A little-known fact is that coastal southwest Louisiana right along the southern portion of Acadiana is built on a series of natural salt domes. Avery Island (home of Tabasco), Jefferson Island and Weeks Island are all built atop geological caverns that house salt formations. Over the past century, these salt domes have been mined commercially and coexisted peacefully right alongside our Louisiana oil and gas drilling industry. That is, until one morning in 1980.
On a beautiful sunny day that year, those two industries collided when a 150-foot tall oil drilling derrick drilled into a salt dome and disappeared into the 10-foot water of Lake Peigneur along the shore of Jefferson Island. Meanwhile, 1300 feet below, dozens of Diamond Crystal Salt workers fled for their lives as the lake’s two and a half billion gallons of water began emptying into the cavern. As the lake drained, it created a giant whirlpool that carried eleven barges, a tugboat, and over 60 acres of land and trees down with it. To see it as it happened, take a look at the short History Channel video below.
So, Louisiana has a colorful history that is just as salty as our Gulf seafood. And no Louisiana cook worth his salt would let that go by without creating a dish to remember it. I’ve got just the recipe: Salt-Encrusted Red Snapper.
Make no bones about it, I love a grilled fillet of fresh Gulf snapper as much as anyone. It’s easy and convenient, but over the years, I’ve learned that cooking the whole fish preserves the flavor in a way that fillets cannot. European cooks know this and Asian master chefs have made an art form of it. So, why have American cooks all but abandoned this technique?
When I saw the 4-pound, fresh-from-the-Gulf, whole head-on red snapper iced down in the seafood case at Tony’s Seafood in Baton Rouge, I had a light bulb moment. Stuff it, season it and roast it whole. Oh, and I forgot one little thing–cover it all in salt.
Ok, I know what you’re thinking; this guy has lost his culinary mind. Nope. Actually, my Salt-Encrusted Red Snapper is a brilliant way to preserve moisture, amp up the flavor and add some dramatic flair to an otherwise simple Cajun recipe. You see, salt-encrusting whole fish is a very European technique that is quite common there in both homes and restaurants.
Here in America, not so common. But I will tell you, I once cooked a delicious prime rib using this technique and I was quick to see that salt-encrusting this beautiful snapper was the perfect way to present it to my guests. A big box of coarse salt, some egg whites, a little seasoning, fresh herbs, and citrus were all I needed. Oh, and beer. Yes, you should know by now that if I can find a way to pop open a bottle of beer and infuse that heady flavor of wheat and malt into a dish, I most certainly will. But, when you see my technique, you’ll understand that this Salt-Encrusted Red Snapper is begging for beer.
Prepping the fish with a sprinkle of seasonings and a stuffing of fresh rosemary, cilantro, lemons, and limes is pretty basic. Making the salt crust and building a dome is equally easy–and fun–if you have the right attitude. Think about the last time you built a sand castle on the beach; wet sand in your hands shaping and molding an architectural wonder. It’s just that simple. Take a bowl of salt and wet it with a combination of egg whites and beer (oh, and a shot of Tabasco, of course). Now you have the perfect dome–and home–for your Salt-Encrusted Red Snapper.
What happens during the cooking of this Salt-Encrusted Red Snapper is miraculous and quite surprising. The salt bakes solid and traps steam from the beer and infuses the fish with a blanket of moisture and flavor. And not a hint of salt. Yes, once you crack it open and peel back the chunks of salt, all that remains is perfectly steamed, and delicious fish.
Try this creative Cajun recipe for Salt-Encrusted Red Snapper and amaze your guests (and yourself) at how delicious whole fish on the bone can be.
- 1 (3-pound) box of kosher salt
- 1 (16-ounce) carton liquid egg whites, such as Crystal Farms All Whites
- 1 (12-ounce) bottle full-bodied beer, such as Abita Amber
- 2 tablespoons hot sauce
- Water, if needed
- 1 (4-pound) whole red snapper, cleaned and scaled with head and tail on
- 1 tablespoon Acadiana Table Cajun Seasoning Blend, see recipe here
- 2 bunches fresh cilantro
- 2 large sprigs fresh rosemary
- 1 fresh lemon, sliced thin
- 1 fresh lime, sliced thin
- Preheat your oven to 400ºF.
- To make the salt crust, empty the contents of one box of kosher salt into a large stainless steel mixing bowl. In another container, add the egg white liquid, beer, and Tabasco. Stir to combine the liquids and slowly pour into the bowl of salt. With your hands, move the salt around in the liquids until it all feels like wet sand. If it doesn’t all feel wet, add a little water. Keep at room temperature until ready to use.
- Move the whole snapper to a parchment-lined baking tray. Sprinkle the inside and outer skin lightly with Cajun seasoning. Stuff the cavity of the fish with fresh cilantro and rosemary. Layer the inner cavity with alternating lemon and lime slices.
- Pour a small mound of salt in the center of the parchment-lined baking tray. Spread it out to the size of your fish. Place the seasoned red snapper on top of the salt base. Pour the remaining salt over the middle of the fish and with your hands, mold the salt around the fish like a dome, leaving the head and tail exposed. It is critical to seal the entire fish (this traps steam) with no gaps at the bottom between the fish and the tray.
- Place the uncovered baking tray with the salt-encrusted snapper in the oven. If you have a probe thermometer, insert it through the salt and into the flesh of the fish. Bake for approximately 45 minutes. The salt will brown and harden, a sure sign that the fish is cooked inside. The internal temperature of the fish should reach 145ºF for perfect doneness. Remove the tray and let cool.
- For serving, bring the entire tray to the table. Crack open the salt dome with the back of a knife and carefully remove the chunks of salt exposing the fish inside. With a brush, gently dust off any flakes of salt and place a platter alongside the fish. Using a spatula, slice along the bone and gently remove the flaky white flesh of the snapper to the platter. Discard the entire bone and vertebrae from the cavity of the fish along with the herbs and citrus. With the spatula, gently lift up the bottom half of the cooked fish and place on the platter. Serve with a salad and simple vegetable.
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