The beauty of cooking entire fish is that it is one of the simplest things in the world to accomplish. It’s also one of the greatest ways to ensure you obtain a fresh fish because the freshness marks are much more visible on a complete fish than on a fillet. Plus, it’s usually less expensive, even after you factor in the weight of the bones and head.
Nothing surpasses roasting an entire fish in terms of convenience: It’s as easy as putting it in the oven. (Now that I’ve shown you how to serve a cooked entire fish without chopping it up, you have nothing to be afraid of!) However, in terms of flavor, grilled whole fish is my favorite. The skin crisps and crackles due to the dry, high grill heat. Cooking over hardwood coals offers an extra layer of flavor.
But I must admit that grilling a whole fish is a little more difficult than roasting, primarily because things can get a little messy if the fish sticks to the grill grate. Still, as long as you know a few key tricks, you should be fine. So here’s all you need to know to quickly become a fish-grilling master.
Do You Need a Fish-Grilling Gizmo or Not?
The first decision is whether or not to utilize one of those fish-grilling baskets. I tested it both ways, and the answer is that it’s up to you because you can’t go wrong with a fish basket, but you don’t need one to successfully grill a fish.
The basket is useful because it makes rotating the fish on the grill a breeze and holds the whole thing together well, which is useful if you’ve loaded the cavity with aromatics and are concerned about them leaking out.
However, it is another piece of equipment to purchase, store, and maintain. The basket can also take up extra space on the grill, so cooking multiple things at once can eat up some important grill-grate real estate. And the truth is, if you know how to grill a fish properly, you won’t need one of these.
Step 1: Clean and grill the fish
The first step in grilling fish is to prepare the fish and the grill. I like to set up the grill for two-zone grilling so that I can move the fish from a hotter to a cooler region of the grill, depending on how it’s cooking. Generally, starting with a higher-heat section of the grill is best for whole fish because the fish’s skin is less likely to stick to a very hot surface, just like in a pan. But if it’s a large fish and the skin is nicely charred but the fish hasn’t fully cooked through, I want to be able to move it to a cooler side to finish cooking without the skin burning.
The next step is to properly clean and oil the grill grate. Again, this is a step we recommend for all cooking, but it’s especially critical for fish because it’s more likely to tear if it sticks to the grill, and a dirty, un-oiled grill grate is far more likely to stick to the fish than a blazing-hot, clean, oiled one.
Finally, I like to prepare my fish by removing it from the refrigerator about 20 or 30 minutes before cooking to allow it to come to room temperature. Condensation forms more easily on the skin of an icy-cold fish, and a wet fish sticks to the grill more easily. After the fish has thawed from the icebox, I thoroughly pat it dry to remove any moisture from the skin, stuff the cavity with aromatics, and season it inside and out with salt and pepper. Then I rub the entire thing down with oil to help prevent sticking.
Step 2: Arrange the fish on the grill.
It’s time to start cooking when you’ve warmed the grill, cleaned and oiled the grate, and prepared the fish. You’ll see in the photo above that I put the fish at a 45° angle to the grill grate. That’s a practice I picked up in the restaurant—it’s the key to getting good crosshatch grill markings on the fish, providing you rotate it 90° to finish the crosshatching. But it’s also a good position for the fish when it’s time to turn.
Step 3: It’s Time to Go
It’s a guessing game knowing when to turn the fish. In general, I wait until the skin appears to be beautifully browned before attempting to turn it.
When I’m ready to flip the fish, I employ a technique taught by a fish master and chef, Dave Pasternack of Esca in New York City. Most people attempt to turn a fish on the grill using a spatula, but this is a recipe for disaster: You have to slide the spatula beneath the fish, and if the fish is stuck in any way, you won’t know until you’ve shredded it. Others use tongs, but I find that they make it more likely to mishandle a fish.
Pasternack, on the other hand, taught me how to use a carving fork. You might try to lift the fish from underneath by inserting the tines down through the grill grate. If it resists, give up and let it cook longer until the skin comes off. If it’s ready, the fish will rise to the surface. The fish will not stick if you have properly prepared the grill and fish and have waited long enough.
Then it’s only a matter of waiting for it to finish cooking. When an instant-read thermometer placed into the thickest part reads at 135°F (57°C), it’s done. Again, if you believe the skin is too brown before the fish is fully cooked, lift it with a carving fork and move it to a cooler portion of the grill to finish.
Step 4: Serve
When it comes to serving, you can eat the fish plain or with a squeeze of lemon and/or olive oil. You may also serve it with a sauce like this olive-and-tomato compote I made.
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