How I learned to cook whole fish, Sicilian style (and how you can too)

Four months into our round-the-world journey, we’ve wound up in Mediterranean Europe. First mainland Greece, then Naxos island, Rome, and now Sicily, then on to Provence in France, and the south of Spain.

I’ve arrived in the land of open-air markets, and I’m not quite sure how my husband is going to drag me onto the airplane that will take me away from this wondrous place.

For those blessed with access to a farmer’s market, you’ll understand my sentiments when I say the market is an easy place to delightfully lose track of time, sniff aromatic melons, smile at blushing red tomatoes, and fill your cloth shopping bags until you come home with a bounty like the one pictured above (the literal fruits of my first Sicilian shopping trip– local pistachios and almonds, three types of local cheese, salami to die for, and gorgeous seasonal produce).

There’s another side to these markets, however, one that even caught my children’s eyes (or rather, noses) when we first stumbled upon it. The fish stalls.

counter of fishmonger at market

It’s not a sight that we’re used to in North America. My fish usually comes frozen in packages, bound up in cans (for salmon patties), or at the very least, laying clean on styrofoam, shrink-wrapped in plastic.

Not here. Particularly on the islands or in coastal cities, the “pescheria” (as they call the fishmonger shops here in Italy) are prevalent and popular among the locals.

Wanting to challenge myself in each locale we visit, I decided it was high time I make my way to the fish stalls, purchase something fresh and glossy-eyed, and take it back to the kitchen of our rental apartment to prepare it as a Sicilian cook might.

Luckily for me, my attempts at buying said fish were facilitated by a lovely elderly Sicilian woman, who happened to have lived in New York for 10 years and spoke enough English to step in like an adopted Italian grandmother and show me the ropes.

She chose the fish – a midsize white-fleshed fish called Sgrombo which is common in this area. Next, she determined the size of our family and how many we might need (she chose four, although we would have done fine with three). The man at the counter attempted to bag them for me as-is. She caught my wild-eyed look and asked them to slice open and gut the fish… phew.

ingredients for making fish

How to bake a whole fish– Sicilian style

These are the oh-so-precise directions I received from my adopted Italian grandmother: Stuff the fish with something like tomatoes, onions, garlic, celery, whatever you like. (I had also read recipes that included cheese and breadcrumbs, so I added those as well). Do not put olive oil and salt on before cooking, she stressed. Just stuff them, and then bake them until they’re done (oh dear), and add oil and salt afterwards.

Easy enough, right?

Thank heavens for Google. I found general instructions for cooking whole fish that suggested 10 minutes per inch of thickness at a temperature of around 375 F. I ended up cooking them for just over 20 minutes. They were a little less than 2 inches thick, but they were also stuffed, which is probably why they needed a tad longer.

The result? Absolutely perfect. I almost forgot, but then drizzled the fish with oil and salt after, but they honestly didn’t even need it. Perfectly moist and tender and flaky and flavorful. The stuffing was a delicious bonus, and I only wished I had stuffed them a little more.

Editor’s note: Head HERE for tips on how to test if a while fish is properly cooked through.

showing how fish is flaked and comes off skin

A few tips on serving and eating a whole fish

Eating fish off the bones can be intimidating. Several times per year, we buy whole Pacific salmon since we live on the West Coast, and so we’ve gradually gotten better at maneuvering our way past the bones, and on to the good stuff.

We find it best to use a fork to gently open up the top and peel off the top layer of fish from the bones. Then, take the end of the tail and pull the entire spine up in one fell swoop. If the fish is fully cooked, it should come out easily. We’re not brave enough to eat the head, so we just leave it well enough alone.

After the bones have been removed, we simply peel the rest of the cooked fish out of the skin (you can eat the skin of some fish, like salmon, but this particular fish had very scaly skin and after a couple attempts, I decided it just wasn’t edible). This isn’t a foolproof method for avoiding bones, but it does deal with the majority of them, and you’ll just have to be attentive for any remaining bones as you eat.

When feeding fish to children, I break it apart with my fingers into chunks before putting it on their plates, so that I can check carefully for any bones.

closeup of cooked fish and how they cracked open

Baked & Stuffed Whole Fish (Sicilian Style)

Here in North America, you can prepare this recipe with most any variety of round fish such as trout, Arctic char, small salmon, grouper, tilapia or snapper.
5 from 2 votes
Print Pin Rate
Course: Main Dishes
Cuisine: Italian
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Servings: 6 people
Calories: 133kcal
Author: Stephanie


  • 4 whole white fish these were mid-sized
  • 3 chopped tomatoes
  • 1 cup breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup sharp white cheese grated (mine was pecorino, but any sharp cheese would work)
  • 1/2 chopped red onion
  • 1 handful chopped fresh basil leaves
  • 5-7 cloves garlic chopped or crushed
  • Sea salt and olive oil


  • Warm up olive oil on medium heat in a frying pan. Add onions first to soften, then all stuffing ingredients, until warm and well mixed.
  • Meanwhile, wash fish well and pat dry.
  • Stuff open cavities of fish with warm stuffing, and lay in a baking dish. I used parchment paper in my pan to prevent the skin from sticking and to minimize cleanup. First, spread olive oil over the parchment, then lay the fish down head-to-tail so that they fit well.
  • Bake at 375 for approximately 10 min. per inch of thickness. This is just a general rule. Set your timer for 10 minutes and start checking in 5 minute intervals from that point forward. Avoiding overcooking is key. Test with a fork to see if the fish flakes when you open it. Another key for me was noticing that the gill area burst open slightly and I could see a little cooked white flesh coming out.
  • Drizzle lightly with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt after removing from the oven.


It's a good idea to ask the fishmonger how much of a particular fish they suggest for the number of people you'll be serving. I had mine gutted which left it slit open down the middle, but the heads, tails, etc. were left on.


Calories: 133kcal | Carbohydrates: 22g | Protein: 5g | Fat: 2g | Saturated Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 5mg | Sodium: 456mg | Potassium: 445mg | Fiber: 3g | Sugar: 6g | Vitamin A: 305IU | Vitamin C: 20.5mg | Calcium: 137mg | Iron: 2.9mg

I confess, eating a pan full of whole fish like this still weirded us all out, be it ever so slightly. That said, every single family member not only liked it, but said it was some of the best fish they’d ever had. 

Wouldn’t my Italian grandmother be proud?

Related links:

How do you serve fish to your family? Do whole fish like these ones grace your dining room table?

About Stephanie Langford

Stephanie's interest in food began when she used whole food and traditional nutrition to bring healing to her health challenges, but it quickly grew into a love for backyard gardening, fresh flavors, and simple but lovingly crafted family meals. This year will find her stepping on every continent in the world, as she and her husband take their 4 young children globe-trotting. She's eager to study cooking in as many countries as possible, scout out the local markets, savor the unique cuisines, and glean inspiration from the pots and pans of the people she crosses paths with. You can find her sharing about natural homemaking at Keeper of the Home, or weaving travel tales on EntreFamily Travels. She has also written 3 books to help families live more naturally and eat real, whole foods.

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  1. Such and awesome post! I am still scared, but willing to possibly give it a try! I have always wanted to cook a whole fish!

  2. Great post! Buying whole fish can be very daunting. Love idea of stuffing!

  3. Shirley Quamme says

    Awesome recipe, cooking whole fish have been kinda tricky for me, maybe it will help a little bit 🙂

  4. That sounds delicious! I have yet to brave the fish in our Guatemalan markets, but I have grown accustomed to purchasing local chickens and freshly ground beef. (And yes, I’m still a little weirded out, but I do it anyway.)

    • Whoa, those are some visuals, Jennifer! I’d say your ready for the fish market. Let us know how it goes!

    • Gosh, that’s a bit more visually disturbing than the meat markets and whole chickens from when we were in Argentina. I don’t know if I would be ready for that. I can understand being weirded out. You’re brave! 🙂

  5. 5 stars
    I’ve always wanted to do this. I’m going to try it out the next time my husband goes on his fishing trip. Thanks for the recipe! 🙂

  6. This post is insane! I really want to try this one day:)

  7. Hooray for the helpful grandmother! I think that should be the top tip when food shopping in an unfamiliar area… Look for a grandmother. (I also apply that when flying with young children – make eye contact with the grandmother types when you get on the plane in case you need reinforcements later!)

    That fish looks and sounds lovely. You make your west coast roots proud as well!

    • I know, right? What would I have done without her? 🙂

      And I did actually grow up eating fresh fish (yay for living on the west coast and having a Papa in the fishing industry), and plenty of it was cooked as whole fish at that. It’s too bad that I never learned to cook it as a teenager, although I’ve always enjoyed it, but I’m thankful that I’m learning to cook it now so that my children can grow up eating delicious fish!

  8. Yes, we eat whole fish from time to time. I usually make it Asian-style, with garlic, green onions and soy sauce. A bonus is that whole fish are often cheaper!

  9. Yum! I’m going to apply the Sicilian methods to our Turkish fish! I never thought of stuffing them. The thing here is to pickle smaller fish (not a fan, personally). Thank God for adopted grandmothers!

    • Interesting, pickled fish! I would like to try that. Small fish are really popular in Sicily as well, and I had been eying stuffed (but really, more like smothered) anchovy recipes online before I went to the market. I might have gone that direction if not for my adopted grandmother… I wonder how that would have gone over with my family. 🙂

  10. I had never cooked a whole fish before moving to Sydney, and now we do it all the time– delicious and easy! We pick them up from the fish market and chuck them straight into the oven or onto the bbq with a little lemon, herbs, and olive oil. How fun that your family is able to experience new culinary tastes on your adventure!

  11. 5 stars
    Yum! I’ll keep in mind your tips next time I cook fish. Thx!

  12. WOW, super impressive and looks totally delicious and healthy

  13. As a child, my sisters and i would fight over the fish eyeballs. There were 3 of us and usually only 1 fish with 2 eyes. When you decide to give fish eyeballs a try, make sure you spit out the round bone in the middle of the eye. 🙂

  14. Rachel Beita says

    I will be trying this recipe. My husband likes to fish but I am at a loss as to how to best cook them. Looks great! In Costa Rica my husbands family makes a soup out of the fish and my husbands sister eats every part of the head. I had a hard enough time getting the strong soup down. I might prefer fish head soup to chicken soup with the head (beak and all) and feet! I once helped make a soup like this for a group of Indians who came to an all night prayer meeting. It is interesting living in other cultures to say the least! It stretches us and makes us grow more flexible! I sure do miss Costa Ricas street markets.

  15. Great post. I just started grilling sardines. They’re wonderful. Thanks.

  16. The easiest way to cook a whole cleaned and scaled fish is encased in tinfoil, “en papillot” – style. Fish + stuffing/herbs steams in its own juices at 325 degrees, say for a half hour or so, and, since it’s in tinfoil, it doesn’t dry out even if you cook longer! Plus, if you do it right, there’s nothing to wash, just ball up the tinfoil and bones and toss it It’s great! Try!

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