fish tastes amazing so there is no doubt that the fish cooked this way found its way into the cuisines of the places they visited – Greece, Portugal, and Southern Italy where we find the first records of recipes for the method.
Likewise, the method followed traders overland into South East Asia and is now seen everywhere.
Why Do You Cook Fish in Salt?
Salt is an essential seasoning to any savory dish and whole baked fish is no exception.
With the fish encased in salt, the flesh is protected by the skin and scales which is in turn protected by the layer of salt to reduce the risk of burning.
Not only that but salt is a great insulator and so traps the heat inside the fish, also holding in moisture.
As the salt absorbs the steam produced from within the fish as it cooks it also transfers back a little seasoning into the fish flesh.
Amazingly, just the right amount of salt seasons the flesh which is also kept nicely moist as steam is trapped by the salt and fish scales, the latter kept in place by the salt which hardens into a crust.
The result is perfectly baked or BBQ’d fish which is moist, nicely seasoned, and succulently ready to eat.
Which type of Salt to Use?
Baking fish in salt does not require top quality salt. You’ll be using quite a lot of salt relative to your normal cooking requirements so an inexpensive, coarse flaked salt is the ideal.
Table salt is a poor choice because its fine texture does not make it bind into the salt crust you want.
Baked fish in salt requires the salt crust to trap the scales in position and restrict the escape of moisture. You don’t need to completely encase the fish but do need a decent covering.
What herbs to stuff whole fish with?
Around the globe, fish is stuffed with herbs in the belly of the fish after the entrails have been removed.
Entrails are removed by slitting the belly or by cutting under the head of the fish and scooping them out with the fishmonger’s fingers.
Either way, the belly is washed clean with water and then stuffed with herbs.
You’ll see a wide range of herbs used in different recipes such as lemon, mint, dill, parsley, and so on.
In Thailand, the most common herbs used are galangal, lemongrass, and Kaffir lime leaves because they are very good at leaving a nice aroma as well as gently infusing the fish from within.
What Fish to Use?
We like whole white fish such as sea bass but we have also had success with whole salmon. Mackerel and other thin-skinned fish would probably not work quite so well but we haven’t actually tried. If you do, then do let us know your result in the comments.
The fish needs to be gutted but ask your fishmonger not to remove the scales as these form part of the needed insulation to protect the delicate, succulent flesh.
How to Choose the Freshest Whole Fish
Choosing the freshest fish is easy once you know what to look for.
In Thailand, the local markets have live fish so we know that it is fresh. If the fish is no longer alive then follow these tips:
- Check the eyes. The eyes of a fresh fish will be quite clear and glassy. The longer it is displayed or stored the cloudier the eyes will look – sort of a milky glazed look. Frozen fish that is defrosted for sale will also have cloudy eyes.
- Check the smell. Fish smells more and more fishy the longer it hangs about. Fresh fish will smell clean and salty like the sea. Hence the idiom ‘that’s a bit fishy’ meaning ‘not quite right’ or suspicious.
- Check the skin. The skin and scales should look shiny and sort of metallic.
- Touch the skin. Ensure it does not feel too slimy. Stale fish that is kept poorly will develop a slippery layer.
- Check for flexibility. Pick the fish up and give it a wiggle. It should not feel stiff like a board.
- Open the gills. Pull the gill open a little and check the lamellae (the fibrous gill parts) look a nice deep red.
How Long to Cook Salt Crusted Fish?
As always pre-heat the oven, in this case to 170°C (340°F).
The size of your fish will greatly affect the cooking time as will the temperature of your oven and its efficiency. If you want to get technical then use a probe-type oven thermometer poked into the thick part of the fish and cook until the temperate reaches 145°F (63°C).
This method is very forgiving though and the fish will not dry out or get over-cooked very easily so you have plenty of scope to cook a little longer. A 1lb (500g) fish will need 15-20 minutes a side and a 2lb fish will need 25 minutes per side to cook.
You can cook at a higher temperature and reduce the time but these are the settings we use as the longer time allows the herbs to infuse a little bit more.
Step By Step Guide to Salt Baked Fish
Step 1 – Prepare the Oven or BBQ
If using an oven then we like to bake the fish on the open oven racks so the air can get all around it. The downside of this is that the salt will drop off along with a little fish juice while cooking.
Ensure you line the pan at the bottom of the oven with foil or a baking sheet to help cleaning up afterward. Set the rack in the middle shelf.
If you prefer you can cook the fish on a baking pan instead. in which case line it with foil to help cleaning after.
Pre-heat your oven or set your BBQ coals alight to get hot whilst getting your fish ready.
You will not be wrapping the fish in foil so expect some mess during the cooking process from loose salt and fish juices and prepare accordingly.
Step 2 – Preparing the Fish
Follow the tips above to choose the freshest fish you can. Ask your fishmonger to remove the insides either by opening under the head to fish them out or, more easily, by slitting the belly. DO NOT remove the scales.
Wash the fish thoroughly inside and out and then pat dry. You want the fish nice and clean with all the insides thoroughly cleaned away as otherwise, they will adversely flavor the cooked flesh.
Step 3 – Stuffing with Herbs
Roughly chop the lemongrass stalks and better still give the stalks a quick bash before you chop them to bruise the leaves and expose the oils which will help the release of the flavor.
Slice galangal into several matchstick thin rounds and if you please you can tear the kaffir lime leaves.
You can also add other herbs, slices of lemon or lime, dill for salmon, basil, or other herbs of your choice. Understand the herbs will not be adding a lot of flavors but rather take away or hide the flavor from the stomach cavity skin leaving a nice clean taste.
The other bonus of the herbs is to reduce the smell left over in your oven after cooking.
Step 4 – Salting
Tip the coarse flaked sea salt into a bowl and add in the flour stirring around to create the salt mixture. Drop-in a little water to create a damp salt mixture where the flour will help it stick to the fish scales.
Some recipes call for egg whites to help the salt adhere to the fish skin but the egg whites in the salt mixture make the finished dish often look quite brown which spoils the presentation – and eggs cost money!
You can also brush the skin thinly with olive oil to help the salt stick. We don’t bother!
Lightly wet the fish skin (or brush with oil) and then pat on the salt mix to form a layer over the whole skin. One or two thin coverings here and there is not important.
Turn the fish over and repeat on the other side scooping up any remaining salt that may have dropped to the side.
The salt should mostly encase the fish.
Step 5 – Cook & Serve
Take your fish and pop it on the oven rack, BBQ or baking sheet and cook it at 170°C (340°F) for 15-25 minutes a side depending on the size of the fish.
Once cooked, serve whole on the table. Break the salt crust by cracking it with a knife and easing the salt with skin attached off the succulent fish flesh.
You can use kitchen scissors to help cut and dispose of the skin as you devour the fish. Pull away any small bones on either side of the fish too.
Once you’ve eaten one side you can either pull away the main skeletal bone to expose the other half or you can turn the fish over and repeat the process but any sailors amongst your diners will frown.
Serve with freshly steamed jasmine rice or more traditionally rice noodles spiced up with delicious green seafood dipping sauce or the spicier red version or both if you prefer. So delicious!
Thai Salt Baked Fish Recipe
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Salt Baked Fish – Pla Pao Glua
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- Oven or BBQ
- 1 lb Whole Fish Sea bass, salmon or other scaled white fish
- 3 cups Coarse Grained Salt
- ¼ cup All Purpose Flour
- 1 oz Sliced Galangal
- 1 stalks Sliced Lemongrass
- 4 Kaffir Lime Leaf
- Prepare your oven by lining the bottom tray with foil to help trap loose salt or juices that are produced during cooking.Pre-heat to 170°C (340°F).
- Have your fishmonger remove the fish guts and prepare the fish for stuiffing with herbs but do not remove the scales.Wash the fish through inside and out and pat dry.
- Crush and roughly chop the lemongrass or simply crush and fold and stick it in the fish belly cavity.Slice the galangal and tear the kaaffir lime leaves and stuff insde the fish too. You can add lime slices or other herbs as you please.
- Mix the coarse sea salt and flour and make damp with a little water.Brush the fish skin with olive oil or wet the skin with a little water and then press the salt mixture onto the skin flesh to form a sort of casing.Turn the fish over and repeat on the other side.
- Place the salt cased fish on the open rack inside the oven or alternatively on a baking tray.Cook for 15 to 20 minutes per side depending on the size of the fish. For techies the internal temperature should be 145°F (63°C)
- Serve with freshly steamed jasmine rice and Thai spicy seafood dipping sauce
Planning on Making this Recipe?
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I am a Thai mum and love cooking for my children. Over the years, I have taken my family recipes as well as ones borrowed from friends and adapted them to make them even tastier. I publish my authentic Thai Food Recipes here for all to enjoy around the world. When I get a chance to travel I publish information to help others visiting Thailand.