How to Grill Shellfish

Shellfish are made for live-fire cooking. If decadent grilled shrimp, scallops, lobster, oysters, clams, or soft-shell crab sounds like an ideal summer dinner for you, this is your guide!

Grilled lobster tail on a charcoal grill

Mike Lang

Shellfish might not be the first grilled food you think of, but it is the most enjoyable.

Shellfish are made for live-fire cooking. The shells provide protection from the heat of the grill and act as a container to concentrate their rich flavor.

When you grill shellfish, the reward is leaps and bounds over the effort!

Overhead view of grilled shrimp skewers.
Ciara Kehoe

Grilling Prep

Before you throw a lobster tail or some shrimp on the grill, here's what to do to get ready:

Buy the freshest shellfish possible.

Do everything you can to find the freshest shellfish possible. I’ve cut the freshener corner before, and it’s not worth it.

Before grilling, rinse the shellfish under cold water and pat dry.

Preheat the grill.

When grilling shellfish, a preheated grill is less for grill marks and more for ensuring the raw fish is entering an appropriately hot environment for even cooking. Run your grill on high heat for at least 15 minutes before dialing in the needed cook temperature.

Grab a grill pan and skewers.

All we need for grilling shellfish are a pair of heavy-duty grill tongs, heat-resistant gloves, our trusty timer, and an instant-read thermometer. You might also consider a perforated grill pan, cast-iron skillet, or skewers.

  • A grill pan is handy for smaller items, like shrimp or mussels. Just remember when using a grill pan to preheat it with the grill.
  • A cast-iron skillet works well with clams, adding a vessel for them to simmer in or with a lid, steamed.
  • Skewers are perfect for shrimp or even scallops. Skewering smaller pieces together makes less work for you by having fewer items to touch on the grill.
Grilled lobster tail on a charcoal grill

Mike Lang

Temperature Range for Grilled Shellfish

Lobster tail and soft-shell crab should be grilled over direct medium heat (350º to 450º F), but clams, scallops, and shrimp require cooking over direct high heat (450º to 550º F).

Do not overcook them. While true with most anything, this is especially true with shellfish. Shellfish cook very quickly. The window from delicious to rubbery is short. Attentiveness to cook times and a well-managed fire are keys to success.

Shellfish are always grilled over direct heat. I usually insist on setting up a two-zone fire, but this is one example where it’s not completely necessary. If you do happen to create a flareup, just move the shellfish to another direct spot.

Grilled shrimp on charcoal grill grates

Mike Lang

How to Grill Shrimp

One of the most frequent shellfish to grace my grill are shrimp. Not only are they enjoyable on their own, but they are wonderful last-minute additions to tacos, quesadillas, and nachos, which is why I always keep a bag of frozen raw shrimp on hand.

  1. Peel and devein the shrimp. For presentation purposes, I like to remove the entire shell except the tail; however, there is no harm in removing it all. Here's how to peel and devein shrimp.
  2. Place the shrimp on skewers. I almost always grill shrimp on skewers. It’s a lot easier to move a handful of skewers versus 30 loose shrimp! Brush the shrimp with olive oil and season with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper.
  3. Grill on direct high heat (450º to 550º F) for 2 to 4 minutes, flipping once. The shrimp are done when their fish turns opaque.

How to Grill Scallops

Scallops seared on a hot grill are second to none. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Select larger sea scallops versus the smaller bay scallops. Scallops are large enough to grill on the grates, but often I use a griddle or grill pan on the grill to ensure I do not inadvertently lose one to the lit coals below.
  2. Remove the hard side muscle. You don't want to grill this!
  3. Pat the scallops dry and oil lightly. Water interferes with the scallop’s ability to sear on a hot grate.
  4. Grill on direct high heat (450º to 550º F) for 4 to 5 minutes. Scallops only need 4 to 5 minutes to cook, flipping once, and are done when they turn opaque. Once they go on the grill, it’s best not to leave them alone. They cook fast.
Steaming lobster tail on a charcoal grill

Mike Lang

How to Grill Lobster Tail

Ordering lobster tail at a restaurant is a wonderful experience, but I find grilling my own at home is not only more affordable but better when prepared over a hot grill. Warm water lobster tails are readily available frozen at most stores; however, for a little extra money, cold water lobster tails are worth the investment for their sweeter, firmer flesh.

Here’s how to grill a lobster tail:

  1. Prepare the lobster tail. The best way to prepare a lobster tail is to cut through the top of the tail shell and flesh, stopping at the membrane on the tail’s bottom. Once split, open the tail like a book. This method prevents the tail from curling up under heat, which happens if the shell is completely separated in two.
  2. Grill the lobster tail, flesh side down, over medium direct heat (350º to 450º F) for 5 minutes. Flip the tail and continue to cook another 5 to 7 minutes until the flesh is firm and opaque.
  3. Apply herb butter near the end of the cook. The tail shell acts as a container for applying herb butter through the last few minutes of the cook!
Mignonette Sauce for Oysters
Elise Bauer

How to Grill Oysters

Grilled oysters are just the treat for anyone who is on the fence about enjoying them raw. Here are two ways to do it. Either way, oysters make for a memorable appetizer in my backyard!

  1. Shuck the oysters and then grill over direct high heat (450º to 550º F) for 5-6 minutes. Oysters are cooked when the flesh turns opaque and the edges curl. The oyster shell is the ultimate vessel to hold a garlicky butter as the under ten-minute cook time winds down. For added flavor, consider topping with shredded cheese before serving.
  2. Conversely, consider smoking the oysters. The lower cook temperature and addition of smoke add in even additional layers of flavor from the grill.
Cooked clams in a colander for everything you need to know about clams.
Simply Recipes

How to Grill Clams

When buying clams, make sure all the shells seal tight. If you find one that does not, discard it. When you’re ready to grill, here’s what to do:

  1. Grill cleaned clams over direct high heat (450º to 550º F) for 5 minutes. Make sure the lid is down. After 5 minutes check the grill and remove any clams that have opened.
  2. Grill clams for 2 to 3 more minutes, then check again. Replace the lid and check 2 to 3 minutes later, removing the remaining opened clams. If any have not opened, discard them.
  3. Add smokiness if you want! From here, enjoy the clams immediately, or to add a layer of smokiness, return them to the grill under indirect low heat and smoke with apple or cherry wood for another 20 minutes.

How to Grill Soft-Shell Crab

When it comes to grilling shellfish, soft-shell crab is as easy as it gets. With their shell molted, these crabs are entirely edible making them an ideal appetizer. To grill:

  1. Oil and season the crab. Brush the cleaned crabs with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
  2. Grill over direct medium heat (350º to 450º F) for 8 to 10 minutes. Flip once!
  3. Pair with butter and lemon: Like most shellfish, they pair well with melted butter and fresh lemon.