Baking surrounds food with even, dry heat and is an excellent method for cooking whole fish. Smaller, delicate pieces of fish do not respond as well to baking and require a coating of breadcrumbs, or a splash of broth or olive oil to keep them moist. Most varieties of shellfish tend to dry out as they cook in the oven unless a combination of cooking techniques-steaming while baking, or pan searing then baking-is used (see below for more details).
To roast a whole fish, preheat the oven to about 450 degrees. Make a few vertical slashes on each side of a cleaned fish. (This will help ensure even cooking and flavors). If desired, you may soak the fish in a quick marinade; tuck a few herbs, spices, or other flavorings inside; or simply spray it with a little oil and season with salt and pepper. Place the fish on a rimmed cookie sheet or shallow pan to catch any juices that escape. As the fish roasts, baste it with the juices that accumulate in the bottom of the pan until the flesh at its thickest point just begins to flake and turns from translucent to opaque. Estimate that it will take about eight to ten minutes per inch of thickness for the fish to cook through. Rotate the pan about half way through cooking time to cook evenly.
Baking Used With Other Cooking Techniques
Baking is sometimes combined with other cooking techniques to more evenly and quickly cook food, or to keep baked foods from drying out. The two best examples of this are steaming while baking, or pan searing then baking.
To steam while baking, simply splash your favorite combination of flavorings and a liquid (broth, juices, wine, or water) over seafood in a shallow baking pan. The amount of liquid will vary depending on the amount of seafood you are cooking, but figure that it should cover about a quarter of the seafood. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake in a 425 degree oven till the seafood has cooked through. Or, prepare foil "packets" by placing seafood on one half of a large piece of foil, adding desired seasonings and a splash of liquid or oil to just moisten the surface of the seafood. Fold the other side of the foil over the seafood as you would when folding a piece of paper in half. Seal the three sides by folding and crimping the edges to make a "packet." Estimate the cooking time for the packets by using the same eight to ten minutes per inch guideline as explained above; however, add up to two minutes to the final cooking time to account for the heat having to makes its way through the foil.
Pan searing then baking allows the surface of the seafood to brown and crisp, while making sure the middle of the seafood cooks through evenly. Begin by heating an oven-proof skillet on the stovetop over medium-high heat until warm. Add about a teaspoon of oil, swirl the pan to evenly coat it; and heat until almost smoking. Add the seafood, keeping multiple pieces separated. Do not touch or move the seafood until it is browned on one side. You may have to adjust the heat to so that the seafood browns evenly but does not burn. Carefully flip the seafood, and then place in a 425- 450 degree oven to finish cooking. Cook until the second side is brown, and the thickest part of the seafood is just starting to flake and is almost fully opaque. Rest two minutes and serve.