Grilled fish of any species is a true delight. But grilling fish can also be intimating, even to the seasoned backyard griller. Every grillmaster has his or her tale of a grilled fish dinner that did not go as planned. And yes, I have had my flops, too.
That being said, a successful grilled fish is a goal within reach! Here are my tips to ensure your next grilled fish dinner has your guests asking for more.
Successful grilling starts with a well-prepared grill (and griller - that's you!). Keep these three things in mind if you're planning to grill fish:
Preheat the grill for at least 15 minutes.
When grilling fish, a preheat is more than necessary; it's a critical step to preventing the fish’s flesh from sticking to the grates. Allow the grill to preheat at high temperature for at least 15 minutes.
Preheating allows the grill’s radiant heat to heat the grill grates. When the raw fish flesh hits the hot grate, it begins to sear and form a crust. A well-formed crust releases the fish from the grate so it can be flipped. An inadequate crust means sticking flesh. We know how that turns out.
Forget the tongs. Get a wide metal spatula.
While I love to use tongs around the grill, when I'm grilling fish they stay hanging on a hook in the kitchen. Instead, my favorite tool for grilling fish is a wide metal spatula. Fish is delicate, so every inch of support is needed when moving cuts around the grates. If you don’t have a wide metal spatula, I would use two spatulas. Every bit helps.
Also, consider using skewers, wood grilling planks, and perforated grill pans. When using a grill pan, be sure to preheat it with the grill. As always, be sure to have a pair of heat-resistant grill gloves, a timer, and an instant-read thermometer.
Use a perforated grill pan for flaky fish.
Dense fish are best grilled directly on the grill grates. For flakier fish, like catfish, tilapia, or red snapper, use a perforated grill pan. These filets are thin and will cook fast. Using a pan removes the need to flip the fish and ensures the filets are intact when they come off the grill.
Temperature Range for Grilled Fish
Unlike their land-dwelling beef, pork, and chicken cousins, fish is predominately grilled over direct medium-to-high heat (400º to 450º F). Even so, it is still essential to set up a two-zone fire in case a flareup requires moving the fish off direct heat.
In the case of grilling whole fish (see below), we will use both zones during the cook. On a gas grill, turn off one burner, and on a charcoal grill, leave a space to one side of the fuel grate without lit briquettes.
Fish cooks fast thanks to its moderate thickness and the higher grilling temperature. It’s a good idea to stay close to the grill. By the time you get a flip in, it will be ready to take the fish off!
How to Grill Fish Fillets Like Swordfish, Tuna, Halibut, or Salmon
Fish fillets consist of flesh cut parallel to the backbone and are mostly devoid of large bones. The best way to dip your toe into the water of grilled fish is with a firm-fleshed species, such as swordfish, tuna, halibut, or salmon. These denser cuts hold together on the grill and provide a better chance of success.
For this example, let’s use an 8-ounce skin-on salmon fillet, but the following method will work for any firm-fleshed species:
- Brush the grates clean with a grill brush: With the grill preheated, brush the grates clean with a grill brush. Hot and clean grates are essential in developing a good crust.
- Feel for any fish bones and remove them: Gently run your fingers over the top of the filet to feel for any bones. If found, remove them.
- Oil the fish, then place it flesh side down on the grill: Lightly brush the salmon flesh with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place the salmon flesh side down, skin side up, on the grill.
- Grill over direct medium heat for 6 to 7 minutes: Grill the salmon over direct medium heat for approximately 6 to 7 minutes, or until the salmon can be cleanly released from the grate.
- Flip the fish onto a new spot on the grate, and grill for another 3-4 minutes: Expect to cook the first side of the fish longer than the flip side so a crust can develop. When the salmon is ready to be flipped, lift it from the grate. If you feel it sticking, give it another minute. Using a spatula, flip the fish so the skin is on the grate being sure to place the fish in another “unused” spot on the grate. This unused area will be hotter than the area the fish was already cooking.
- Continue to grill for another 3 to 4 minutes, or until the flesh turns opaque and begins to flake.
- Check the internal temperature: The internal temperature should be between 140º to 145º F. To remove the salmon from the grill, slide a spatula between the skin and the flesh.
More grilled salmon recipes:
How to Grill Fish Steaks
As mentioned above, fish fillets consist of flesh cut parallel to the backbone and are mostly devoid of large bones. Fish steaks are cut perpendicular to the backbone and contain large bones and skin.
While choice is up to personal preference, fish steaks tend to stay together on the grill compared to filets. However, it takes more work to eat them since bones are more of a concern.
Can’t decide what to get? Go with the freshest regardless of cut.
- Choose a thick cut: When grilling fish steaks, choose cuts approximately 1-inch thick for even cooking.
- Grill the first side of the steak longer than the second: Just like filets, grill the first side of the steak longer than the second and flip only when the steak releases from the grill. Grill over direct medium heat for 6 to 8 minutes for the first side, and then 4 to 5 minutes for the second side.
- Place the flipped steak in a new spot: When flipping the steak, place the steak back down on the grill in an area different from where it initially cooked. This ensures the flesh is touching a hot area of the grate not cooled from previous grilling.
- Keep the skin on! I prefer to keep the skin on, as it makes the grilling a little easier. Plus, for some, eating grilled skin is a crispy treat!
How to Grill a Whole Fish
Grilling a whole fish is a definite thrill for guests. It’s also a way to add more flavor by stuffing the cavity full of citrus and aromatics.
While taking slightly longer to cook, whole fish is best when seared over direct high heat and then moved to indirect heat to finish cooking. Since the fish is still intact, moving it across the grates is a breeze. It’s done when the flesh flakes away from the bones.
One of the easiest, tastiest, and widely available whole fish to grill is rainbow trout. Their size is perfectly fitted for the grill making them easy to manage, which is always a plus when grilling fish.
Here's the go-to method fo grilling a whole fish, like rainbow trout:
- Blot the fish dry with paper towels. Brush with olive oil and season all over with kosher salt and fresh cracked back pepper. Stuff the cavity with fresh dill and sliced lemons.
- Preheat the grill for at least 15 minutes and brush the grates clean with a grill brush. For fish not to stick when flipping, clean grates are a must.
- Grill the fish over direct medium heat (350º to 450º F) until the flesh starts to turn opaque and the skin chars, approximately 10 to 12 minutes. Flip the fish and cook until the flesh is moist and opaque and registers between 140º and 145º F with an instant-read thermometer, approximately 8 to 10 minutes more. TIP! When flipping the fish, rotate the bottom up over the spine of the fish. It’s less of a flip and more of a roll.
More grilled whole fish recipes:
One of my favorite ways to grill fish is on a wood grilling plank. Most often associated with cedar, but open to several other wood species, a grilling plank is yet another way to add a layer of smoky goodness to fish.
Better yet, the plank makes it easy getting fish on and off the grill, finally making its way to the dinner table with breathtaking presentation.
When using a plank, be sure to grill the plank first. This allows the wood to start to smolder. Then, place the fish on the “grilled” side before returning the entire plank to the grill over direct heat. Using the plank will slightly extend the cooking time, but the results are spectacular.
While cedar plank salmon is well known, consider swordfish on oak or catfish on pecan. The combinations are endless.