Sea bass languished in the culinary depths until fairly recently when professionals rediscovered its sweet, textured flesh and gleaming, silvery skin. It’s since become a fashionable fish to serve in restaurants, regarded as a delicacy. Smart dinner parties have followed suit and now supermarkets sell it alongside the ubiquitous salmon and haddock.
Buy line-caught sea bass where possible. Ideally, sea bass should be cooked when it is fresh, seek out bass with clear eyes, intact fins and bright red gills, firm to the touch and free of an undesirable fishy smell. It is harder to tell how fresh sea bass fillets are - but try and identify pearly white flesh with no discolouration.
A whole small sea bass weighs about 400 - 500g. Larger sea bass, often wild sea bass which have had time to develop in both size and flavour, can be purchased from smaller suppliers and fishmongers.
Filleted or whole, sea bass suits a whole range of cooking methods and should present no difficulty to a proficient home cook. Whole sea bass have sharp fins and a thick layer of scales that need to be removed prior to cooking. The skin can be removed but chefs usually leave it on - it's a great source of nutrients and has takes on a lovely colour and texture once it meets a hot pan of oil.
Cooking sea bass whole…
Baking in salt is a superb way to cook a whole sea bass. The salt crust acts as a seal so the fish becomes succulent and tasty but not salty. Ensure that it has been gutted with gills removed - as this will impart a bitter flavour - but leave the scales on as they will help to lock in moisture.
Other ways of cooking a whole sea bass include barbecuing or roasting in the oven. With both methods, it is often recommended that the fish is tightly wrapped in foil first, this will ensure that the flesh does not dry out as it cooks. Flavour can be imparted by adding other ingredients to the foil, such as oil, butter, herbs, vegetables or citrus fruit. Alternatively, try slashing a cavity in the fish and stuffing with your chosen ingredients - Dominic Chapman recommends lemon and fennel in his sea bass recipe.
Cooking sea bass fillet…
You can either buy a fillet of sea bass individually or fillet a whole fish into two individual fillets yourself. When cooking a sea bass fillet, make sure that it has been pin-boned carefully beforehand.
Sea bass fillet is supple, but holds firm during cooking. Pan-frying is probably the most popular cooking method, chosen by chefs like Kevin Mangeolles or William Drabble. But sea bass fillets can also be gently cooked by steaming, poaching, cooking en-papillote or even serving raw as carpaccio. Alternatively, you could deep-fry sea bass fillets as Galton Blackiston recommends, but opt for a light, airy batter so as not to overwhelm its subtle flavour.
Stronger, punchier flavours often draw out the true brilliance of sea bass, so why not try the fish with bacon, as in Matthew Tomkinson's Escalope of wild sea bass recipe, or drizzled in a coriander and vanilla sauce, as Marcello Tully recommends.
Alternatively, try sea bass fillet sliced up in a Carpaccio with a simple chilli and oregano dressing, as Robert Thompson advocates.