The Simple Art of Grilling Fish: Tips From the Messenger’s Food and Beer Critic
Despite deep-seated views to the contrary, grilling fish really is not so hard. Most common complaints include: sticking to the grill and breaking apart when turning, yielding an end-product that is unsightly and chronically under- or over-done, or worse, falling through the grill into the ash and coal. A couple of easy tricks solve these problems and more. A little practice, and you’ll flip fish with the ease of burgers or steaks.
Bring fish to room temperature before cooking, and preheat the grill surface fully. 350-425 deg. F. on a gas grill, or a medium-hot charcoal fire should work nicely. Using a good infrared grill can do the job flawlessly as well, as you’ll have more control over the temperature, but whatever you have in your kitchen will do. Never over-clean the grill surface, as accumulated cooked on fats and oils properly condition the surface, like a cast-iron skillet, imparting a rich smoky flavor as well as a stick-free surface. Any grillable—meat, vegies, even fruits—tends to stick if too cool or wet. This is even more true of aquatic species, so dry pre-warmed fish on both sides, inside and out, by daubing lightly with a paper towel. Previously frozen fish tend to exude more moisture than fresh, so multiple daubings may be necessary.
Brush both sides of the fish with a seasoned oil ¼ – ½ hour before cooking. This further prevents sticking while imparting desired flavors. Oil and vinegar or Italian dressing works fine, but you can make your own tailored to your particular menu. Plenty of high-temperature oil (olive or peanut) combined with garlic and a tangy acidic component (citrus, vinegar, or wine) forms the base. Then add any seasonings you choose to compliment other foods. Salt and coarse-ground black pepper to taste.
Place the fish directly over medium hot coals. They should sizzle instantly if the grill is hot enough. After about a half a minute, nudge the fish with the spatula tip to loosen it from the grill. A quick sear like this will form a firm, proteinaceous stick-free skin, allowing the fish to slide freely on the grill. If you wait too long, it’ll stick; if you try to loosen it too soon, likewise. Watchful patience and practice will pay off. Just a gentle nudge should do it. Practice first with skin-side down for less chance of sticking.
Cook about five minutes per side, per half inch of meat thickness. Re-baste with the seasoned oil after turning, then another 5 minutes on side two. Flip again and move to the cooler, indirect side of the grill and baste with the chunky, flavor-rich deeper layer of the oil. When all the fish are turned and seasoned, test for done-ness by lightly flaking the filet with the tip of the spatula. Medium rare fish will barely flake, showing a moist, opalescent color on the interior.
Some people love fish skin. Others, not. Like chicken, skin has a richer taste and crisply holds seasoning. Or, grill skin-side down first and after turning, the slightly charred skin will peel off the meat with the edge of the spatula. If it’s reluctant, it needs a bit more heat, so flip it back an extra minute. Save skin for your beloved dog or cat; they’ll love you more for it!
A quick note on whole fish—they’re very traditional and offer a dramatic presentation. Bring to room temp, dried and oiled, like the filets, but stuff them with sliced lemon, onions, mushrooms, what have you. They’ll need a little more cooking time than filets. Roll the fish over across the backside to keep the stuffing in. Baste/season as before. To avoid thinner bellies burning before the thick backs are done, cut shallow diagonal slashes across the thick parts with a sharp knife, an inch or two apart. Cooked hot and fast, even the rinds of the lemons become tender and caramelized.