3 tips for grilling fish

How to choose fish, prep your barbecue, and grill

By David ZimmerDavid Zimmer


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Choosing fish

Grilling directly above the flames brings high reward (intense char-grilled flavour and crispy skin) with high risk (the fish is more likely to stick or burn). Choos-ing fish that can stand up to direct grilling comes down to four things: skin, oiliness, thickness, and density. Heavy-fleshed, dense—almost meaty—species, including tuna, swordfish, and mahi mahi, are good choices. But some less sturdy fish, such as salmon or trout, have enough natural oils to keep them from drying out, provided they are either protected by a layer of skin or cut thick enough (at least 1″). Whole fish are shielded from the flames by their skin, which is why trout, sardines, arctic char, and even large smelt are great for direct grilling. And because thicker chunks  of fish are better at retaining moisture, steaks cut across the width of the fish often work better than fillets, which are cut along the length of the fish on either side of the spine.

Prepping the grill

No matter what you’re cooking, a dirty grill is trouble. That half-burnt crud  you left on the grate will encourage any food to stick, but for fish, it’s like Krazy Glue. And those pungent flavours of last night’s charred barbecue sauce? They’re about to overpower tonight’s fish dinner.

Preheat the grill to medium-high and clean it well. Let the fish come to room temperature and brush it with olive oil or butter and season with salt and pepper (if that’s not already part of your recipe). Just before cooking, oil the grill grate. To flip fish, be gentle and use a long flipper (or two regular ones). If skin-on fish starts to burn, slide it onto a piece of aluminum foil and continue cooking.

Grilling the fish

Whole fish

1. Cut a few diagonal slashes on each side of the fish and place on the cooking grate for anywhere from 5–15 minutes per side depending on the size and thickness of the fish. (A 1-lb/500 g fish falls right in the middle of the timing scale.) Fish stuffed with vegetables  or grains will take longer than plain fish.

2. When the skin is crisp and brown, poke the thickest part of the fish with a small knife; when the knife goes in without any resistance, gently flip to the other side. Grill for another 5–15 minutes, until the meat  on the second side is just opaque and cooked to the bone.

Skin-on fillets

Choose a starting position—skin up or down—based on the texture of the fish. For firm, meaty fish, such as salmon, tuna, or swordfish, place the fillet skin-side up on a clean, oiled cooking grate. After 2 minutes or so, when the flesh has a nice set of grill marks, flip carefully and finish cooking. Timing—from 4–10 minutes—varies widely, depending on the thickness and sturdiness of the fillet.

Start delicate fillets skin-side down on the grill and don’t flip—either close the lid to help cook the top or place  an aluminum pie plate over the fish as a heat reflector.

Steaks and skinless fillets

Firm fish, cut at least 1″ (2.5 cm) thick, work even when there’s no skin protecting tender flesh from the hot grill. Place the fish on the cooking grate and either close the grill lid or use an aluminum heat reflector to help cook the top side.

1. Grill from 3–6 minutes, depending on the thickness and sturdiness of the fish, or until the fish looks cooked about halfway up the side.

2. Brush on a little olive oil, then gently flip and cook for another 3–6 minutes. Test for doneness. For tuna lovers and some salmon fans, doneness is a matter of choice, so reduce cooking times accordingly. (Tuna, in particular, might only require a min-ute of searing on each side to be considered perfectly cooked.)

Nota bene: Overcooked tuna is nothing more than really expensive cat food, so if you’re a “well done” type of eater, save yourself the time and trouble and just pick up a can of Fancy Feast.

This article was originally published on June 1, 2011

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David Zimmer