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Working the edge. That’s the simple concept you have to master to become a world-class fish griller. After 40 years of manning the grill, opening 18 restaurants, and cooking meals for presidents, kings, and fishermen alike, I think it’s safe to say that my technique stands with the best of them.
I was 18 when I moved to Seattle. I didn’t know much about anything when I got here, but I knew enough to realize that the pristine wild seafood was an unbelievable resource, ready to be rocked on the grill. There’s no hesitation in this town when it comes to firing up fruit-wood charcoal, marinating some salmon or halibut fillets, and grilling dinner. The smoke of the grill goes beautifully with the fat content of wild salmon, for example—and I’ve grilled tens of thousands of pieces of salmon over the years—but almost any firm-fleshed fish will be enhanced by a lick of fire and the char of the grill.
Most likely, you know how to grill steak or burgers or chicken, but if you haven’t tried grilling fish, it’s time to put that at the top of your summer to-do list.
Whether you light up a gas or charcoal grill, you’re going to work the edges of your heat, so move the coals to the center of your kettle or light only the middle burners on your gas grill. Unlike steaks or burgers, fish can’t handle the red-hot center of the grill; however, you still want to be close enough to the fire to achieve a bit of sear. Hence, working the edge. Here’s how:
- Place your fillets right on the edge of the heat line, and be sure not to disturb the fillet for a minute or two so that a “crust” develops.
- Use a fish spatula to gently lift the edge of the fillet to loosen it from the grate, and then turn it over. The goal is to have a clean release, leaving nice grill marks on the fish.
- One-two-five—it’s the magic number. Continue cooking the fish on the edge of your fire until your digital meat thermometer reads 125°F when inserted into the thickest part of the fish.
I’m a big fan of simplicity when it comes to cooking fish. If you begin by investing your dollars in the highest-quality seafood, you’ll be delighted to discover how easy it is to let your grilling talent—and the deliciousness of the fish—shine.
5 More Tips for Foolproof Fish on the Grill
- Paying more pays off. Buy the best fish you can afford. Your dinner is only going to be as good as the seafood you purchase. Find a fishmonger friend you trust and ask, “What’s good today?” I always buy wild and sustainably sourced fish.
- Lightly oil the fish before grilling. Also, lightly oil a rolled, tied kitchen towel, and holding it with long-handled tongs, use it to oil the grate.
- Fish cooks fast. It also tastes best when it’s not overcooked, so how do you know when fish is done? The best way is to use a digital meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the fillet, just as you would check the temperature for a roast or steak. I like my fish at 125°F, for a warm, slightly translucent center, but if you like your fish cooked more, you can take it to 130°F or 135°F. Start checking the temperature of the fish a little before you think it’s done—you can always cook it more, but you can’t cook it less.
- The right tool for the job. People are timid about turning fish. A fish spatula makes it easy. The thin, slightly bent edge is perfect for getting underneath the fish so that you can release it from the grill grate.
- Don’t fuss with your fish. I like to cook fish three-quarters of the way through on the first side in order to “set” the crust. Then I flip the fish and continue cooking the fish the rest of the way. By leaving the fish down on the first side and not fussing with it, you get a better crust and don’t leave all the grill marks on the grill.