3 ways to grill fish
Our tips for using foil and cedar planks to cook fish, plus how to smoke fish on the grill
The convenient foil pack
Cooking in foil packages is a riff on the classic French technique of baking in parchment parcels, en papillote. The package creates a steam chamber, so while fish cooked this way won’t have an assertive grilled taste, it will be tender, juicy, and intact. This method suits fish from cottage lakes, most of which are too delicate and lean for direct grilling. Best of all, foil-pack grilling lets you add flavouring agents, ranging from lemon or lime zest to simple spice mixes, compound butters, or flavoured oils. The packs can be assembled in advance, refrigerated, and then quickly cooked when the eaters arrive. Blue box does the dishes.
1. Preheat the grill to medium-high. (It doesn’t have to be clean. Bonus.) Generously brush olive oil on a sheet of heavy-duty foil (or a doubled thickness of regular foil) and place the fish in the middle. Season with salt, pepper, and whatever flavour combo strikes your fancy. (But there should be some oil or butter, in addition to what you brush on the foil, to help flavour the juices.) Seal the long sides, by folding over the edges a few times, then do the same to the ends to create a loose package with tight seams.
2. Place directly on the grate, close the lid, and grill for 6–10 minutes (no flipping required), depending on the thickness of your portion. The foil pack should sizzle. If it sounds too violent, move the packs to a cooler part of the grill.
3. Crack open a pack and test for doneness. If more time is needed, tightly reseal the pack and cook for a few more minutes.
4. To serve, carefully open the packs, plate the fish, and pour cooking juices overtop. A squeeze of lemon or lime or a drizzle of olive oil won’t hurt.
Working the plank
Grilling fish on a wooden board can seem a bit contrived and hokey, but is in fact a time-honoured method that’s easy and makes a spectacular presentation. You can use most any sturdy fish and hardwood plank, but the classic combination of salmon (or trout or char) and cedar is the hands-down winner. (Avoid all other softwoods.) The plank supports even a large side of salmon, which both bakes and steams while it absorbs subtle smoke flavour. Bonfire does the dishes.
1. Choose an untreated cedar board that’s at least 1/2″ (1 cm) thick, 5″ (13 cm) wide, and cut to the length of your fish. A lumberyard is the place for this, as the puny planks sold at grocery stores are too short, too thin, and too expensive. Soak it in water for at least an hour (longer is better), weighing it down if necessary.
2. Preheat the grill to medium-high. Wipe the plank dry and lightly oil it. Season the fish with salt and pepper. If it has been marinated, blot excess with a paper towel. Place fish on the plank, skin-side down, and loosely wrap in foil, scrunching the foil around the edges of the plank.
3. Set the plank on the cooking grate, close the lid, and grill until the cedar begins to char. Open or close the lid to control the temperature; you want the plank to constantly smoke and char, but not catch fire. Elevate the plank on small logs of scrunched-up foil if charring is too intense.
4. A side of salmon could take 30 minutes to cook; smaller pieces only 20 minutes. Test for doneness, cutting a slit in the foil.
5. To serve, remove the foil and run a flexible knife under the fish to release it from the board (the skin will probably stick). Gently slide the fish onto a serving platter, or set the charred board on a fresh plank and bring it to the table.
How to smoke fish
There are two ways to smoke fish and they are radically different. Cold smoking creates fish like lox, which looks raw and delicate, and is done slowly at temperatures so low they are difficult to maintain on cottage equipment. Hot-smoked fish, on the other hand, is perfectly suitable for cottage cooks. It’s the same method used for cuts like ribs and pork shoulders, and uses temperatures between 200°F–250°F (95°C–120°C) to cook the fish while bathing it in flavourful smoke. You can use a light brine or marinade to moisten the fish and introduce extra flavour, but it isn’t mandatory.
Any fish can be hot-smoked, but mildly oily fish, such as salmon, trout, and char, retain moisture better than lean, white-fleshed fish. Fish can be whole or in fillets with the skin left on. Skinless fish will dry out too much.
Wood chips, soaked in water for 30 minutes, provide the delicious smoke, but choose your wood wisely. Oak, mesquite, and hickory are too strong for delicate fish, while light-tasting fruitwoods, cedar (for salmon), and alder, a classic fish-smoking wood, are perfect. Use restraint: You only need a small amount.
1. Remove the fish from any brine or marinade, pat dry, and bring it to room temperature (about 30 minutes). If using plain fish, season with salt and pepper and brush with olive oil.
2. Set up your grill for indirect cooking. On a gas grill, preheat one side (or section), leaving the other burner(s) off. Place a small fistful of wood chips in a smoker box, or wrap in foil and set on the hot burner. On a charcoal grill, bank the coals to one side and add a small fistful of chips directly on the coals.
3. Place the fish on the cooking grate, skin-side down, as far from the fire as possible. Close the lid and use vents or the gas knob to maintain a temperature between 200°F–250°F (95°C–120°C).
4. Cook the fish, no flipping required, until it passes the doneness test. Look for a temper-ature of 160°F (71°C) on an instant-read thermometer. Cooking time will depend on the fish’s density and thickness, and the grill temperature (which fluctuates)—1/2″ (1 cm) trout fillets may need only 20 minutes, while a side of salmon could take as long as an hour. Be vigilant.
5. When the fish comes off the grill, let it rest 3–4 minutes before serving. Hot- smoked skin is bitter, so don’t eat it.
This article was originally published on June 1, 2011
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