Like all things you’ve never done before, grilling fish can be … challenging. Don’t expect perfection your first time out; do expect to learn and improve with every go-round.
Why is fish hard to grill?
Fish is expensive and irritatingly easy to render inedible. Too much heat or too much time can turn those fillets from flaky to bulletproof in a New York minute.
The problem with fish is that its flesh is more delicate than sturdy land animals and therefore more susceptible to heavy-handedness. It’s because fish live in water. Without getting too scientific and boring, creatures that live in cold, gravity-defying liquid environments require less connective tissue as well as less (and different) fat than creatures who live on land.
But here’s the thing about fat: It’s largely what makes the meat juicy. Think about that steak you had last week. Juicy as a blind item in a gossip rag, right? That’s the fat. And there’s more of it in beef muscle than there is in fish muscle.
Fish also has water in its muscle — about three-quarters of its weight — and that water evaporates when you start heating up the fish.
Between the lack of fat and the evaporation of the water, it’s pretty easy to take a beautiful piece of fish and render it drier than dry.
Hence, the single best piece of advice to keep in mind when you’re grilling is to keep an eye on the temperature of the fish.
Whole fish vs. fish fillets
Before I tell you how to actually grill fish, I should address the differences between grilling whole fish and fish fillets.
There are plenty of reasons to grill whole fish. For one, whole fish makes for an arresting presentation. Furthermore, whole fish tend to be more forgiving of heat. The skin keeps the flesh from drying out and the bones — because they conduct heat poorly — aid in keeping the internal temperature down. However, whole fish can be harder to come by than fillets — and more intimidating.
If you’re going with fillets, go with a thick, sturdy fish like salmon, tuna or mahi mahi. They don’t need to be cooked all the way through and won’t fall apart when you flip them on the grill. If you like to keep the skin on, especially if you’re doing something like salmon, grill your fish skin side down for most of the cooking time. After you flip them, let them go for just another minute or two. That will give you nice, crisp skin with fillets cooked to your perfect level of doneness.
If you only have skinny little fillets, but you’re dying to fire up the grill, you can always fold them in foil and place that nice little package on the grate. If you go this route, place a layer of lemon slices over the top of the fillets before you encase them in foil. It’ll help keep them moist when you serve them.
5 easy steps
1. Before you cook, clean your grill with a wire brush!
2. To prevent your fish from sticking to the grill, brush it on both sides with any cooking oil. Some people like mayonnaise instead of oil (see recipe). The seasoning adheres to it nicely and it also prevents your fish from sticking to the grill. Speaking of seasoning, season your fish with salt and other spices, like pepper, Old Bay or your own spice mix.
3. Get your grill going to medium-high heat, then set your grill grate over the heat source so it gets hot.
4. Place your oiled fish onto the grill, presentation side down. The presentation side is the side you want your diners to see. With skinless fillets, the presentation side is the bone side because the skin side will still have some connective tissue attached to the flesh.
If you’re doing a whole fish, like red snapper or sea bass, oil it up and lay it down.
5. The rule of thumb for cooking fish is roughly 5 minutes per side for a one-inch-thick fillet. If you have a meat thermometer, use it. You want an internal temperature of about 140 degrees. The flesh will be mostly opaque with just a glistening hint of translucence. Of course, the doneness level of fish is a personal decision. The more you grill fish, the more you’ll understand what you like and how to achieve it.
Once your fish is done, remove it immediately to a warm serving platter and let it rest for just a few minutes. Garnish it with a squeeze of lemon, a pat of butter or anything else you think would be festive and serve it immediately.
Mayo Grilled Salmon
For the most attractive presentation, skinless salmon is served bone side (as opposed to “skin side”) up. Grill roughly 8 to 10 minutes total, flipping once, for 1-inch fillets. Salmon is done when an instant read thermometer registers 140F or when the interior is just becoming opaque. You can use the tip of a knife to separate flakes at the fillet’s thickest part to check doneness.
Prep time: 5 minutes; Cooking time: 10 minutes. Makes 4 servings
Four (5-ounce) salmon fillets, preferably
Mayonnaise as needed (about 1/4 to 1/2 cup)
Salt as needed
Pepper as needed
Freshly lemon slices as needed (optional)
Parsley, minced, as needed (optional)
Preheat grill. Season bone side of salmon fillets with salt and pepper.
Brush or spread mayonnaise in a thin layer over both sides.
Place fillets bone side down on grill grate directly over medium hot coals. Grill for 4 to 5 minutes, then flip and grill the other side to preferred doneness, about 4 more minutes.
Remove fillets to a warm platter to rest 3 to 5 minutes. While fillets rest, squeeze lemon over. Garnish fillets with optional minced parsley and serve immediately.