Article at a glance:
- Choose a thick and meaty fish for grilling– tuna steak, salmon, or thick white fish are good options.
- Leave the skin on when grilling light, flaky fish to help it hold together and get crispy.
- Use dry rubs instead of oil-based marinades to prevent grill flare-ups.
- Preheat the grill to medium to high heat (400-450°F) and brush the grates lightly with oil to prevent sticking.
- Check the center of the filet to determine doneness.
If you’re hesitant to throw your favorite fish on the grill because it always sticks to the grate or falls apart, fear not! With the right techniques and a few handy tips from The Real Salt Chef, Chef Shawn, you can learn to grill great fish. Here are his top tips for cooking tender, flavorful grilled fish.
Tip 1: Choose the right fish.
According to Chef Shawn, the best fish for grilling is any type that’s thick and meaty. “If you have a thin filet, it's going to be harder to grill, because it's going to cook way too fast. You're not going to get any good grill marks or flavor from it,” he says. Chef Shawn says thin filets are also more likely to fall apart on the grill. The best fish to grill is a thick tuna steak, salmon, or a thick white fish because they’ll hold up well on the grill, stay together, and get that good grilled flavor.
Tip 2: Do proper prep.
When getting your fish ready for the grill, you may be wondering—should I leave the skin on or take it off? Chef Shawn is a fan of leaving the skin on for a few reasons. First, there are a lot of nutrients in fish skin. Also, if you’re grilling a light, flaky fish and you grill it with the skin side down it'll hold together much better. You'll ultimately end up with a nice piece of crispy skin that’s full of nutrients.
Curious whether you need to wash your fish before cooking? Chef Shawn doesn’t think it’s necessary. “As long as you’re getting a fresh filet from a reputable marketplace, all you need to do is season it and throw it on the grill,” he says. The one exception is vacuum-sealed fish. That typically includes a brining solution that you may want to rinse off before seasoning and cooking.
Tip 3: Season with intention.
When you’re grilling fish, you’re going to want to stick to dry rubs rather than oil-based marinades. Why? Chef Shawn says using dry rubs is the best choice for fish because it prevents grill flare-ups. Grill flare-ups are a little alarming, sure, but they could also ruin your meal. With how fast fish cooks, if you get a flare-up and you're not paying attention, you could burn it.
Once you know the dry rub recommendation, your approach to seasoning will depend on the type of fish you’re cooking. According to Chef Shawn, some fish don’t need much seasoning. With something like salmon or tuna, typically your goal is to preserve its naturally unique flavor. If you’re serving it with a delicious sauce on the side, all you need is a little Real Salt Lemon Pepper or just a sprinkle of Real Salt and pepper. For fish with a very mild flavor, such as white fish, you could up the ante on the seasoning a bit. Chef Shawn says a solid choice for mild-flavored fish is a Cajun seasoning, which you can use to create that tasty, blackened effect.
Tip 4: Preheat like a pro.
One of the trickiest aspects of grilling fish is preventing it from sticking to the grates and falling apart on the grill. Luckily, there’s a simple solution: preheat your grill well. Chef Shawn says if your grill is hot enough, the fish shouldn’t stick. For fish, you’ll want to preheat your grill to medium to high heat—ideally somewhere between 400- and 450-degrees Fahrenheit.
For a little extra protection against sticking, you can also brush the grill grates with a very thin layer of olive oil (or your oil of preference). Just don’t use too much or you’ll cause flare-ups.
Tip 5: Flipping is overrated.
Chef Shawn says you don’t need to flip fish much …. or at all. If you're grilling your fish flesh side down, he recommends waiting about four minutes before turning it 90 degrees, so you get those crosshatch grill marks. Then grill it for another four minutes to get it cooked all the way through. If it's a lighter filet that's more likely to break apart, grill it skin-side down, and don’t even try flipping it over to the flesh side. Keep that filet in one piece!
Tip 6: Decide how “done” you like it.
How do you know when fish is done? Take a peek at the center of the filet. When it's cooked all the way through, Chef Shawn says you should notice that the middle isn’t translucent anymore. It will be opaque all the way through.
A lot of people prefer their fish that way. But not everybody. Just like with meat, some people prefer their fish cooked a little less. Chef Shawn, for example, likes his fish cooked medium, so it's only slightly opaque in the middle. How well you want your fish cooked will also depend on what type of fish you’re cooking. Some fish aren't very fatty (think wild caught salmon and halibut). Those are more likely to be moist and delicious if you cook them medium instead of “done.” Whatever type of fish you’re making, be careful not to overcook it, so it doesn't dry out.
Bonus Tip! Chef Shawn’s Special Secret for Beginners.
If you're still not feeling confident about cooking your fish on the grill, Chef Shawn has a great suggestion— try it in cast iron first. You can get a cast iron insert for your grill. It delivers a very similar flavor to grilling right on the grates but it’s nice and flat, so you don’t have to worry about your fish falling apart on the grill. Give it a try!
Want to grill more than just fish? Check out this blog post for great tips on grilling your favorite meat and veggies too!