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Tom Kitchin: ‘Salt-baking is almost like being a child again’

Cooking with a salt crust. Picture: TSPL

Cooking with a salt crust. Picture: TSPL

  • by TOM KITCHIN
 

SALT-CRUSTING is a technique that has been used for centuries and in many culinary styles across the world. The beauty of baking in a salt crust is that you can cook your dish gently and evenly.

The salt seals all of the natural taste of the ingredients in and you end up with a perfectly cooked dish that is bursting with flavour and fragrance, which escapes the minute you crack into the crust, revealing the hidden treasure buried beneath the crisp shell.

Although it might seem challenging, it can actually be quite straightforward and it’s a great make-ahead recipe if you’re cooking for friends or family. You can prepare most salt-baked dishes a few hours in advance and keep aside until you’re ready to bake them. If you’re cooking with fish, though, avoid leaving it in the fridge overnight as the salt will penetrate the flesh and alter the flavour.

The method of cooking or baking is most commonly used in fish dishes, but you can also apply the technique to vegetables and meats. Not only does the method help you achieve wonderful flavours, it’s actually fun to try if you haven’t before. It’s almost like being a child again, burying your favourite things in sand.

The first step when baking in salt is to cover the ingredients – whether that’s fish, meat or vegetables – in a thick layer of leaves, salt and egg whites. You need to create what might feel like wet sand with the salt and egg whites. Make sure you’re generous enough with the salt when you’re trying this recipe or it won’t work as effectively. I would recommend you cover your ingredients with about half an inch of salt and make sure you pack it around the food to encase it completely. Different recipes call for different types of salt but most use a combination of fine and coarse or rock salt. You can also add your choice of herbs and spices, which will give off a powerful fragrance and add depth of flavour to your dish. Another trick is to ensure any cavities are closed to avoid the salt entering the flesh and making it too salty.

You can then bake your dish in the oven and watch the outer casing turn a delicious golden colour. It really is that simple. The salt seals in all the juices so well. I really do love the flavour you get from this method.

Fish works incredibly well when salt-crusted as it retains all of its moisture, avoiding crumbling, so you get a deliciously juicy, tender piece of fish. It can be one of the simplest methods of preparing fish. I recommend you call ahead or visit your fishmonger in plenty of time. Ask them to clean and gut the fish and remove the gills, scales and backbone, but make sure they leave the head and tail intact.

The secret with salt-baking fish is to score the salt crust lightly around the base with a small, sharp knife before you put it into the oven. This way, it’s much easier when it comes to removing the crust and peeling away the skin to reveal the delicious moist flesh. When the fish comes out of the oven, you should rest it before running a knife along the score as the salt cocoon breaks. There’s nothing quite as impressive as serving up a whole fish to your guests. What could be a better or more delicious, celebratory feast.

Not only is salt-baking great for fish, it’s also a delicious and healthy way to cook meat and vegetables. The great thing about cooking fresh, seasonal vegetables in this way is that you can seal in all the nutrients.

Sometimes the simplest ingredients and cooking methods are the best, despite so many modern innovations. I still recommend salt-baking or roasting to anyone who wants to maximise the juiciness, flavour and nutritional value of their favourite seasonal ingredients. And to anyone who wants to try something new and at the same time have a little fun in the kitchen at home.

Sea Bass Baked in a Salt Crust

Serves two

1 sea bass (about 700g), gutted, scaled and gills removed

1 rosemary sprig

1 thyme sprig

3 bay leaves

For the salt crust

1kg coarse rock salt

1kg fine salt

1 tbsp thyme leaves

2 egg whites, lightly beaten

100ml water

Method

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C. Trim the sea bass if necessary, then open the belly of the fish and place the rosemary and thyme sprigs inside. Using your fingers, tuck up the cavity to stop the salt from getting inside and making the flesh salty, then set aside.

For the salt crust, put the coarse and fine salt in a large bowl and mix together. Add the thyme leaves, the egg whites and the water and mix until evenly combined.

Spread about a third of the salt mixture out on a baking tray to form an even layer for the fish to lie on, then place 
the sea bass on top.

Cover the fish with the remaining salt and pack it 
all around the fish, encasing 
it completely.

Carefully score around the bottom of the salt crust – do this lightly so that you don’t pierce the skin of the fish – then place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes.

Remove the fish from the oven and allow it to rest for five minutes before serving. For maximum drama, you can take the fish to the table and carefully open the salt crust with a spatula. This will release a wonderful aroma.

Portion up the fish and serve with your chosen accompaniments. I like to serve mine with something simple yet delicious, like new potatoes, pasta or rice, or even a nice leafy salad that everyone can help themselves to.

Salt-Crusted Celeriac

Serves two

1 whole celeriac (base cut off but the green left on top)

knob of butter

cracked black pepper

For the salt crust

700g coarse salt

2 medium egg whites

100ml water

Pre-heat the oven to 170°C. To make the salt crust, place the coarse rock salt into a large bowl, then add the egg whites and water and mix together until evenly combined. Then layer about a third of the salt mixture on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper.

Place the celeriac on top of the base and cover it with the remaining salt – creating a ball-like shape, and packing it all around the celeriac to completely encase it.

Take a small knife and cut around the base of the salt before baking in the oven for 1½ to two hours

When the celeriac is soft, remove it from the oven, crack the salt crust and remove the celeriac. Cut the celeriac in half, scoop out the flesh and mash with a fork. Add a knob of butter while the celeriac is still warm and mix through. Add cracked black pepper to taste and then serve.

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