A Guide to Grilling and Preparing Fish
Sep 28th, 2021 by Keith Worrall
Modified Sep 28th, 2021 at 9:08 PM
A Guide to Grilling and Preparing Fish
If you want to capture the authentic flavors of the sea, the best method is through the old-fashioned flames of a fire. In the culinary world, food trends come and go but one thing that always stays relevant among top chefs and tastemakers is the distinctive flavor of rustic meals cooked over the grill.
If your go-to meat for barbequing is typically land animals like beef and poultry, adding some surf to your turf might seem intimidating at first. But with these expert tips, including step-by-step instructions on how to prepare fish, grilling techniques, equipment, and more, you’ll learn everything you need to know about grilling your favorite fresh catch du jour.
How to Prepare Fish Before Grilling
For outdoorsy types, catching fish to grill and eat with friends and family is the best part of a cookout. If you’re taking the made-from-scratch concept from start to finish, here are some tips on fish prep, including how to gut fish, deboning fish, and preparing steaks, filets, or whole fish for the grill:
- Gutting the fish – Whether you’re prepping a filet or whole fish, removing the entrails gets rid of the parts that can contaminate the flesh, making it an essential part of your fish prep. If you’re wondering how to gut fish, the first step is to place the fish on a cutting board and hold it firmly with one hand to keep it from moving. Next, cut the center of the belly with a knife from the rear fin to the top of the head. Place the fish over the sink and spread the belly. Then remove the guts, using the knife to cut away any tough pieces.
- Deboning fish – Top chefs all agree — cooking with fresh fish from the market is no comparison to readymade fillets. Although it does require some effort, the restaurant-style quality is well worth it.
- The first step is to place the fish on the cutting board with the skin side down. As the cooking experts from Good Housekeeping explain, “With a sharp, thin-bladed knife, make a small cut through the base of the tail, then slightly loosen the flesh from the skin.”
- To finish deboning, they recommend sliding the knife down the length of the fillet using a gentle sawing motion.
- Continue cutting until the entire piece of skin is cut away. The next step is to run your hand along the fillet, feeling for any bones. Before grilling, make sure to remove any bones with needle-nose pliers or fish tweezers.
- Preparing fish for the grill – First, pat the fish dry with paper towels or a kitchen towel to remove excess moisture. This is a crucial step because if the fish is wet, the meat will be steamed and not seared, which is a recipe for disaster when grilling fish. Then lightly coat in extra virgin olive oil and season with salt and fresh cracked pepper, plus added herbs, depending on your recipe. Pro tip: Marinating the fish is another option for ramping up the flavor, but grilling expert Danilo Alfaro advises against marinades longer than 30 minutes because they will alter the texture. He recommends dipping the fish in the marinade, letting the excess drain, and then placing it on the grill. Another option is brushing your fish with the marinade while it cooks.
- Cleaning the grill – Along with oiling the fish itself during the prep, cleaning the grill is another important step.
- Heat the grill to 400° F and then thoroughly scrub the grates with a grill brush.2.
- As the final step, season the grates with a spritz of oil such as canola or vegetable, which has a high smoke point.
Fish Grilling Basics: Equipment, Cooking Methods & More
Grilling fish might seem overwhelming for beginner chefs, but once you understand the basics of grilling equipment and cooking methods for different types of fish, making delicious meals is easier than you think.
Choose your Grill
Whether you cook your fish on a gas grill, Kamado Joe grill, or wood pellet grill, each type has different features and benefits.
Gas Grill: A gas grill is great for convenience — just turn a dial and it’s fired up and ready to go. If you’re cooking for a large group of people, the gas grill makes your barbequing duties even easier.
Charcoal: A charcoal grill such as the ceramic Kamado Joe takes more effort to start the fire and keep it going, but your fish will have a distinctively smoky flavor.
Wood pellet: Similar to a gas grill, a wood pellet grill gives you control over the fuel and heat levels. Uniquely, this specialty grill also delivers a delicious smoke from the wood pellets that adds subtle, mild flavors to your fish.
Choose the Right Fish for Grilling
Any type of fish tastes great when grilled, but some varieties should be cooked a certain way to get the best results. Fish like tuna, swordfish, halibut, mahi-mahi, and salmon have a texture similar to beef and pork, which is why it should be grilled directly on the grate. The result is a nicely charred exterior with a crispy texture and smooth, luscious meat cooked all the way through.
Grilling delicate fish like flounder, sole, and tilapia should be grilled in a foil packet or grill basket. The best level of grill heat to avoid the fish sticking to the grill is medium-high, which is 350 F on a gas grill. For the same temperature on a Kamado Joe grill, you’ll need half a chimney of coals.
How to Grill Fish: Step-by-Step
Once your fish is prepped and seasoned, and the grill is cleaned and oiled, it’s time for the fun part – grilling your fish.
Step 1: Set your fish up for mouthwatering success
Place the fish diagonally over the grates, which will give you masterful-looking grill marks while also making the fish easier to flip over. Another important tip to remember is to wait until the fish is at room temperature before grilling. Leave it on the counter for 30 to 60 minutes. Or if you’re in the great outdoors and exposed to the elements, keep the fish covered and place it in a shady spot.
Step 2: Perfect your cook time
Your ideal cook time entirely depends on the thickness of your fish steaks or fillets. Whether it’s three or four minutes on each side, a good rule to follow is the flakiness factor. As top chef Danilo Alfaro points out, “Many recipes say that fish is done when it flakes easily, but this is actually the point at which fish is overcooked.” Instead, he advises removing the fish from the grill when the meat is just beginning to flake, which accounts for any carryover cooking.
Pro tip: Grilling on a wood plank is an easy way to get a smoky flavor with a gas grill, plus all the convenience of ready-to-go heating dials and fast clean-up. The most common type of grilling plank is cedar but you can also use oak, maple, or cherry. Soak the plank for about an hour in salted or plain water to help bring out the wood flavor and prevent burning. Then brush it with oil and place on the grill. Versatile and easy to use, a wood grilling plank can also be placed in a charcoal or wood pellet grill.
Step 3. Assemble your BBQ accessories
For the love of BBQ, don’t forget to gather all the essential cooking tools before you fire up the grill.
- BBQ knives – The best knife for prepping fish is a fillet knife, which is ideal for slicing and removing meat from the skin thanks to its thin and flexible build with a flat edge and pointed tip.
- Spatulas – Double up on spatulas because having two on hand makes flipping super easy.
Other tools to include in every basic barbecue kit include:
- Grill brush
- Meat thermometer
- Basting brush
- Aluminum foil
Now that you know the basics of grilling your favorite seafood to perfection, you’ll be a big fish at your next barbeque get-together. Use these pro tips for grilling fish and get ready to inspire everyone’s taste buds with your next-level culinary skills.
About the Author: After tasting his first American-style barbeque in the 90s, Surinder Multani got so fired up about backyard grilling that he eventually turned his passion for food and cooking into a business when he founded BBQ Outlets in 2005. Specializing in gas grills, barbecue islands, and the Smoker, Surinder expanded his BBQ equipment line to also include patio furniture, fireplaces, and an expert design team.