Foolproof Fish Grilling
Summer is fully in swing and that means BBQ season, outdoor grills, family, friends and guest cookouts. Seafood is one of the healthiest choices that can be offered on your grill this summer! But fish is also a delicate meat that can go the way of getting overcooked to an unsavory toughness, undercooked from uneven heat or worse—fall apart into a flakey mess all over the grill, losing half the meal into the coals or between your grill.
How can you make the perfect filet or fish on the grill without disaster? Break out the BBQ (or indoor grill)! We’ve got some great tips and tricks to lead you to enjoy seared, crispy outer perfection with a smooth, luscious fully cooked interior.
- Pick your fish.
Certain types of fish meat do better on the grill. You’re looking for fish that has a texture closer to familiar meats such as beef or pork that can be placed directly on the grate itself. Salmon, halibut, swordfish are great examples of a thicker consistency fish for grilling. Delicate fish, such as tilapia, sole, and flounder fall apart easier and are better for foil packets or pan frying.
- Preheat the grill
Whether you’re cooking over coals or using gas, preheating your grill is the first important step for the perfect grilled fish. Why? Radiant and conductive heat. Radiant heat is responsible for that beautiful, golden brown crispness while the grate itself leaves those delectable grill marks and can cook meat by conductive (touching) heat.
With charcoal grills, you should only need to pre-heat no more than 5 minutes. This is because charcoal’s radiant heat is so hot, it creates an abundance of radiant heat and it doesn’t take long for your grill’s walls or grate to heat up.
With a gas grill, they don’t produce the same amount of radiant heat charcoals will. Gas grills often have metal bars, ceramic plates or lava rocks between the flames and the cooking grate. That places an extra element and barrier the heat needs to go through to reach your grill’s walls and plate. For this reason, you should preheat your grill for 15 minutes before starting to cook your fish.
Preheating is the step to get that flawlessly even, golden brown look with clear grill lines nearly every time.
- Oil the grate.
Once the grill it preheated it’s time to oil the grate. This isn’t to grease the grate but rather season it, just like you would a cast iron frying pan. A grill’s high heat polymerizes (forming a polymer) creating a barrier that keeps your fish from sticking to the grill. Sticky grill grates have been responsible for many grill food tragedies, so to avoid having to dig through coals or lava rocks for most of your fish, make sure to oil it right after preheating!
You can use tongs and a paper towel soaked in vegetable oil (but be careful!) to run oil over your preheated grate. We recommend doing this several times until your grate looks black and glossy. Roughly 5-10 times.
- Pat fish dry.
You want your fish moist on the inside when it cooks, but not on the outside. Outside moisture on fish is the number one leading cause to having a piece of fish with a disappointingly soft, soggy outside. Don’t fall prey to soggy fish. Pat them dry!
- Now oil the fish, too
Alright, alright. We can almost hear you thinking, “But I pat them dry and already oiled the grate? I’ve got to oil the fish too. I just want to eat!”
We know, but there’s a very good reason to oil your fish too, regardless if it has skin or not. Just as the oil on the grate and heat will create a seal to keep fish from sticking, oiling your fish beforehand will help the oil and heat keep a seal on the fish meats moisture, making your filet juicier and more delicious. You want the fish meat to be moist and flakey, not the outside.
The last step before tossing the fish to the grill will be to season it. You can season it as simply or as complicated as you wish. Salt, pepper, herbs or marinades—this is the time to do it right before you place them on the fire.
- Skin side down always if fish has it.
If your fish has skin, you’ll want to place it skin side down and diagonal to your grate slates. It’s important to remember to do this for many reasons. Not only is fat flavorful, and most of a fish’s fat is layered between muscle and skin, but:
- If the skin does end up sticking, it’s much easier to slide a spatula between the fish meat and skin to remove it from the grill in one whole piece.
- Yet another protective layer to keep it from overcooking. You’ve got the oil on the grate, the oil on the fish, and the fat as well as skin to help keep overcooking or burnt fish at bay.
- That extra layer means you will be fiddling and flipping the fish less because you want to cook it most of the way first, about 90%, on the skin side. You want to flip fish only once to avoid it from breaking. Keeping the skin on, and skin side down helps with this.
- Now reduce your grill's heat from high to medium and close the top.
You’ve got your grill’s grate and walls already heated to high, you don’t want to lose that heat but you don’t want to burn your fish, just sear it. Close the top of your grill.
- How long? What temperature?
Here’s the trickiest part: how long to cook a fish and what temperature it’s considered done at depends on:
- Filet thickness
- Type of fish
Familiarize yourself beforehand with the type of cut, thickness, and fish beforehand to get the best times. For instance, salmon fish takes less time than thick pieces of tuna or swordfish steaks.
You can usually tell if a fish is done by how easily it slides off the grill. If a gentle lift of the spatula reveals it won’t lift clean, close the grill and cook for another 30 seconds until cooked how you like. The filet should come off nearly clean, in one piece, with crispy brown skin on one side.
- Only flip once. Cook a little bit more.
You’ve cooked your fish according to its type and thickness, skin side down almost all the way. Now’s the delicate time between perfectly grilled and a little too cooked. To help make things easier, you can use two spatulas to gently flip your filet over. Cook for roughly 2 minutes. If a meat thermometer inserted into the middle of your fish doesn’t read high enough for your fish, or a touch to the middle doesn’t make the fish flake a little bit, cook for intervals of 30 seconds more until it’s flakey or registers the correct temperature on your meat thermometer.
Note: Thickness and specific types of fish can influence temps and times. Make sure you learn how thick and what kind of fish and the best temps for grilling beforehand to help.
- Let it rest.
Fish will often cook the rest of the way as it’s being plated or set aside for a few minutes to rest before serving.
That’s it! You have succeeded in the most delicious, crispy, succulent grilled piece of fish that’ll melt in your mouth! Are you ready to try your hand at grilling fish? Here’s a great, easy recipe created by Kevin is Cooking.
Simple Rosemary Lemon Grilled Swordfish
- 2 1-inch swordfish steaks
- 2 tbsp softened butter
- 3 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 1 lemon’s worth of juice and its zest
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp fresh rosemary
- Pinch of kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- Rinse and pat dry swordfish. Set aside.
- Mix chopped garlic, softened butter, olive oil, zest of lemon and ½ of lemon juice.
- Strip rosemary springs from stems and finely dice. Add to the butter mixture.
- Pour mix over swordfish steaks and place in a ziplock bag or container in fridge for 20 minutes, otherwise butter will solidify.
- Preheat your grill to medium-high, high heat.
- Place swordfish on grill and drop the heat to medium. Baste with any left over marinade if desired.
- Cook 5 minutes one side, flip, cook for another 1 minutes or checking every 30 seconds until swordfish is preferred doneness. Avoid overcooking as swordfish will dry.
- Serve and enjoy!