How-To & Diy

How to Grill a Whole Fish

July  2, 2013

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

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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

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • nansaki
  • Bob Dow
    Bob Dow
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    Catherine Rulli
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    Lynn Boyle
Rick Moonen

Written by: Rick Moonen

Restaurateur, chef and cookbook author, Rick Moonen, has been one of the country’s leading advocates for the sustainable seafood movement his entire 30-year career. His restaurant, Rick Moonen’s rm seafood at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, showcases his commitment to sustainability without foregoing culinary creativity and innovation, and has been critically acclaimed by local and national press since opening its doors. His cookbook, Fish Without a Doubt, featured as part of the Gourmet Book Club, is a practical, hands-on guide to buying, preparing and cooking a wide array of fish. In July 2013 Rick will open his second Las Vegas restaurant, Rx Boiler Room, a steampunk-inspired restaurant and lounge with décor reminiscent of industrialism during the 19th century Victorian era, that promises to serve re-defined comfort food classics and artisan cocktails.


nansaki June 23, 2014
do what the greeks do. while the fish is grilling use a whisk to mix together good olive oil and lemon juice and some oregano. baste the fish but save most of the 'lardo-lemono' to pour over the finished product before serving!
Bob D. September 1, 2013
Bob, I like to butterfly the fish, put oil and spices on both sides, lay fish on foil scale side up. Cook about 8 minutes. I do not turn the fish over. The skin just slips off and you are ready to eat.
sel August 8, 2013
love a good fish stuffed with some of the neighboring
life where he comes from....Sel
Catherine R. July 19, 2013
I made this tonight. I used trout fresh from the docks in Portland Maine. Paired it with a wedge of grilled romaine and some fresh bread and olive oil. It could be the best meal I have ever eaten or prepared. Spectacular. Thank you for the excellent recipe and how to.
Lynn B. July 8, 2013
Lovely, but would have been more helpful with estimates of servings per pound of whole fish. I find this difficult to estimate.
azha July 8, 2013
Nice recipe..
Shalini July 7, 2013
Thanks for the spatula-flipping tip, very useful!
Vstarr71 July 7, 2013
Thank you for the inspiration:) we will be enjoying this tonight!
SweetM July 7, 2013
This tutorial is great, but how about an additional one that shows how to filet the fish off the bone after it's cooked. That's where I always end up having trouble.
kzmccaff May 22, 2014
thomas C. July 2, 2013
What kind of fish is that?
In Alaska, my favorite fish to cook whole is Dolly Varden. A lot of people disregard and disrespect this fish, but it is truly excellent and its cousin the Arctic Charr sells for big price in some fancy restaurants. I usually grill or bake (400F or higher) with salt and (lemon)pepper, and some fresh lemon squeezed on. Served with Rice-a-Roni, and cream corn, it is the best fishing trip meal ever
We made whole trout last night! It was terrific. We didn't cut the skin, but we stuffed it with salt, pepper, parsley, thyme and lemon wedges. Delish.