How to Grill A Whole Fish

Fish might not be the first thing you think of when you hear the term “Grilled Food.” Yet more and more people are bringing skin-on fish fillets and even whole fish to their grill. Not only for the health benefits of eating fish but for the succulent smoky flavor that grilling can bring.

Making a whole fish or a skin-on fillet on the grill can be a little bit trickier than simply grilling up some hot dogs or a hamburger patty. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to hedge your bets when bringing fresh flavors of fish to the smokiness of the grill.

Score The Skin Of The Fish

You’ll often see professional chefs and accomplished home cooks scoring or lightly slashing the skin of a whole fish right after gutting and scaling it. This has a few different benefits.

If the fish itself is significantly thicker near the head, but has a thin tail scoring it a little deeper in the thickest part will help it cook evenly on the grill. It’s also a great way to introduce salt and other seasonings to the meat with a gentle pre-rub.

This method works great for several freshwater and saltwater fish such as:

  • Striped bass
  • Bluefish
  • Red Drum
  • Walleye
  • Fresh and Saltwater Trout
  • Wild Caught, Skin-On Salmon
  • Sockeye salmon
  • Black Seabass
  • Porgies
  • White Seabass
  • Pacific Rockfish
  • Weakfish
  • Snapper
  • Grouper

Thoroughly Clean Your Grill Grates

Clean grill grates are important when you are grilling anything. They’re especially important when you are grilling fish. Most fish have a tendency to stick to grill grates. When they do, they will pick up any grease, residue, or old burned-on bits from your previous grilling session. Not only is this unappealing, but it can also alter the flavor of the fish.

It’s best to give the grates a vigorous scrape down during the preheating phase. Even if you scraped them down after the last time you grilled. Then when you are ready to lay down your whole or skin-on fish fillet, you should lightly grease the grates with a paper towel that’s been soaked with neutral cooking oil like canola or grapeseed oil.

Lightly Oil The Fish Before Placing It On The Grate

Even if you’ve already cleaned and greased up the grill grates, you still want to lightly oil the exterior of the fish as a little added insurance against sticking. This will also help crisp up the skin. Especially along the edges of the score marks. Again you want to go with a neutral oil like canola or grapeseed oil. Though depending on your personal tastes, olive oil and sesame oil could also be in play.

Remember To Season The Body Cavity

While you are salting and seasoning the fish remember to also season the body cavity or interior of the meat. If possible, let the salt sit on the fish for a solid 10 to 15 minutes before grilling. This will pull some of the water-soluble proteins in the meat to the surface which will help enhance the flavor as well as the texture of the fish.

Grilling The Whole Fish

Ideally, you want to lay the fish on the grill with the thickest part toward the primary source of heat and the tail as far from the hottest flame as possible. A medium flame should be sufficient. If you grill the fish on too high of a flame it will start to expel some of its natural water and proteins. In fish with red flesh like salmon, this usually appears as little white bubbles near the thickest parts of the interior flesh.

Just how long you need to grill your fish for will vary depending on overall size and thickness. A good rule of thumb is to grill for 10 minutes per inch of thickness, per size. Whole fish are just like hamburger patties, you only want to flip them once in a grilling session. For a skin-on fish fillet such as wild-caught salmon, you wouldn’t flip it at all.

If you have a particularly long fish a pair of tongs probably isn’t the best tool for the job of filling a whole fish. Two, large, offset spatulas can often work in tandem. One to release the fish from the grill grates and start the flip, while the other essentially catches it and gently eases the fish onto the other side over the heat.

How To Tell If The Fish Is Done

Most grilled fish can be cooked to an internal doneness similar to a thick steak. When you think it’s getting close you can gently insert an instant-read probe thermometer. For most people this is right around 145 to 155-degrees Fahrenheit. Depending on the texture of the flesh, you might also be able to flake the fish with a fork or see the meat starting to pull away from the bones.

The Importance Of Resting A Whole Grilled Fish

Proteins tend to contract when exposed to heat. This is especially true with fish, that tend to have more water content than your average steak. Just like how you need to rest a steak after grilling to keep the natural juices from pouring out, you need to also rest a whole grilled fish.

One way to do this is to dress a warmed plate with things like lemon slices, scallions, or some other garnish. Then lay the whole grilled fish on it and tent it lightly with some heavy-duty aluminum foil. This will help hold in the heat, without necessarily carrying the fish over to the point of being overdone.

A three to five-minute rest like this will give the protein fibers inside the fish the time they need to relax. This will let the natural juices permeate back into the flesh of the fillet where you want them when it comes to eat. It also buys you a few precious minutes to plate up other side dishes, prepare a refreshing beverage, or simply call everyone to the table.

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