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How to Grill a Whole Fish

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Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Rick Moonen -- chef, restauranteur, and author of Fish Without a Doubt -- shows us the best (and easiest!) way to grill whole fish.


Grilled whole fish

Grilling whole fish is a delicious way to enjoy seafood all summer long, and presenting a whole grilled fish to your guests or family is sure to impress.  While not necessarily a difficult task, there are some tricks of the trade that make this process much easier -- and will make grilled fish a summer staple.  

It’s important to start with fish that are suitable to grilling -- I love to use red snapper, sea bass or trout -- but any sustainable “meaty” fish will do the trick.  If shopping and you aren’t sure if a fish is sustainable or not, download a Seafood Watch card to your smartphone or print one out from and carry it around with you. It’s a great resource for the best type of fish to purchase.


Prepping the Fish

When you find the type of fish you want, ask the fishmonger at the counter to do the heavy lifting -- the gutting and scaling -- so that all you have to do is take it home, rinse it in cold water, and pat it dry. I like to leave the head and tail on my fish, but having them removed is also just fine.  

Use a very sharp chef or paring knife to cut a few slashes into its sides, parallel to the gills.  This helps the flavorings seep into the flesh and speeds the grilling of the thickest parts, so that the fish cooks evenly.

Season the fish (I like to rub the fish with oil, inside and out, and season it with some sea salt and ground white pepper) and set aside.  

Slashes in fish

Grilling the Fish

Get your grill ready. If using charcoal, prep the coals (I prefer chunk charwood) and push them to one side, keeping the coals about 4 to 6 inches below the grate of the grill so that the fish is cooked on indirect heat. If using a gas grill, set the flame to medium. You are looking for a temperature of about 350 to 450°F for larger fish (2 to 3 pounds) and 450 to 550°F for smaller fish like anchovies or sardines.  

When the grill comes up to heat, carefully oil the grates of the grill and/or the fish basket if you are using one. (If you are a newbie at this -- I suggest getting a hinged grill basket.) You can use a silicone brush to oil the grill, or in a pinch, dip a sturdy paper towel or cloth into oil, and rub it on the grill grates with a set of tongs.  

Fish on grill

Once your fish is prepped, your heat is up and you grill is oiled, it’s time to grill.  Cook the fish for approximately 10 minutes for each inch of thickness.  The mistake most grillers make is by turning the fish too many times.  You only want to flip the fish once.

Flipping fish

Put the fish on the grill, cover it, and grill it just over half the desired time on the first side, then flip once for the remainder of the time. It’s important not to use tongs to flip the fish as it can tear.  If you aren’t using a fish basket, use two large spatulas to cradle the fish on either side, then gently flip the fish over.  The most important thing is to not overcook the fish.  The thickest part of the fish needs to be 140°F when it's done.  

Grilled fish

Once cooked, you can filet it off the bones or simply serve as is on a platter, garnished with fresh herbs maybe a few lemon wedges, and let guests help themselves!

Got any tricks for grilling whole fish? Let us know in the comments!

Photos by James Ransom

Tags: fish, grilling, grilled fish, rick moonen, seafood, kitchen confidence, how-to & diy

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