There are three keys to grilling up an unbeatable plate of fish, shrimp, lobster, or scallops:
- Choosing the perfect fish
- Properly treating the grilling surface
- Spotting the ideal moment to pull your meal off the heat
Let’s take a look at do’s and don’ts for getting each one just right.
Choosing the Perfect Fish:
Alright, I admit it, there is no such thing as “the” perfect fish. They’re all good, and the one that stands out head and gills above the rest on a given day will be the one your tastebuds are most in the mood for. However, there is a perfect (and not-so-perfect) way to handle different types of fish…
Denser, meatier types of seafood – such as tuna, salmon, swordfish, shark, grouper, shrimp, or lobster (particularly in the shell or half-shell) – will hold together well, so they can be cooked right on your grill grate and handled with tongs and a spatula.
Steaks and fillets from medium-firm fish – mahi-mahi, monkfish, halibut, sea bass, red snapper, scallops, etc. – can fall apart if mishandled and require a bit more care. In other words, forget trying to move them with tongs. All of your flipping and handling should be gently done with a spatula with tongs being used for nothing more than a brace or slight nudge if needed.
Tender fillets – including tilapia, flounder, striped bass, bluefish, barramundi, and trout – are the most dicey of them all. They’re so fragile that only the bravest souls and slickest grill-masters should attempt to grill them without using a fish basket or fish grate.
What’s that, you think you’ve got what takes and want to know how to grill ’em right on the rack…
Excellent! That’s what I like to hear – after all, no guts, no glory, right? Besides, it makes a great segue into the second key to grilling a great plate of fish.
Properly Treating the Grill Surface:
With a bit of practice ANY type of fish can be cooked directly on the grill grate as long as you follow five important steps. In fact, they’re so important that they’re an absolute MUST for every type of fish you grill regardless of how dense or tender it is!
- Grill on a clean grate. Crust or remants on the cooking grate act like glue. They’ll bond your fish to the grate and won’t let go. Use a metal-bristle brush or Grillstone to thoroughly clean the grate.
- Start with high heat. Caramelization (you know, the delicate, golden crust and deep brown rack marks) will help the fish separate from the grate. So, even if you’ll be cooking with low or medium heat, start with a very hot grate.
- Oil the fish but not the grate. Coat your fish on all sides with a thin layer of vegetable, canola, or olive oil but don’t oil the grate.
- Be patient! Once you’ve placed the fish on the grate leave it alone. Remember, you want it to caramelize and that will happen faster and more evenly if you don’t disturb the fish. So keep the lid down and your hands off until it’s time to flip.
- Play favorites. Let the side of the fish that will be face up on your plate be the first side down the grate AND let it bask in the heat a little bit longer than second side. Again, it’s all about caramelization.
That leaves key number three…
Spotting the Ideal Moment to Pull Your Seafood Off the Heat:
The ultimate sign of a novice fish griller is overcooked fish. Under cook it and you can throw it back on the grill to cook it a little longer … or at the very least cut it up and call it sushi. Overcook it though and it’s a done deal – you might as well chew on sawdust.
Now, the most foolproof method of checking food doneness is an instant-read thermometer – in the case of seafood the ideal temperature happens to be 125° to 130° F.
Just one problem: have you ever tried to stick a thermometer into a fish steak or fillet? No? Good, then don’t start now. Even if your steak or fillet happens to be thick enough to use a thermometer, jabbing it with one will only cause the fish to break apart…
Instead of internal temperature, your best indicator of seafood doneness is intermal appearance.
Now pay close attention here all you grill junkies ’cause this is the critical point where most amateurs go wrong: Most people believe that fish is done when the meat starts to flake apart. Well, they’re right – fish is done when it starts to flake apart. HOWEVER, foods keep cooking for a few moments after you take it off the grill. So forget about flakiness – if your fish starts to flake while it’s still on the grill your fate is sealed, you’ll be eating a bone-dry piece of fish.
As I said a moment ago, the secret to knowing when your seafood is done is internal appearance. Seafood should be removed from the grill the moment its center goes from lustrous and translucent to juicy and opaque.
Now your probably wondering, “How the heck do I check the internal appearance without cutting into my fillet and making it look like Shamu meets the Texas Chainsaw Massacre?”
Ahh… therein lies the secret to grilling greatness grasshopper…
For thin pieces simply watch the outside of the fish. Once its becomes opaque and firm to the touch give it another moment or two then remove from the grill. The touch of extra time plus the carry-over heat will finish bringing the fish to doneness while it rests.
For thick fillets or steaks offer up a sacrifice to the almighty grilling gods. In other words, throw an extra piece on the grill. When the outside becomes opaque and firm to the touch cut a piece off and check the inside. If it’s opaque all the way to the center your fish is done. If not, wait a moment then cut another test piece. When all is said and done, add the sacrficial pieces to your own plate – an extra helping in reward for your extra grilling effort. Or, use them to make a some fish salad, chowder, cakes, or quiche for lunch the next day.
The same holds true for shrimp and scallops. Once their middle goes from translucent to an opaque, pearly white with just the slightest hint of translucence left they’re done. Keep a close eye on them though – if their middle is completely opaque without that last, little hint of pearly translucence then it’s too late, you’ve missed the mark.
Of course, there is one exception to this rule: tuna. If you like your tuna cooked to medium doneness all the way through (like that stuff in the can) then follow the same steps. One the other hand, if you like your tuna the same way we do – seared on the outside and rare in the middle, then simply grill it on high heat for 1-2 minutes per side.
And there you have it, the three keys to grilling an amazing plate of fish.
Hold on though because there’s more than one way to skin a catfish. We’ve got a few more seafood grilling tips and tricks for you…
Additional tips, tricks, and shortcuts:
- Grilling a thin, tender, fragile piece of fish and couldn’t care less about having flashy grill marks on it? Then make life easy and grill on a buttered or oiled piece of aluminum foil. If you do want to spruce up the fish for presention, make up for the missing grill marks by sprinkling some herbs on it along with a thin slice or two of lemon.
- Cooking a fillet with the skin on and don’t care about grill marks? Then forget about flipping and use the skin as added protection against sticking. Oil the skin and grill skin side down with the lid closed until cooked through. Then remove. If the skin did stick to the grate, you can easily slide your spatula between the skin and the meat – leaving the skin on the grate to be cleaned off when things have cooled down.
- If you just can’t get the hang of grilling fish right on the grate without it sticking, try oiling both the fish AND the grate extremely well instead of oiling the fish only.