Today marks the final phase in my quest to get more people to cook whole fish at home—at least for now... Bwahahahahahahahahaha!
The beauty of cooking whole fish is that it's one of the easiest things to do in the world. It's also one of the best ways of guaranteeing you get a fresh fish, since the signs of freshness are much more apparent on a whole fish than they are on a fillet. Plus, it's usually cheaper, even after you've accounted for the weight of the bones and head.
In terms of absolute ease, nothing beats roasting a whole fish: It's as simple as throwing it in the oven. (And, now that I've shown you how to serve a cooked whole fish without hacking it to bits, there's nothing to fear at all!) But in terms of flavor, I have to say that grilled whole fish is my favorite. That dry, intense grill heat does wonders for the skin, making it crisp and crackly. And cooking over hardwood coals adds that extra dimension of flavor.
But I have to admit, grilling a whole fish is a little harder than roasting, mostly because if the fish sticks to the grill grate, things can get kinda messy. Still, as long as you know a few key tricks, you shouldn't have any trouble. Here's what you need to know to become a fish-grilling master in no time.
Do You Need a Fish-Grilling Gizmo or Not?
The first question is whether to use one of those fish-grilling baskets or not. I've tested it both ways, and the answer is that it's up to you, because you won't go wrong with a fish basket, but you also don't need one to grill a fish successfully.
The nice thing about the basket is that it makes turning the fish on the grill foolproof, and it holds the whole thing together well, which can be handy if you've stuffed the cavity with aromatics and you're worried about them spilling out.
But it's also one more piece of equipment to buy, store, and clean. The basket can also take up additional space on the grill, so if you're trying to cook more than one thing at a time, it can eat up some valuable grill-grate real estate. And the truth is, if you know the below tricks to grilling a fish, you really don't have to use one of these.
Step 1: Prepare the Fish and Grill
The first thing you need to do when grilling fish is get both the fish and the grill ready. I like to set the grill up for two-zone grilling, so that I have the option of moving the fish from a hotter area of the grill to a cooler one, depending on how it's cooking. Generally speaking, I find that starting out over the higher-heat area of the grill is better for whole fish, since, just like in a skillet, the fish's skin is less likely to stick to a very hot surface. But if it's a big fish, and I find that the skin is nicely charred but the fish hasn't fully cooked through yet, I want to be able to shift it over to the cooler side to finish cooking without the skin burning.
The next thing is to clean and oil the grill grate thoroughly. This is a step that we encourage for all grilling, but it's even more important with fish—since fish is more delicate, it's more likely to tear if it sticks to the grill, and a dirty, un-oiled grill grate is a heck of a lot more likely to stick to the fish than a blazing-hot, clean, oiled one.
Last, I like to prep my fish by taking it out of the refrigerator about 20 or 30 minutes before I cook it so that it can come to room temperature. Condensation is more likely to form on the skin of an icy-cold fish, and a wet fish is more likely to stick to the grill. Once the fish has lost its icebox chill, I pat it dry thoroughly to remove any excess moisture on the skin, stuff the cavity with aromatics, and season it inside and out with salt and pepper. Then I rub the whole thing down with oil, once again to help prevent sticking.
Step 2: Set the Fish on the Grill
Once you've preheated the grill, cleaned and oiled the grate, and prepped the fish, it's time to get cooking. In the photo above, you'll notice that I set the fish at a 45° angle to the grill grate. That's a habit held over from my restaurant days—it's the secret to getting nice crosshatch grill marks on the fish, assuming you then rotate it 90° to complete the crosshatching.* But it's also a useful position for the fish when it comes time to turn it.
*You'll also notice, in the photos below, that I didn't do the 90° turn and never got my crosshatches on the fish. That's because by the time the fish released from the grill, it was ready to turn, and I'm more concerned with perfectly cooked fish than with perfectly crosshatched fish.
I also position the dorsal (back) side of the fish closer to the hot coals, since that's the thicker part of the fish and will take the longest to cook.
Step 3: Time to Turn
Knowing when to turn the fish is a little bit of a guessing game. Generally speaking, though, I wait until it looks like the skin has browned nicely before attempting to turn it.
When I am ready to try to flip the fish, I use a trick I learned from fish master and chef Dave Pasternack of Esca in New York City. Most people try to turn a fish on the grill with a spatula, but that's asking for trouble: You have to slide the spatula under the fish, and if the fish is sticking at all, you're not going to find out until you've shredded the thing. Others use tongs, but I find that you're more likely to manhandle a fish with them.
Instead, Pasternack taught me to use a carving fork. By inserting the tines down through the grill grate, you can attempt to lift the fish from below. If it resists, stop trying, and let it cook longer until the skin releases. If it's ready, the fish will lift right up. If you've prepped the grill and fish well, and waited long enough, the fish will not stick.
Getting ready to attempt the lift.
Will it work?
Once I've determined that the fish is ready to roll, I position a spatula on the far side to catch it, then complete the turn. Using the spatula, I ease it down onto the grill on the other side.
Next, it's just a matter of waiting for it to cook through. It's ready when an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part registers about 135°F (57°C). Again, if you think the skin is getting too brown before the fish is cooked through, just use the carving fork to lift it, then move it to a cooler part of the grill to finish.
Step 4: Serve
Once it's ready, let the fish rest five minutes or so, then carve it up following my instructions here.
As for serving, you can eat the fish as is, with just a squeeze of lemon and/or a drizzle of olive oil. Or you can serve it with a condiment, like this olive-and-tomato compote I whipped up.