How to Grill Fish – A Beginner’s Guide

A man holds a plate

Grilling up some fish can be a delicious, and healthier option, compared to grilling up some hotdogs and burgers, but if you don’t know how to grill fish, there are plenty of things that can go wrong. This guide will walk you through some different grilling techniques that you can try, all of which are very beginner-friendly and will result in juicy, flavor-packed fish that you and the whole family will love.

Preparing Your Fish

Grilling up fish is a lot harder than cooking a steak on a charcoal grill, because fish tends to easily stick to the grate and/or fall apart. If you have all the right grilling tools including a BBQ apron, seasonings, rubs, and of course, your grill, the first step is preparing the grill, which means firing it up and preheating the grill on high. This will bring the grill temperature up to a temperature that helps with caramelizing the fish. This gives the fish grill marks that can add a nice flavor to the fish when done correctly.

When you preheat the grill, it will also speed up the cooking time for the fish, which means a reduced chance of it drying out. Last of all, preheating will also prevent the fish from sticking to the grill, which is a common beginner’s mistake. If the grill is preheated properly, the fish will easily come off the grill once it’s cooked.

When it comes to grilling fish, another constant involves the temperature. The temperature should be at a medium to high heat, whether the skin is on or off. The temperature will ultimately depend on the recipe, but often the temperature will range from four hundred to four hundred and fifty degrees.

After preheating the grill, the last thing you need to do is clean the grates using a stainless steel brush. The brush will remove any debris that’s still stuck to the cooking surface from the last time you grilled. Even though fish is very lean, it will naturally release itself from the cooking grate when it is finished cooking if the grill was preheated correctly.

Skin On

Roasted fish

If you’re grilling fish with the skin on, allow the fish to sit for ten minutes, in order to bring it to room temperature before you oil and season it before you put it on the grate. This ensures a smoother cooking process by eliminating the possibility of the fish sticking to the grate.

Make sure you oil the flesh side of the fish, placing it flesh side down if you want to sear the flesh side and grill the fish based on the recipe’s cooking instructions. Once it’s finished being grilled on that side the fish will release itself naturally from the cooking surface. If you don’t want to sear the fish, then place the fish skin side down on the grate.

For the grill time, you’ll want to allow the fish to cook for eight minutes per inch of fish. If your fish is one inch thick, make sure you grill each side of the fish for four minutes. Of course, if the recipe calls for a shorter or longer cooking time, I recommend following those instructions closely.

When it’s time to remove the fish off the grill, you’ll use a spatula between the area where the flesh and skin meet. You will make your way between the two areas using a side to side motion, so the layer of skin will remain on the grate and only the flesh is removed.

Skin Off

The fish should rest for ten minutes, in order to bring it to room temperature before you add oil to each side of the fish and season it before you put it on the grate. This helps to prevent sticking.

Make sure you stick with the same cooking rule that I mentioned earlier, allowing for eight minutes of grill time per inch of fish.

The fish should only be flipped one time during the grilling process. Avoid flipping and turning it repeatedly. This increases the chances of the fish breaking apart on the grill.

When it’s time to flip your fish, avoid forcing the fish off the grill. Try to be patient. You should give the fish time to naturally release itself from the grate. This is a great indicator that the fish has been fully cooked.

The fish should also be given an adequate amount of time to rest, once it’s off the grill. Four to five minutes should be sufficient.

When you grill fish, make sure you do so with the lid down. Each time the lid is opened, you’ll have to add more cooking time to the meal.

Using Wood Chips

Did you know that fish is one of the best meats you can smoke? If you want to get a little adventurous with grilling your fish, then try adding some smoke using the best wood chips.  You will need to soak the wood chips in water for half an hour before placing them directly over the charcoal in order to enhance the flavor of the fish.

If you’re grilling on an electric or gas grill, then make sure you soak the wood chips for half an hour before you place them directly on the cooking grate or in the smoker box.

Cooking Fish in a Packet

Fresh baked fish

While you wouldn’t steam your steak, steaming fish is a great option and one that helps to prevent the fish from drying out. Using a foil packet is one of the easiest ways to ensure that your fish is moist and tender. To do, you’ll want to stack a couple of sheets of foil. For the top layer, coat the center with some cooking spray. Next, you’ll layer the ingredients on the foil, such as lemon or thinly sliced veggies. Bring the shorter ends of the foil together and make sure you leave enough room in the packet so that steam can gather, cooking the fish. Next, you’ll fold the foil over, pinching it to seal it. Place the packet on the grill over medium heat, if you’re cooking on a gas grill. For a charcoal grill, you’ll place the grate approximately four to six inches from the coals. The grill should be covered and allowed to cook until the packet contents are done, which will be around eight to ten minutes. To remove the packets from the grill, you’ll need some oven mitts or a large spatula. Open the packets with caution since the hot steam that escapes can burn your skin.

Planks

Grilling fish on a plank is way easier than grilling it directly on the grates. The big trick here is that you need to soak the plank in water for approximately two hours before you place it on the grate. Aside from that, all you have to do is place the fish on the pre-soaked wood and cover the grill. There’s no flipping required. However, you may need to adjust the plank’s position over lower heat if the grill is extra hot and the fish needs more time to cook. Once it’s done, you’ll enjoy fish that has a nice, subtle, smoky flavor.

Basket

Using a fish basket can be a great way to prevent fish from flaking apart. The baskets come in a few different sizes, but the main principle is the same. To use, you’ll place the fish in a basket that’s designed to keep the fish in place. Instead of flipping the piece of fish over, you’ll flip the basket over.

Grilling Over Direct Heat

When you grill right on the grate, it provides a nice smoky flavor and high heat. It will work the best with meatier, sturdier types of fish that don’t flake very easily, so you can move the fish without worrying about it breaking. Be sure that you have a medium-high heat going and oil the grate prior to adding the fish. You’ll also need to use a thin-bladed, wide spatula, which will make it much easier to flip the fish.

For fish steaks and fillets, direct grilling tends to work the best. This is often the case for fish such as sea bass, tilapia, and salmon.

Skewer

Using skewers will make it super easy to flip multiple chunks of sturdy fish at once. To do, you’ll need to soak the wooden skewers for thirty minutes before you thread the fish in order to prevent them from smoking. Skewers tend to work well for large chunks of firm fish, such as swordfish, salmon, and halibut.

Grilling a Whole Fish

Fish that are cooked on the bone often offer juicier and more flavorful results. Stuff and season the cavity of the fish with lemon slices or herbs. Doing so will not only add flavor, but it will also provide a space to allow heat through, which will encourage the fish to cook more evenly. Next, brush the fish with some oil and add some sea salt, before placing it on the grill. Avoid moving the fish around while it cooks, or trying to peek underneath it. When the fish no longer sticks to the grill, it’s ready to be flipped. Whole fish grilling tends to work the best for fish that are four to twelve inches in length, such as tilapia, sardines, striped bass, and trout.

Cooking the Perfect Fillet

Fish will cook rapidly and is done once the flesh flakes easily with a fork and appears opaque. If any part of the fish appears translucent, then it should be immediately returned to the grill to cook for another one to two minutes.

Cooking a fillet on the grill can be a hassle. Why? Because it’s more than likely that the fish will end up sticking to the grate and when it does, it’s can be almost impossible to remove it cleanly from the cooking surface. The delicate texture of the fish when it’s cooked makes it difficult to remove it neatly from the grate. Most of the time, you’ll have found that you end up with large chunks and pieces of the fillet, which is definitely not presentation-worthy.

But grilling the perfect fillet is possible. The following steps will allow you to perfectly grill your fish so it will easily be released from the grate’s surface.

Start by heating up the grate. Next, you’ll dip a wad of paper towels in oil and hold the wad with a pair of grill tongs, then wipe the grate. You can continue to wipe down the grate with the paper towels and re-dip them in the oil between each application until the grate is nice and glossy. This should be about five times total.

Coating the grate with the oil is the objective here, not greasing it. This process is similar to how you’d season a cast-iron skillet. Because of the high heat of the grate, the oil will polymerize, which will create a layer that will help to prevent the proteins in the fish from sticking to the surface of the grate. When you’re cooking delicate fish, I recommend wiping down the grate multiple times in order to build up the coating, which will guarantee that the fish will not stick.

  • Next, brush both sides of the fillet with a thin coating of oil
  • Season each side of the fish with salt and pepper
  • Place the fish on the grate skin side down

Lower the heat to medium and cover the grill, allowing the fish to cook without moving it until the skin side is well-marked and brown, and nice and crispy. This should be about three to four minutes.

After two minutes, try to lift the fish off the grilling surface gently, using a spatula. If you’re not able to lift the fillet off cleanly, then continue to cook it and check every thirty seconds until the fish finally releases.

Using a couple of spatulas, flip the fish to the other side.

Cover the grill and cook the center of the fish until it’s opaque and reads one hundred and twenty-five degrees on a meat thermometer. This will be about three to five minutes longer. And that’s it.

Final Thoughts

Now that you know how to grill fish, you can give each of the grilling methods a try until you find one that works well for you, based on your cooking skills, the type of fish you’re preparing, and even the type of grill you’re using. These grilling techniques are very beginner-friendly, so you should have no trouble finding a new recipe and grilling technique that makes cooking even the most delicate fish a cinch.