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How to Grill Fish Steaks

Follow these tips for perfectly grilled fish steaks, and serve them with your choice of four lively toppings

by Maria Helm Sinskey

fromFine Cooking
Issue 86

 If the mention of  "grill" and "fish" in the same sentence makes you nervous, maybe you've had the experience of having fish cling tenaciously to the grate, only to be torn when flipped. But a few important hints can prevent your fish from sticking and falling apart and ensure moist, beautiful results. Instead of fillets, go for fish steaks. Fillets can work on the grill, but they can also be dicey. Fillets are trickier to grill because they're cut parallel to the bone, which makes them more delicate and flaky. Fish steaks, on the other hand, are cross-cut, which makes them sturdier, firmer, and less prone to flaking.  Tuna, salmon, swordfish, and halibut are all in season during the summer. If you find wild salmon, grab it. it has more flavor and a better texture than farmed. 

The thickness of the fish matters. A fish steak should be no less than 1 inch thick and ideally about 11.4 inches. This size cooks more slowly and evenly, so the fish stays nice and moist. If you don't see such steaks at the fish counter, ask your fishmonger to cut them for you. (If you can't find thick steaks, shorten the cooking time for the fish.)

Tips for Grilling Fish

Grilled fish steaks are a wonderful choice for entertaining because you can grill them to your guests’ individual preferences. Follow the tips below, and the steaks will look gorgeous, too.

  • Begin with a clean, well-oiled grill, and let it heat up. A major culprit behind sticking fish is the debris left on the grates. Clean and oil the grill for best results. Hot grates keep fish from sticking by causing the proteins in the fish to contract and release, so be sure your grates are thoroughly heated before you start to grill.
  • Don’t move the steaks for the first few minutes of cooking. You need to give the side that’s facing down time to cook (and contract) before turning the fish. Use tongs and a spatula to move the fish steaks.
  • Tongs work really well for turning sturdy fish steaks, but sometimes a little unseen debris on the grill rack will cause the fish to stick. If this happens, slide a thin spatula underneath the stubborn spot to release it.
  • Cut into the fish to check for doneness. Once you’ve grilled a lot of fish steaks, you’ll know by feel when they’re done to your liking. If you’re not there yet, cut into the side of the fish with a paring knife to see what’s going on inside. (Poke it with your finger, too, so you learn what different donenesses feel like—the harder the flesh, the more done it is.)

Top Grilled Fish with a Complementary Sauce

Consider the fish's personality as you pair it with a topping. The briny intensity of an olive relish cuts through the fattiness of grilled tuna while rich and tangy, caper-studded tarragon mayonnaise perks up lean, mild halibut.  As a chile-lime butter melts over grilled salmon, it infuses the oily, meaty flesh with a spicy brightness. And the delicate, fresh mix of lemon and dill in the cucumber sauce livens up grilled swordfish, which, though well loved, can use a flavor boost. That said, feel free to use all of these toppings with whatever fish is freshest when you go to the market.

The next day, make a salad with the leftovers. Any tarragon mayonnaise, olive relish, or cucumber sauce you have left can be mixed with cold, leftover grilled fish for a salad or sandwich the next day. Flake the fish the way you might canned tuna and mix it with the sauce.

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