Fish can be one of the most feared things to throw on the grill. It's notoriously difficult to manage over a hot fire, easily sticking to the grates, flaking apart, or becoming overdone. At the same time, a perfectly grilled piece of seafood can be a glorious thing—light and fresh, relishing in its delicious simplicity. Every backyard griller can get it right with a few pointers.
How to Choose the Fish
There's no wrong or right answer here. The grill has ways of handling everything from delicate fillets, to giant steaks, and even whole fish. That being said, going through how to handle every type and cut would most likely try our collective patience, so for the sake of this post, we'll be dealing with fish best suited to throw over the flames with little more than oil, salt, and pepper, no special tools or procedures required.
When choosing a fish for grilling, you first want to consider how hearty it is—how well can it stand up to the torture of a live fire. Flaky or delicate fish like flounder or sole won't cut it here. You want thicker fillets or steaks of more sturdy contenders such as:
These will have the integrity to hold up to fire and the ever tricky process of flipping.
Armed with a thick-cut slab of seafood, there's really no more needed in terms of food prep than a liberal coating of oil, salt, and pepper. All the work to make that fish great is in the grill.
A Clean Grill Makes a Happy Fish
How can you avoid the fish from sticking? I've grilled a fair amount of fish at this point and still get hung up with a sticker every once in a while. The most frustrating part is it's never something you can blame on the seafood. Usually it comes down to not properly prepping the grill, which is paramount to success here.
First, the grill needs to be cleaned. The best to do this is to cover the grill right when the coals have all lit and the fire is at its hottest. Five minutes of this heat will then make it incredibly simple to brush away any residual nastiness left on the grill grate using a good grill brush.
Equally important: oiling the grates after, best done using a cloth or paper towel dunked into some vegetable or olive oil and then whipped over the searing hot grates.
Failure to do one or both of these things are reasons for later trip-ups when it comes to actually grilling, but with both done, the fish is now ready to be thrown over that medium-hot fire.
So the fish has been going and you can see the bottom starting to go from translucent to opaque, indicating it may be time for the dreaded flip. A clean and oiled grate paired with an oiled fish should provide proper insurance against total stickage, but there's a couple more important factors when it comes to a successful flip execution.
First, you need the right tool. A wide spatula with a thin, tapered edge, like this one from Weber, does the job nicely by first being able to slide easily under the fish and also large enough to support the whole filet while you flip it. To make your life even easier, pair it with a flexible turner which can help hold the fish in place while the larger spatula is slide underneath.
While attempting the turn, if you feel too much resistance, just stop and walk away. If you've properly cleaned and oiled the grate, the fish will let you know when it's ready to turn by releasing itself from the grate. A spatula will help undo some light sticking, but if you feel like you're doing more harm than good in attempting the turn, it may be the fish just needs a minute or two more to finish up on that side.
With the fish flipped, you should feel a great sense of pride in achieving that noble grilling feat, but don't bask in the glory too long, as it will all be for naught if that fish goes overdone and starts to dry out.
Unlike with other meats, where I rely entirely on a trusty instant read thermometer to test for doneness, fish I tend to take the visual route. The goal here is to pull the fish right before it finishes cooking (unless you're purposely under-cooking like in the case of tuna or salmon)—allowing it to fully cook with carryover during a rest off the grill—and it's not too hard to tell.
When the fish cooks through, it both starts to flake and becomes opaque, so to test for doneness, take a fork and gently pull back a flaky section in the center. If the fish is opaque with just a bit of translucent center, it's ready to come off.
You can still go the thermometer route, which is admittedly more failsafe and maybe I should consider switching my ways. When using an instant read thermometer, the fish should be pulled when it registers between 130-135°F, letting it carryover to 140°F while it rests.
Again, apply the same delicate care with the spatulas when removing the fish to preserve all the skillful work put in thus far.
You Are a Fish-Grilling Master
Step back, give yourself a pat on the back, and relish in those fish grilling skills. Fresh fish with a nice sear and a faint smokiness is a prideful thing, and ready to serve as is. A squirt of lemon juice livens it up a bit, but for seafood aficionados, that's about all you need.
For someone, like myself, who isn't entirely into seafood in its more natural state, there's some great options for topping those beautiful filets. A little pesto adds a nice Italian flare, try fresh Sriracha for a garlicy heat, or a grilled pineapple salsa for a fruity touch. Some other nice accompaniments to consider: romesco, chimichurri, gremolata, cilantro pesto, or black olive tapenade
No matter how you serve it, fresh fish on the grill on is an excellent thing. Hopefully this guide has dispelled any fish-fears, and you're on your way to becoming a masterful seafood griller.
About the author: Joshua Bousel brings you new, tasty condiment each Wednesday and a recipe for weekend grilling every Friday. He also writes about grilling and barbecue on his blog The Meatwave whenever he can be pulled away from his grill.