Oven-Poached Whole Salmon with Watercress Sauce

Sunday August 7, 2016

photo courtesy martha stewart

For salmon lovers, here is a spectacular special occasion presentation with a bit of ritual attached to it. It will be a welcome main course on a hot evening. I remember my first buffet where a whole salmon was oven-roasted. I had just started cooking seriously at home and was a pastry chef, so I was used to seeing whole fish. I was invited for dinner at the home of a French couple who loved to cook. When told the menu, I had asked if I could come by early in the day and observe as they prepared the fish and, to my delight, they agreed. They had the oh-so-French silver metal poaching pan, long and narrow, which looked more like something from a doctor’s office or laboratory. A broth of wine and whole herbs bubbled on the stove; the pan fit over two burners. The fish was wrapped in cheesecloth, tied with string, and placed on a trivet that was lowered into the pan of hot liquid. The lid was put on and then carefully carried to the oven. I copied that years later in catering when I would poach in a disposable roasting pan, with the head and tail hanging out. Then I evolved to cooking it on the outdoor grill, wrapped in heavy-duty aluminum foil. This was the best way to handle the whole fish and soon I was using the foil-wrapped method in the oven as well to steam the fish in its own juices.

You will need to order a whole salmon from your fishmonger or good supermarket meat counter. A whole fish will run 3 1/2 to 7 pounds, with the average fish usually 4 1/2 to 5 pounds. I plan to cook the fish the day I pick it up, if possible. Cook the salmon 1 to 2 days before the party and chill it at least overnight to firm the fish. Be sure to measure the length of the fish so you can look for a platter or cutting board it will fit on properly (there are platters and boards designed specifically for showcasing whole fish).  Garnish with lemon and cucumber slices and place on a bed of watercress and parsley. The simple watercress sauce, made in the food processor, is another of my favorite sauces; often guests have said they could eat it alone. Do make sure you have an oven that is large enough to hold the salmon comfortably (you can cut off the head and tail, if need be, but the intact fish looks the best.)

Serves 16

Preparation Timeline: Can poach the fish and make the sauce up to 2 days ahead             and refrigerated
Serving Equipment: A large oval serving platter or cutting board, carving knife and        oversized serving spatula; bowl for the sauce and serving spoon
Onsite/Reheat: No
Onsite/Refrigeration: No
Serving Temperature: Chilled or room temperature


1 whole salmon (about 4 1/ to 5 pounds) with skin and cleaned, with the head and tail left on, rinsed and patted dry

Salt and freshly ground black or white pepper

1/2 bunch of fresh dill or thyme

1 to 2 lemons, cut into wedges

1 large white onion, cut into wedges

Olive oil

1 cup white wine or dry vermouth, heated in a saucepan or in the microwave to boiling

Watercress Sauce

8 green onions, white and 1-inch of the green only

2 bunches fresh watercress

2 cups mayonnaise

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 or 2 cucumbers, peeled and sliced, for garnish

3 lemons, sliced, for garnish

2 bunches each of curly parsley and watercress, for garnish


Preheat the oven to 400º. Place two large baking sheets, upside down and next to each other, on the oven rack. This will support the fish while cooking.

Tear off 2 large pieces of heavy-duty aluminum foil the length of the fish with 6-inches extra on both ends; spray the shiny side of one with nonstick vegetable cooking spray. Center the fish on the foil. Using a ruler, measure the fish at the thickest part right behind the head (this will determine cook time). Turn the fish on its back and spread the cavity open. Season well with salt and pepper, tuck in the herbs, then arrange the lemon and onion wedges inside. Lay the fish back down on its side. Rub the entire surface of the fish with olive oil. Bring up the edges of the foil and lay the other piece of foil over the top. Fold the edges together and roll the edges tightly (this is very important). The foil will encase the fish loosely and leave the edges up and curled towards the fish to prevent drips. Before sealing the last end section, pour in the hot white wine, then tightly roll to seal.

Supporting the entire fish underneath, carefully slip onto the baking sheets in the oven, taking care not to tear the foil or open the edges. Bake the fish 10 minutes for every inch of thickness before testing for doneness. If the fish is 4 inches thick, then bake 40 minutes before testing, etc. To test, carefully open the foil near the head and insert an instant-read thermometer behind the head at the thickest part; it will register 130º to 140º. A knife inserted into that portion will show no raw-red tinge inside near the backbone and flake easily. Open the oven door and pull out the rack. Let the fish rest there 10 minutes before transferring onto a large rack. Cool a bit then refrigerate.

Before transporting, open the foil carefully and gently peel off the skin on both sides and pour off any liquid; the fish will be firm. Refrigerate until ready to transport.

To make the Watercress Sauce: Place the green onions and watercress in a food processor or blend and process until finely chopped. Add the mayonnaise and lemon juice; process until smooth. Transfer to a covered container and refrigerate. Can be made the day ahead. Makes about 3 1/2 cups.

Transportation Notes: No special precautions as long as tightly wrapped in foil. I transport in a large cardboard box or on thick towels. If a hot day, transport in a cooler. Carry the sauce in a covered container. Have the lemons and cucumbers in plastic bags. Bring the bunches of watercress and parsley.

Onsite/Preparation: Arrange the parsley and watercress on a long cutting board or platter.  Remove the fish from the foil and place on the platter. Decorate with lemon and cucumber slices around the edges. Serve immediately or refrigerate. Serve cold or at room temperature. Have the bowl of sauce on the side. To serve, use a carving knife to cut gently along the seam of the backbone running the full length of the fish. Cut crosswise into portions and use the knife and serving spatula to lift the pieces off the bone. Turn the fish over to serve off the bottom half.

Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2016

Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.

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