The Easiest, Fastest (3-Minute!) Way to Grill Fish

A few years ago, Bon Appétit ran a story on “plancha”-style cooking featuring chef Eric Ripert and a slate-grilled summer menu. The photos of steak searing, sourdough bread charring, and all the summer vegetables caramelizing on a smoking-hot slab nearly had me running to Home Depot to buy untreated slate (as Ripert reportedly does), but as I read on, a more appealing idea caught my attention: I could use my cast iron skillet instead. BA noted that a griddle or cast iron pan set on a grill like a plancha allows “food to pick up smoky grill flavors without the risk of flareups,” and is “particularly suited to delicate foods like fish and small vegetables that would otherwise fall through or be shredded by a grill grate.”

Last week, when summer finally hit upstate New York, and nothing sounded better than grilled fish, I remembered this article and set my cast iron skillet on the grill as it preheated. About 10 minutes later, when the grill temperature had climbed to 550° F and the skillet had turned white hot, I poured in a little oil, carefully lowered in a haddock fillet, closed the grill, and set the timer for 3 minutes. Much to my delight, when the timer dinged, the fish had seared beautifully, the heat of the skillet creating a light bottom crust, which allowed the fillet to release from the pan with the gentlest push of a spatula.

Because I use a gas grill, no smoky flavor was imparted; nothing emerging from my grill will taste like burning briquettes or a summer campfire—but this is something I’ve come to accept about my backyard grilling undertakings. My gas grill, in essence, is a very hot outdoor oven that excels at searing without setting off the fire alarm; if you're working with a charcoal grill, I think the fish will be as good if not even better for the flavor of the coals.

Left, tortillas and fish just off the grill. Right, the makings of a simple slaw for tacos. Photo by Alexandra Stafford

In addition to haddock, I’ve had success using this method with fillets of cod and grouper, each about 1/2- to 1-inch thick. Seasoned with salt and cayenne pepper, the flaky fish can be eaten simply with a squeeze of lemon, though it’s particularly good broken into pieces over a bed of slaw and wrapped in tortillas warmed directly on the grill grates (which only takes about 30 seconds). With a simple slaw and crema, a summery skillet-grilled dinner can materialize in no time.

Alexandra Stafford is a writer, photographer, and occasional stationery designer based in upstate New York, where she is writing a cookbook. You can read more of her work on her blog.

Shop the Story

Have you ever used a cast iron pan on your grill? Tell us about it, and what you made, in the comments.

Order Now

Any Night Grilling is your guide to becoming a charcoal champion (or getting in your grill-pan groove), any night of the week. With over 60 ways to fire up dinner—no long marinades or low-and-slow cook times in sight—this book is your go-to for freshly grilled meals in a flash.

Order Now

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Barb
  • piere H.
    piere H.
  • Vicki Buffalo
    Vicki Buffalo
  • Alexandra Stafford
    Alexandra Stafford
  • Caroline Lange
    Caroline Lange
I write the blog alexandra's kitchen, a place for mostly simple, sometimes fussy, and always seasonal recipes. My cookbook, Bread Toast Crumbs is available everywhere books are sold.


Barb May 26, 2017
My favorite take on cilantro is a recent "Modern Family" episode. Cameron got roped into making one of Gloria's aubela's recipes to fight off sickness, and it involved dried chicken beak, powdered scorpion tail, and cilantro. As he read this out loud to himself, he said "Yuck, cilantro". Stink weed, not to pass onto my plate.....
Author Comment
Alexandra S. May 27, 2017
That's hilarious!
piere H. June 24, 2016
Thanks I'm on it this weekend
Author Comment
Alexandra S. June 24, 2016
Vicki B. June 24, 2016
I'm reading "The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling" by Meathead Goldwyn. A great tip for gas grills he gave was to take wood chips, wrap in foil packet, poke holes, and throw on the inverted v gas burners. No soaking of chips required. I tried this out with eggplant, zucchini, onion, and tomato for a grilled ratatouille. It gave everything a great smokey taste. We hardly got the veggies mixed together for all the tasting being done! I will be adding wood chips from now on to everything I grill.
Caroline L. June 24, 2016
Such a great tip! Thanks, Vicki!
Author Comment
Alexandra S. June 24, 2016
Such a great tip! If I can find wood chips when I'm out and about today, I'm going to try this tonight. Where do you buy yours? Regular grocery store?
702551 June 24, 2016
Wood chips are often sold at grocery stores and hardware stores, but usually it's just hickory.

If you want a better selection of wood chips, you should seek out a barbecue store where you will find chips made from alder, apple, cherry, cedar, mesquite, oak, and other hardwoods.

Of course, you can simply buy them at Amazon too.
702551 June 24, 2016
Note that some people use a wood chip smoker box instead of foil.

Here's one at Amazon:

Foil is an easy out though.
702551 June 24, 2016
It's actually better to buy a selection of woods so you don't get the same smoke flavor in everything. I think hickory is better with meats. For fish, I'd use alder or cedar. Apple is especially nice with pork.

More fun to have different woods on hand and pick something to match whatever you're grilling.
Author Comment
Alexandra S. June 24, 2016
Shoot! Wish I had seen this before I went out. I picked up mesquite. Yes or no with fish?
702551 June 24, 2016
Mesquite is not my first choice for fish, but it should be okay. It's more a matter of personal preference than anything else.

For sure, mesquite better than hickory for fish, IMHO.
702551 June 24, 2016
For the purposes of cooking fish for tacos, mesquite would work out pretty well. Mesquite is native to the southwestern USA and Mexico, so the flavor profile of mesquite smoke would actually lend itself better for taco-destined fish than if you were cooking salmon for example.

Alder is actually a wood that is commonly used for smoking salmon.

Once you have used different types of wood for smoking different ingredients, you'll develop your own personal preference on what works better for Preparation A versus Preparation B.
Author Comment
Alexandra S. June 24, 2016
Thanks so much! I used the mesquite because it was all I had, and it was good! The flavor was subtle, but I think that's probably because the fish was only the grill for 6 minutes. Tonight, I put my Baking Steel on the grill as it preheated, and cooked two whole Branzino on top, 4 minutes on one side, two on the other — so good! Thanks for all of your thoughts on the wood chips. Looking forward to more experiments!
702551 June 24, 2016
For sure wood chips smoking on a gas grill for a short time is going to be more subtle than an entire fire powered by that wood over hours.

Anyhow, enjoy your grilling experiments!
inpatskitchen June 25, 2016
I love mesquite smoked salmon!
Author Comment
Alexandra S. June 25, 2016
Great to know! I was thinking about trying salmon next actually. My mom always does the cedar plank salmon in the summer, and it's so good, so I imagine salmon would take well to all sorts of wood flavor.