Most people think of meat when they think of barbecue. But you might be surprised to learn that one of the first recorded barbecue recipes — found in a third century Greek food manifesto called, The Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus, (Dinner Table Philosophers) — featured bonito wrapped in grape leaves and grilled directly in the embers.
Fish is meant to be grilled. The direct heat cooks fish fast, easy and without removing moisture. Grilled fish is quite flavorful and juicy, just make sure it doesn’t stick. You can literally get fish off the grill in a matter of minutes, thus making fish the perfect after work meal. Fish is also great for dinner parties. Before dinner you can place the fish in a marinade or season it and light the grill a few minutes before everyone wants to eat.
The hardest part of grilling fish is knowing when it’s done. This is generally the trickiest part of grilling, but don’t worry. When fish is cooked the meat will flake easily with a fork and will appear opaque all the way through. If any part of the meat is still glossy and partially translucent then it’s not done. Most fish cooks quickly, so watch closely. Fish on the bone is more tolerant, requiring at least 10 minutes on each side for a whole two-pound fish. Thick fillets or steaks should be turned after five minutes.
Fillets are also good candidates for grilling, but have a greater tendency to dry out or to stick to the grill grate or break apart when you attempt to turn them.
To make this easier, always start out with a fish steak or fillet that is evenly cut. If one part is much thicker than another, it will be difficult to get the thick part cooked before the thin part dries out. If you have a fillet that is uneven consider cutting it in two. Put the thick half on first and when it’s about halfway done, put the thin half on. This way you will get the fish cooked to perfection without burning anything.
The grill should be very hot and oiled, too (more on this later). Using direct heat will give the fish handsome grill marks. Once you have seasoned the fish, whether with a dry rub, a marinade or herbs, brush it with oil.
After oiling the grates put the fish on the grill and leave it until you are ready to turn it. Turn gently and leave it there until it is ready to leave the grill. With fillets you can tell they are ready to turn because the edges are flaky and opaque. Steaks and whole fish hold together better but take longer to grill. If you are grilling a whole fish stuff it with herbs and lemon slices. This not only adds to the flavor but creates a space to let the heat through. Also keep some fresh lemon juice mixed with olive oil handy while you are grilling. You can brush this on as you grill to add flavor and keep the fish moist.
The very best advice I can give you is this: buy two of the largest spatulas you can find.
I prefer metal spatulas because they are sturdier. They should be broad, at least eight inches across, and the blade should taper to a sharp edge. If possible, buy spatulas with long handles; more than 12 inches is good.
For fish steaks or compact fillets, gently place one spatula on top of the fish to secure it. Firmly but gently ease the second spatula under the fish to separate it from the grilling surface. Turn the steak or fillet sandwiched between the two, then gently slide them out.
Some other suggestions:
Another easy way to turn a large fillet is to cover it with a double thickness of heavy-duty foil, slide a spatula under the fish, turn it over onto the foil, then lift the fillet a bit to slide the foil out.
A whole fish can simply be rolled over: making sure you have room on the grill to achieve this.
The first step, before you even light the grill, is to clean it thoroughly.
Scrub the grates with a wire brush. Then, once they are hot, brush them with oil.
Hold a thick wad of paper towel dipped in vegetable oil with long-handled tongs. Avoid using a long-handled basting brush for this job because the bristles might melt from the heat. Silicone brushes can melt at temperatures over about 650 degrees, and the grates can — and should — get hotter than that.
Here are some techniques to add to your cooking:
Plan ahead. Marinate fish before grilling or spray it with wine or another flavorful liquid as it cooks to prevent it from drying out.
Preheat the grill for 10 minutes to get the grates very hot.
Grill in a pouch. Enclose fish in edible leaves (banana, grape, or even cabbage) and grill until the fish flakes easily with a finger.
Another option is to grill the fish in foil packets, however, when you bundle the fish in foil it will not get any smoke or char from the grill, which means the fish effectively steams in the packet. It’s a healthy option, so many people might find it appealing. (Be cautious when opening the package as steam will escape.)
Grill on a plank. Season the fish on both sides, set up your grill for indirect grilling, then cook the fish directly on a water-soaked cedar (should be soaked for 1 hour) or alder wood plank (available from most cookware stores). No turning is necessary and the drama factor is impressive.
Grill in a basket. Invest in a wire mesh basket designed specifically for grilling fish. You can also use a cast iron pan on the grill.
If your grill has very widely spaced grates and you don’t want to buy a grilling pan or grilling basket, you can go the frugal route and grill on aluminum foil. (You can now even find nonstick coated foil for grilling.) Though you may not get the nice char marks, you will definitely have an easier time grilling the fish. I have found that if you make a few holes in the foil with a cake tester or fork and oil the foil, the fish will brown nicely even when cooked on top of the foil. After the fish is cooked, you can just slide the foil onto a serving plate. Easy.
Many chefs use the technique of grilling on herbs to infuse fish (as well as meat and poultry) with flavor. All you do is lay a thick bunch of herbs onto your grill grates or in a grill basket. Then simply grill the fish on top of the herbs and turn as usual. Use hardy herbs such as rosemary or thyme or even fennel fronds. It’s a good idea to toss the herbs in the same marinade as your fish (or spray with oil) to get them lubricated, so they don’t burn immediately on the grill.
Grill on skewers. Skewer chunks of fish or even a whole fish and suspend the skewers between bricks positioned opposite each other on the grill grate.
One of my favorite meals in the summer is grilled local line caught swordfish sprinkled with sea salt, freshly ground pepper and a little panko bread crumbs; finished with lemon juice, capers and olive oil. It is delicious.This method works with any so-called “steak” fish including tuna, halibut, monkfish, grouper or salmon.
Marinated Tuna Skewers
A simple marinade adds a lot of flavor to tuna skewers.
- 1/3 cup plain yogurt
- 3 tablespoons thinly sliced fresh basil leaves
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 1/3 pound (1-inch-thick) tuna steak, cut into 32 (1-inch) cubes
- Fine sea salt
- Freshly ground white pepper
- Olive oil for grill
Prepare a charcoal grill for direct-heat cooking over medium-hot charcoal (medium-high heat for gas).
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk together yogurt, basil, soy sauce and mustard. Add tuna and toss to coat. Let marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes, then thread tuna onto 8 skewers.
Season skewers with salt and pepper. Grill on oiled grill rack, turning frequently, until fish is cooked to your liking, 6 to 10 minutes.
Blackened Grouper on the Grill
You may be asking “can’t I just do it on the stove?”. The answer is yes, but you will fill your house with smoke and realize outside is a much better idea.
Cast iron or nonstick pan (all metal, no plastic handles)
2 Grouper fillets, skin removed
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- 1/2 tablespoon cayenne pepper (make it a full tablespoon if you like a lot of heat)
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
Place the pan on the grill and light the grill to high heat. The pan needs to heat up on the grill for at least 10 minutes.
Dry the grouper fillets very well.
Mix all of the rub ingredients together well and then spread the rub out on a plate.
Melt the butter in a separate shallow dish, large enough to fit the fillets. Place both dishes on a tray and carry out to the grill.
Dip each fillet in the butter, covering both sides and then transfer to the plate with the rub and coat each side of the fish with the blackening rub.
Immediately place the fish into the very hot pan on the grill.
Cook, with the lid open, for 2 – 3 minutes, lifting the bottom of the fish carefully to check on the crust. You want a nice, blackened crust without burning. If the grill pan is very hot, this should only take around 3 minutes.
Turn the blackened grouper and cook for another 2 – 3 minutes on the other side. Transfer to a plate.
Grilled Fish with Artichoke Caponata
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for rubbing
- 4 tender celery ribs, diced (1 cup)
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup prepared tomato sauce
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
- 1/2 pound marinated artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
- 1/2 cup pitted green olives, chopped
- 1/4 cup pine nuts (pignoli)
- 1 tablespoon agave syrup or honey
- 2 tablespoons small capers, rinsed and drained
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- 3 tablespoons shredded basil leaves
- Six 6-ounce skinless mahimahi or any firm fish of choice
In a large, deep skillet, heat the 1/4 cup of olive oil until shimmering. Add the celery, onion and garlic and cook over moderate heat until just softened, 4 minutes. Add the tomato sauce, wine, vinegar, artichokes, olives, pine nuts, sweetner and capers and season with salt and pepper. Simmer until the vegetables are tender and the liquid is reduced, 8 minutes. Stir in the shredded basil and let cool.
Heat a grill. Rub the fish with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill over moderately high heat, turning once, until cooked through, about 9 minutes. Transfer the fish to plates, top with the caponata and serve.
MAKE AHEAD The artichoke caponata can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.
Breaded and Grilled Shrimp and Scallops
I’m fortunate enough to live on the Gulf of Mexico, so that means we have access to fresh seafood and the grill all year long. There is nothing better than our Gulf shrimp, so I am always looking for a new recipe or technique for grilling these shrimp. You must be sure to oil the grates for this recipe or you will have bread crumbs stuck to the grill.
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- zest from 1/2 lemon
- Italian seasoned breadcrumbs
- 1/2 lb. U.S. Gulf Shrimp
- 1/2 lb. U.S. Gulf Sea Scallops
Peel and devein the shrimp, removing the tail as well.
Mix the lemon juice, zest, olive oil and garlic together in a glass bowl.
Place the shrimp and the scallops in the marinade and place in the refrigerator for 45 minutes (no longer or the lemon juice will cook the seafood).
Remove the shrimp and scallops from the marinade and place them on skewers. Use double skewers to prevent the shrimp and scallops from rotating when you move them around the grill.
Cover the bottom of a plate with the breadcrumbs and then roll each skewer into the crumbs, covering all sides with the breadcrumbs while pushing them into the seafood to make them stick.
Let the breaded shrimp and scallop skewers sit in the refrigerator for about 20 more minutes while the grill heats. (This aids in the crumbs adhering to the shrimp and scallops).
Heat the grill to high heat and oil the grates The best way is to use a folded paper towel dipped in oil and then use tongs to rub down the grates.
Place the breaded shrimp and scallop skewers on the grill and grill for about 3 – 4 minutes. Don’t move the skewers once they are on the grill or you will lose a lot of breadcrumbs.
Flip the skewers over and continue to grill for another 3 minutes and then remove the skewers from the grill to a serving platter.
Grilled Salmon with Sweet Onions and Red Peppers
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- Four 6-ounce salmon fillets, with skin
- 2 small sweet onions, halved crosswise but not peeled
- 2 red bell peppers—stemmed, cored and quartered lengthwise
- 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon chopped thyme
- 1 tablespoon chopped marjoram
In a large, shallow dish, combine the soy sauce and brown sugar with the 2 tablespoons of oil; add the salmon and coat well. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Light a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill. When hot turn off one burner or leave an area of a charcoal grill without direct heat.
Drizzle the cut sides of the onions with oil and grill over moderately high heat, cut side down, until nicely charred and starting to soften, about 15 minutes. Turn the onions and cook until tender, about 15 minutes longer. Push the onions to the cool side of the grill.
Oil the peppers and grill them, skin side down, until lightly charred, about 5 minutes. Turn and grill for 5 minutes. (Remove the charred skin if desired.) Push them over to the onions.
Remove the salmon from the marinade and grill, skin side down, for 8 minutes. Turn and grill until the salmon is just cooked through, 4 minutes longer.
Transfer the salmon, peppers and onions to plates and sprinkle with the marjoram. Drizzle the onions and peppers with the oil and the balsamic vinegar. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with the thyme.
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June 20, 2013 at 9:31 am
The tuna skewers sound super – some great tips about dealing with fish on the barbecue, thanks.
June 20, 2013 at 9:42 am
Thanks so much. Hope the strategies work for you. I have had lots of trouble in past years with my fish falling apart on the grill and falling through the grates. So I keep working on how to grill fish without this happening, since we like the taste of fish off the grill.
June 20, 2013 at 10:01 am
Although all of the recipes sound good, I have to admit that there is always something that jumps out and says, “TRY ME SOON”! This time it is the Artichoke Caponata that I looks good to use with many types of fish. Of course, if I also wish I had your immediate access to Gulf Shrimp, too, but that is just not the case here in Michigan. Great post; thanks!
June 20, 2013 at 10:20 am
You are so right about the caponata. I use it on all types of fish and it is even good on grilled chicken. I do know that Whole Foods sells gulf shrimp in MI. Not sure if it is seasonal with them.
June 20, 2013 at 12:32 pm
You and I are on the same wavelength Jovina. I made a wonderful pan-seared halibut last night with panko breadcrumbs and herbs. Yum!!
June 20, 2013 at 12:38 pm
Great time of year for fish. Thanks Karen.