How to Grill Skinless Fish Fillets or Steaks

[Photographs: Joshua Bousel. Video: Natalie Holt]

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 overcooking. At the same time, a perfectly grilled piece of seafood can be a glorious thing—light and fresh, with a delicious simplicity. Every backyard griller can get it right with a few pointers.

How to Choose the Fish

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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 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 the fish that's 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 it can 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 sturdier contenders, such as:

  • Halibut
  • Tuna
  • Swordfish
  • Haddock
  • Salmon
  • Mahi-mahi
  • Grouper

These will have the integrity to hold up to the fire and the ever-tricky process of flipping.

Armed with a thick-cut slab of seafood, you really don't need any more 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

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How can you keep the fish from sticking? I've grilled a fair amount of fish at this point, and I still get hung up with a sticker every once in a while. The most frustrating part is that it's never something you can blame on the seafood. Usually, it comes down to not properly prepping the grill, which is crucial to success here.

First, the grill needs to be cleaned. The best way 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, which is 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 means later trip-ups when you're actually grilling. With both done, the fish is ready to be thrown over that medium-hot fire.

Flip It

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So now, the fish has been cooking for a bit, and you can see the bottom starting to go from translucent to opaque, indicating that 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 are a couple more important factors if you want 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. It's able to slide easily under the fish, and it's also large enough to support the whole fillet 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 slid 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 that the fish just needs a minute or two more to finish up on that side.

Almost Done!

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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 gets overdone and starts to dry out.

Unlike with other meats, for which I rely entirely on a trusty instant-read thermometer to test for doneness, I tend to take the visual route with fish. The goal here is to pull the fish right before it finishes cooking (unless you're purposely undercooking, as you might for tuna or salmon)—allowing it to fully cook via carryover heat during its rest off the grill—and it's not too hard to tell when it's at that point.

When the fish cooks through, it both starts to flake and becomes opaque, so, to test for doneness, gently pull back a flaky section in the center using a fork. 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 changing my ways). When you're using an instant-read thermometer, the fish should be pulled when it registers between 130 and 135°F (54 and 57°C); it will continue to heat up to around 140°F (60°C) while it rests.

Again, apply the same delicate care with the spatulas when removing the fish from the grill, in order to preserve all the skillful work you've put in thus far.

You Are a Fish-Grilling Master

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Step back, give yourself a pat on the back, and relish the results of those fish-grilling skills. Grilled fresh fish, with a nice sear and a faint smokiness, is a proud 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, we've got some great options for topping those beautiful fillets. A little pesto adds a nice Italian flair. Try fresh sriracha for a garlicky heat, or a grilled-pineapple salsa for a fruity touch. Some other nice accompaniments to consider: romesco sauce, chimichurri, gremolata, cilantro pesto, or black olive tapenade.

No matter how you serve it, fresh fish on the grill is an excellent thing. Hopefully this guide has dispelled all of your fish fears, and you're on your way to becoming a masterful seafood griller.