Cooking fresh fish over an open fire or charcoal pit is the perfect way to end a good day on the water. Wood smoke and bitter char add complexity without overpowering one of nature’s delicacies. Achieving this can be tricky, so we’re here to help you make the best grilled fish.
Grilling fish can be difficult because the protein tends to stick on the grates, fall apart, or dry out. What’s even more challenging is the wide variety of seafood out there—from lean to oily and thick to thin. The secret to mastering the grill is pairing the right fish with the proper grilling method.
How to Grill Fish Directly On Grates
As a rule of thumb, fattier fish can take the high heat of the grill without drying out. Keeping the skin on filets also helps to lock in moisture.
The best varieties of fish for cooking directly on the grates are whole fish like trout, snapper, and even rockfish. Meaty, firm fish such as tuna, mahi-mahi, wahoo, and swordfish are also perfect candidates and can be cooked just like a steak or cut into cubes for kabobs. You can also grill skin-on filets such as salmon and redfish.
There are two rules to follow to keep the fish from sticking to the grates. The first is that you should bring the fish to room temperature before cooking. Never place cold fish on a hot grill. The second is to pat the skin dry with paper towels and coat with a high smoke point oil. Oiling the grates can also be helpful.
Season the filets right after applying oil. Doing this 30 minutes to an hour before cooking allows the fish to come to room temperature and the salt strengthens the cellular walls making the texture firmer and less likely to fall apart. Salt also brines the fish and helps it to retain moisture when cooked. Whole fish can be scored and stuffed with citrus and herbs.
If you choose to marinate instead of using a dry rub, keep in mind that acidity can break down the muscular walls and soften the fish. Limit the marinating time to an hour or under, and only marinate firm fish.
Generally speaking, you want to cook fish over high heat. You know the heat is right if you can hold your hand above the fire for 3-5 seconds. If you can’t keep it there that long, either let the coals burn down or raise the grate higher.
Whether you use charcoal, wood, or propane for grilling, be sure to set up different zones for direct and indirect heat. This step is crucial when grilling delicate fish or thinner filets. Some setups come with swinging grates so that you can move the food where you need to. In a typical charcoal pit, mound the coals up on one side of the grill. With propane, all you have to do is turn off the burners directly under the fish and keep the others lit.
Place the fish skin-side down (if there is any skin) directly over the coals and close the lid. Covering traps the heat and creates an oven-like effect. Cook it on this side until it begins to char. It should lift freely from the grates. You’ll need to flip whole fish and thick steaks for even cooking. Be sure to close the lid again. The fish will cook a little bit longer on the first side than it does on the second.
Thin fish filets can easily fall apart, so don’t try and mess with them. Instead, use tongs or heat-proof gloves to rotate the grate so that the fish is getting indirect heat or reduce the heat on a propane grill. This allows you to cook the fish all the way through without completely burning the skin.
You’ll know the fish is ready when it flakes apart easily when pressed with a butter knife. Use a grill spatula and carefully move the fish from the grates and serve immediately.
How to Grill Fish on a Wood Plank
Wood planks are the perfect cooking vessel for any salmon or skinless, flaky fish. It prevents the fish from drying out, provides a barrier to the fire, and imparts various smoked flavors depending on the wood you choose. Cedar is common, but you can also find maple, hickory, and applewood planks.
This method is the easiest way to grill fish because you don’t have to worry about charring the skin, moving out of direct heat, or flipping the fish. You want to grill over medium to medium-high heat, and remember to keep the lid covered so that the topside of the fish cooks through.
You’ll still want to bring the fish to room temperature before cooking so that it cooks evenly, and remember to soak the cedar plank in water an hour before grilling so it doesn’t burn. I like to season cedar-planked fish and then top with compound butter or oil for fat. You can also add fresh herbs and citrus slices.
How to Grill Fish in Foil
Foil packets are the go-to for camp cooking! A buttery fish fillet with pesto, asparagus, and cherry tomatoes cooked in one packet makes for a luxurious meal when eating outdoors.
Any thin, flaky fish fillets from walleye, weakfish, or panfish work with this method because the packet traps the moisture inside. You can poke holes or keep the top loosely open to release steam.
When it comes to grilling, you’ll want to set up zones for cooking. Foil is thin and you don’t want to leave it over high, direct heat for too long. You can either shift it around to indirect heat to cook it more gently or raise the grates higher to reduce the heat.
Now that you know which fish are best for each type of grilling method, you should be able to grill anything you catch with confidence. Try our whole grilled fish with Cajun salsa Verde or a classic redfish on the half shell.