Crispy, Lemony Whole Fish

Crispy, Lemony Whole Fish

Dinner… but make it fast… and make it gourmet.

There is nothing better or more impressive than a crispy, lemony whole fished cooked to perfection. It can seem scary but it’s SO easy. You’ll be wondering why you hadn’t attempted whole fish before.

I grew up in a house where Fridays were a fish staple. It’s kind of stuck with me for no apparent reason other than its actually delicious and it helps me get all those rich Omega-3s and Fatty Acids which are so good for you! So, in keeping with tradition, why not make turn ordinary Fridays into Fish-Fry-Days? Ok, cheesy pun aside, you’ll reach for this whole fish method time and time again. It produces the most perfect result… never dry, always juicy, crispy on the outside, perfectly cooked fish. And… if you needed just one more reason, fresh fish makes for a light yet satisfying meal that is perfect for hot summer weather so again, make it a thing.

As for the method, it’s practically fool-proof. Trust your instincts and you’ll be set. A while ago, I posted an Iraqi Style Whole Red Snapper and this method is exactly the same! I want to show you how versatile it can be. You can make it as involved or simple as you’d like. For this recipe, I decided to stick to a classic crispy skinned fish served with all the fish market classics. I went to one of my favorite fish markets, Chula Seafood, in Uptown Phoenix. They are one of the only places where you can get fresh fish in the desert! (It’s true). I also wasn’t in the mood to get super fancy so while I was picking up the fish, I just grabbed a container of their macaroni salad. Once I was done prepping the fish, I baked some Alexia crinkle cut fries and made a citrusy coleslaw. Serve with some malt vinegar and lemon wedges and you’ll feel like you’re on the East Coast sitting on the dock of a bay.

After deciding you are ready to try cooking a whole fish, the first thing you’ll probably ask yourself is “How do I pick out the right fish?”

Follow these basic guidelines and you’ll never go wrong:

  • At first look, you’ll want to check the case for fish with bright, clear eyes that are shiny and not sunken. There should be no cloudiness or milky color to them.

  • Check the scales - the scales should be metallic and the skin should be bright.

  • Fresh fish does not have a “fishy” smell. Check the smell and make sure it has a fresh, briny ocean like smell that doesn’t smell rotten.

  • Touch the fish - it should bounce back after you touch it and have a firmness or plump feel

  • If you are buying your fish fresh, which I highly recommend, your fishmonger will descale, gut and clean your fish for you. All you have to do is trim and score the fish properly

So how easy is it to prep and cook a whole fish? I’ll break it down in three easy steps:

1. Prep the fish

After you’ve brought home a clean, gutted fish it’s time to trim and score it. Trim starting at the end of the fish working towards the head. With a heavy duty kitchen shear or filet knife, trim the fins and dorsal fin. (You can leave the dorsal fin in tact if you like the look of it.) Rinse the fish in very cold water to remove any loose scales or residue and thoroughly pat dry with clean paper towels. Score the fish with a paring knife on both sides of the fish, being careful not to score all the way to the bone. Season it accordingly.


2. Pan sear and baste your fish

Tilt pan towards you and baste fish all over

Tilt pan towards you and baste fish all over

By pan searing your fish first, you ensure you get a perfectly golden crust on top of the fish creating an irresistible texture and taste. Basting it in lemon infused butter creates a moist on the inside, crisper on the outside taste and helps caramelize the top. Definitely something you shouldn’t skip!

The trick to proper basting is to make sure your heat isn’t too high but that it’s hot enough to caramelize the top of your fish. Also, to make sure there is enough butter in the pan to create a liquid you can generously baste with. Make sure to safely tilt the pan towards you and with a big enough spoon, carefully splash the basting butter all over the top of the fish in a fluid motion.


3. Finish it off in the oven


Finishing of the rest of the cooking time in the oven evenly cooks the fish all over and traps the moisture of the fish inside ensuring you have a perfectly cooked fish without the unhealthy method of deep frying.

That’s it! Super easy and kind of fun, I have to admit. Ready to try it for yourself?

If you are curious to see the method before getting started, scroll to the bottom for a video of this recipe!


Recipe for Crispy, Lemony Whole Fish

Prep Time: 10 Min          Cook Time: 20-25 min

Serves 4

 Print this Recipe


1 Red Snapper – gutted and scaled (about 2 ½ to 3 lbs)

1 Lemon

2 Tbs Canola Oil (Expeller pressed, organic preferred)

3 Tbs unsalted butter

Kosher Salt, Black Pepper, Garlic Powder

Pinch of Cayenne Pepper (about 1/8 tsp)

2 Tbs All Purpose Flour



Step 1   Pre heat Oven to 425 degrees (218C)

Step 2   Cut the lemon in half.  Slice thin about 6 rings for one half and cut wedges for second half, set aside.  Rinse and thoroughly dry the fish inside the cavity and outside with clean paper towels. Trim any fins leaving the dorsal fin in tact if you’d like.

Step 3   With a sharp pairing or filet knife cut diagonal incisions on each side of the fish.  Be careful not to cut down to the bone, you just want to make about 3 deep scores on each side of the fish. Season fish all over with salt pepper and garlic powder to taste. Make sure to season inside the cavity as well.  Add 2-3 lemon rings inside the cavity of the fish. In a small bowl combine flour and a heavy pinch of salt, pepper, garlic powder and cayenne mix thoroughly. Lightly and evenly dust fish on both sides with the flour mixture tapping the fish to remove excess flour.

Step 4   Using a heavy-bottomed oven safe skillet or cast-iron pan, heat the oil on Medium-High.  Add 1 tbs of butter to the oil and once it’s foamy add the fish to the pan carefully. (Holding the fish by the tail and lowering it into the pan away from you is the safest method to avoid oil from splattering onto you) Immediately begin pressing the fish down into the skillet with a spatula to sear the skin.  Repeat this process for 2-3 minutes.  Carefully lift the fish and flip. 

Step 5   Add the remaining butter and lemon rings. Once the butter is foamy, gently tilt the pan towards you and begin basting the fish all over with a large spoon, about 1-2 minutes.

Step 6   Move the entire pan into the oven and finish cooking the fish another 15-20 minutes, depending on how large the fish is.  If it’s on the smaller side, 15 minutes should be just right.  

Remove from oven, transfer to a paper lined platter and serve with the lemon wedges. 

For a classic fish fry, serve with fries, coleslaw and macaroni salad! For a super healthy meal serve with your favorite grilled veggies and brown rice or a hearty kale salad. Enjoy.

Emoji Tacos

Emoji Tacos

Tropical Fruit Salad with Coconut Whip Cream

Tropical Fruit Salad with Coconut Whip Cream