With its sweet, mild flavour and delicate texture, it can be hard to know the best way to cook sea bass without ruining it. Don’t feel daunted - we’ll show you a step-by-step way to cook sea bass perfectly.
Where is the best place to buy sea bass?
Unless you're by the sea, the freshest catch comes from fishmarkets, fishmongers or fresh fish counters in supermarkets. Fish that’s recently been caught has a firmer texture and is easier to cook because it is less likely to break apart. Prepackaged stuff in the chiller cabinets will have been landed some days prior, but is still perfectly fine.
How do I know a sea bass is fresh?
Fish goes off faster than most other proteins. Whole fish are the freshest option – they haven’t been processed in any way, so are likely to have come off the boat and straight into the market. If you are buying a whole fish, look for ones which have bright shiny eyes, skin that is smooth, plump and intact, and if you can get close enough, smells freshly of the sea.
As a fish goes off, the eyes will dull, the skin and flesh will soften and mark easily. Fillets are harder to tell if they’re fresh, but if you can see the flesh-side, check that there aren’t any gaps forming in the diagonal lines that demarcate it – it’s a sign it's deteriorating. Whole or fillet, if the fish is beginning to whiff, it’s a tell-tale indication it’s getting old.
Should I buy a whole fish or fillets?
It’s usually cheaper to buy a whole unprepped fish than the prepared fillets, but do so only if you’re confident to DIY, or want to hone your fish prep skills (learn how to clean and fillet a fish). If you want to cook the fish whole but aren't keen on getting messy, you can always ask the fishmonger to do some of the prep for you, and they will be happy to oblige.
If you’re buying fillets, check they’re pin-boned before cooking. Run a finger down the middle of the fleshy side to feel for the short slightly spiky bones that stand up through the flesh. If they’re there, grab some tweezers and pull them out.
Choose a cooking method
There are lots of options for cooking fish like sea bass - some require a bit more practice and prep to get right and others are practically impossible to mess-up.
Whatever method you choose, always pat your fish dry and season lightly just before cooking. If you’re cooking a whole fish, lightly score the skin to help it cook evenly.
How to cook sea bass en papillote
Steaming in an enclosed parcel is far and away one of the easiest and most foolproof methods to cook any fish, and is ideal if you've never cooked fish before.
The parcel seals in all the steam, so even if you overcook it by accident, it will remain juicy. You can also add lots of flavourings to the packet, so the fish absorbs all the fragrances of the aromatics you choose, with minimum effort.
Take a large piece of parchment or foil, fold in half widthways and then open it back out so it looks like a book. Put the fish on one side of the fold, skin-side down.
Season the fillet, and top with a few pieces of butter. If you want to cook the fish plain, to add to another dish, you can stop here and seal the parcel, or add some soft herbs, a little lemon juice and a dash of white wine, Pernod or vermouth, if you like.
Fold the paper/foil over to meet the other side and then fold the edges over all the way around the edges, making sure to press down well to seal completely.
How to steam sea bass
Like cooking in a parcel, steaming in a pan is straightforward and the fish won't dry out.
Line a steaming basket with parchment paper. If using a whole fish, put any aromatics inside the cavity, or lay fillets skin side down, then cover and steam for 9-10min for a whole fish and 5-7min for fillets. Remove on to a serving platter, then add sauces and herbs to the top, so you don't lose any of them in the cooking water/they don't wilt in the steam.
How to roast sea bass
If you crave a crispy skin, but aren't confident with fish cookery, roasting fish is a great solution as it's still fairly hands-off.
The heat from the oven is a little more gentle than a grill, and you can cook it alongside other things - traybake style - to make a complete meal. We recommend roasting veggies tossed in oil and your favourite flavourings until they're nearly cooked. Brush the fish with a flavoured oil or zesty marinade before cooking, then add the fish fillets on top of the tray and cook for a further 8min or so, or 15min if you're using a whole fish.
How to grill or barbecue sea bass
Grilling works especially well for cooking whole fish fast, and the high heat gives a charming char to the skin. You can stuff the cavity with lemon slices and herbs for extra flavour. Fire up your BBQ or set your grill to medium-high.
Cook whole fish for approximately 6min per side. If using fillets, cook with the skin-side facing the heat source (i.e. down for a bbq and up for a grill) for 4min - no need to flip as the flesh will cook underneath. You can baste the flesh with a herby butter straight after cooking, for extra flavour, or try coating the skin in a fresh-flavoured crust like this zingy pea shoot and pine-nut sea bass.
How to pan-fry sea bass
Pan-frying is the hardest of all the fish cookery techniques, because it requires the most hands-on attention. The reward for your effort will be a crisp skin and fantastically tender fish that’s likely to rival your local restaurant.
The mistakes people tend to make: cooking the fish on too low a heat for too long a time, and moving the fish around the pan/turning it over more than once – this will inevitably lead to breakages. Make sure that you’ve got all your veg, sides and sauces completely ready before you start, as its very quick to cook.
You can use either whole fish or fillets. Dust the outside with seasoned plain flour. Heat a drizzle of olive oil in a frying pan over a medium-high heat, then fry the fish for 4-5min per side if cooking a whole fish. If cooking fillets, fry skin-side down for 3-4min, then flip over, add a knob of butter to the pan and fry for a further min, basing with the melted butter a couple of times. Slide the fish out on to a warmed plate and serve immediately.
How do I know when sea bass is cooked?
The trick to knowing when fish is cooked is simple. All you need to do is gently press it with a cutlery knife.
The fish is cooked when it begins to flake easily, has lost its jelly-like texture and has turned opaque. If there is only a hint of translucency, the fish is nearly cooked, so will only be a minute or so away from being done - don't be tempted to sizzle for too much longer as it will continue to cook when you remove it from the heat.
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