For The Best Branzino, Cook It Whole And Keep It Simple

A highlight of restaurant dining is finding fresh branzino fish gracing the menu. It's far from a given, depending on where you live, but it's nonetheless considered a real indulgence. Given the reported professional cooking expertise required, branzino is best left to master chefs — or is it?  Stories of Tuscan branzino flown in overnight from Italy are enough to make amateur home chefs quiver with trepidation. But its reputation as an exclusive expert-only restaurant dish is mostly just a myth.

Fresh fish expert Joe Gurrera, owner of Citarella gourmet grocery stores in New York, shares his down-to-earth views on cooking fresh branzino fish. In an exclusive interview with Tasting Table, he advocates a "whole" fish method rather than choosing the more convenient fish fillets or streaks. While acknowledging that cooking an entire branzino fish with heads, bones, and tails, can be intimidating, Gurrera reveals a viable reason for doing so. "Cook the fish whole and keep the bones," he says. "They help to protect the fish and keep it moist and juicy."

Preparation and ingredients are equally important in cooking a fish as light and flaky as branzino. While some chefs and seafood masters go for spicy specialty dishes such as Thai-style branzino, there's a contingency of others supporting limited intervention, allowing the naturally sweet flavor of branzino to emerge. Gurrera stands firmly in that camp: "Keep your ingredients simple when it's time to prepare your branzino. Extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, and rosemary — that's all you need!"

More about branzino for home chefs

One thing to help reduce anxiety over cooking branzino is the realization that, unlike Joe Gurrera's gourmet Citarella stores in New York, not all branzino flies across an ocean within 24 hours of being caught. The fish, a mild-tasting European sea bass native to the Mediterranean, parts of Europe, and northern Africa, is now farmed or wild-caught in more regions, including America's New England coast. You'll likely find it in fresh seafood markets or large grocery stores. 

So, you can relax and enjoy learning to cook with this tasty, flaky aquatic creature. With a firm texture and a limited number of small bones, a whole branzino fish holds up well to grilling, baking, steaming, braising, or air frying. While a purist seafood chef may cook and serve it fully whole with no alteration from its native state, there's no shame in descaling, gutting, and removing the head and tail. That's especially true if your chosen cooking method includes stuffing the entire fish before grilling or baking it. Luscious options for stuffing branzino include lemon or lime slices to balance the sweetness and keep things juicy, along with fresh herbs such as thyme, rosemary, basil, sage, or bay leaves. 

Or you could stick with Joe Gurrera and keep things simple. After all, he's been the owner and original fishmonger of Citarella market since purchasing it in 1983. As the local saying goes, "Joe Knows Fish," which is also the name of his intimidation-lowering cookbook.