Jane Says: This Summer, Throw Some Fish on the Grill

Cooking whole fish is an easy, impressive way to expand your grilling game.

(Photo: Ming Tang Evans/Getty Images)

Jul 9, 2014· 5 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.
“The thought of grilling fish is intimidating, but I’d like to give it a try. How do I go about it, and what are some sustainable species that will work well?”
—Anders Johnson

Grilling fish isn’t nearly as difficult as you think, especially if you buy relatively small whole fish instead of fillets. The skin and the thin layer of heart-healthy fat beneath it protect the meat from overcooking, optimizing juiciness and flavor. The drama quotient of a platter of sizzling grilled whole fish is also very high: Your dinner guests will feel like they’re on holiday in the Mediterranean.

Another reason that whole fish are preferable is that it’s easier to tell if they’re fresh when buying them: Look for red gills; a gleaming body that’s firm yet resilient; and bright, clear eyes. (One caveat: large fish eyes cloud with age more readily than small fish eyes, which change very little.) If you’re vacationing on the coast, you may find fish right off the boat; if they’re that fresh, the fish could still be in rigor mortis (the stiffening that happens a few hours after death). They’ll be covered with a luminous slime—the best of all freshness indicators. If you have the choice, buy fish with the head and tail on—tender fish cheeks and the tail, which becomes crisp when grilled, make for wonderful eating.

One last shopping note: You want fish that weigh between 1 and 3 pounds—they’re easier to maneuver on the grill and will cook through before the outside begins to burn. Fish that are much larger won’t fit on a standard charcoal grill.

The Fire

Fish and other seafood are more delicate than meat or chicken. To get the best results, you need a medium-hot fire instead of one that’s more intense.

The Grill

The grill grate should be ultraclean. Fish skin has an adhesive quality, and it will stick to a grate that’s gummy with residue. And even though the fire should be moderately hot, preheat the grill grate until it is very hot so it sears the skin of the fish almost immediately, keeping it from sticking. Lightly oil the grate just before you put the fish on it.

The Fish

The easiest fish to grill are those that that have meaty, oily flesh, a quality that goes hand in hand with richness of flavor. Mackerel, bluefish, and Pacific sardines are good examples of what I’m talking about—and they’re all sustainable choices, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. Milder fish such as sea bass and branzino, which also get good marks from Seafood Watch, work well, although be extra-careful when turning them over on the grill. If you’ve tucked herbs and lemon slices inside the fish (see below), it’s a good idea to tie them with kitchen string soaked in water (so it doesn’t burn) or fasten the cavity opening with a soaked wooden skewer or toothpicks. Not only will that keep the stuffing inside, but it also will help prevent more delicate fish from breaking apart when you turn them.

Grilling is also a terrific way to cook oysters, clams, and mussels, by the way. Once the grill is ready, place the bivalves (oysters flat side up) on the grill grate and cook until they just open their shells (discard any that don’t open). This takes practically no time, and the shellfish, which essentially cook in their own juices, get a wonderful smoky edge.

The Technique

Stuffing the cavity of a whole fish with aromatics helps keep it moist while grilling. A few of my favorite stuffings include:

• Lemon slices and fennel or dill fronds

• Lemon slices and oregano or marjoram sprigs

• Lime slices, basil sprigs, and red Thai chiles (a combo I learned from my former colleague Greg Lofts)

• Fennel bulb slices, lightly smashed peeled garlic cloves, and bay leaves

My fish-grill basket, touted as a “must-have” grilling accoutrement, went to the thrift shop years ago because I never used it; whatever fish I bought never seemed to fit into it properly. And tongs can be a bit clumsy when turning fish; you can easily puncture the skin. Instead, I rely on two large offset spatulas for turning fish and for transferring them to a platter. If you only have one spatula, then press a small cookie sheet into service as an aid.

Patience is a virtue. After you put the fish on the grill, do not mess with it for a good five to seven minutes. Then try to turn it over. If it sticks, don’t panic, and don’t force it. Leave it be for another few seconds and try again. After it develops a little more sear, it will release more cleanly. Turn the fish just once, to minimize the chance it will stick or break apart.

To check for doneness, insert the tip of a knife or putty knife (my favorite tool for the job) horizontally along the top of the back, where the dorsal fin was, and take a peek. The flesh should have turned from translucent to opaque and look as though it is about to flake. Remove the fish from the grill, and the residual heat will finish the cooking for you. Don’t wait until the flesh actually does flake or it will overcook.

The Master Recipe

I’m calling for branzino (plural: branzini) in the recipe below because it’s so versatile. Its flesh is mild, yet distinctive enough to work with the aromatics mentioned above or with a sauce made of chopped tomatoes and kalamata olives cooked quickly in olive oil, for instance, or the traditional Greek vinaigrette called ladolemono, made of equal amounts extra-virgin olive oil and fresh lemon juice, plus salt and pepper. Native to the East Atlantic and Mediterranean, branzino (aka European sea bass or loup de mer) is sustainably farmed in Canada and is a “Best Choice” of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. One whole fish is a single serving. If branzino doesn’t float your boat, you’ll find a variety of recipes for grilled mackerel, bluefish, sardines, etc. online.

Ingredients

4 whole branzini (each about 1 pound), cleaned by the fishmonger (ask that the heads and tails be left intact)

Extra-virgin olive oil

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

Ingredients for one or more of the stuffings (see “The Technique,” above), plus additional lemon or lime wedges and herbs, for serving

Kitchen string or 4 thin wooden skewers, soaked in water 30 minutes

An inexpensive vegetable oil, for grill

Directions

With a paring knife, make 1-inch-long, ¼-inch-deep diagonal slashes at 2-inch intervals on both sides of each fish. (This enables the fish to cook evenly throughout and also gives the seasonings on the skin a chance to penetrate.) Rub the fish all over with olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper, working everything into the slashes as well as the heads and tails.

Drizzle the cavity of each fish with a bit more olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Distribute the stuffing ingredients of choice in the cavities. Tie fish closed with soaked string at 2-inch intervals or secure cavity openings with soaked skewers.

Meanwhile, preheat grill for direct-heat grilling over medium-high heat (see “The Grill, above). Oil the (very hot) grill grate with vegetable oil and immediately put the fish on the grill. Cook, completely undisturbed, until undersides develop a good sear, 5 to 7 minutes. During this part, it’s best not to even think of picking up a spatula. Honest.

Turn the fish with 2 large spatulas and grill on the other side, until seared and flesh is just opaque, another 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer the fish to a platter with the spatulas and remove string or skewers.

You can either serve each person a whole fish (place it on one side of the plate, so guests have room for the fish bones while serving themselves), or you can do the carving for everyone. Branzini have a simple, easy-to-see bone structure, or frame, so deboning is no big deal. First, cut the fillet, or side, free from the side of the fish facing you, and lift it off the frame with a spatula. Holding the frame by the tail, carefully peel it off the bottom fillet. Ta-dah!