Grilling Fish: What You Really Need

by Elizabeth Skipper | July 24th, 2013 | Ask the Chef

fish grill basketI would like to cook fish on the grill during this hot weather. However, I don’t own a special fish grill basket. Is it possible to cook fish without one?

Special baskets just for fish were created to avoid one of the biggest hurdles to successfully cooking fish on a grill, sticking. Any food sticking to a grill is frustrating, but fish is so delicate that once it sticks, it’s virtually impossible to move or remove without its disintegrating. And fish isn’t cheap, which adds insult to injury.

However, fish baskets aren’t a perfect solution. Unless they’re carefully designed, they’re more trouble than they’re worth. I’ve owned a couple, and their flaws immediately became apparent upon using them the first time. If you’re grilling a whole fish, the basket needs to be big enough for the fish to fit in it. If you’re grilling small fish or filets or steaks, it should be small enough that they don’t slide around inside the basket and break apart. If the grid is too large or the wires of the basket too far apart, smaller pieces can slip right through – oops.

If it has a handle so that the basket is easy to maneuver, the handle should be detachable. A long handle can stick out over the side of the grill, tilting the basket so that one side is higher than the other, causing cooking to be uneven. It makes it impossible to close the cover of the grill properly. Forget getting it to fit in the dishwasher.

Suppose you’ve found a basket which meets all these criteria. It’s also most likely coated with a non-stick surface. If you’re OK with that, you’ve found a winner, and it will be easy to keep clean. If like me you’re not, it’s back to figuring out how to cook fish directly on the grill.

The two main reasons fish stick to a grill are that it’s not clean enough and/or that it’s not hot enough. Clean it as thoroughly as you can . . . and then go over it again with steel wool and rinse it thoroughly. It just can’t be too clean, so do whatever you must to ensure that your grill surface is free of grime and the residue of former meals.

A heavy cast iron or other heavy metal grate is ideal, preferable to the kind made of thin steel rods. Just as a pan needs to be preheated to prevent food sticking to it, so does a grill. Heavy metal retains heat better so it won’t cool off when the fish is put on it. Be sure the grill is good and hot, and oil it lightly just before adding the fish. A paper towel dipped in oil works well; hold it with tongs to prevent burning yourself. Don’t use so much oil that it’s dripping or you’ll have a flare-up.

The fish must be perfectly dry. If it’s been marinated, remove all traces of the marinade, again using a paper towel. Then oil the fish itself lightly and place it on the grill.

Placement is another factor. Put the fish perpendicular to the direction of the grill bars, not parallel with them. This makes it easier to get under the fish when it’s time to turn it. Turn the fish only once. If using spatulas, use two, one to steady the fish and one to slide under it. Better than that, if you have it, is to use one spatula and a cooking fork with long straight tines. Use the tines to get under the fish in a couple of places and gently pry it up to detach it from the grill. Lift with the fork and hold with the spatula on top of the fish to turn it.

Oily fish like salmon, mackerel, and bluefish are better for grilling than lean ones. Fish with firmer flesh are also a better bet. Avoid any kind of thin filets like flounder; they’re a recipe for disaster. They’ll cook too fast, dry out, and shred when you try to turn them.

Always begin grilling on the “presentation side” of your fish. If serving the skin, this is the skin side. Cut a few light slashes into it to prevent curling. If not serving the skin, start grilling on the other side; especially with oilier fishes, the flesh under the skin is a darker unattractive shade. This way the better looking side of the fish will be up when it comes off the grill and it’s ready to plate.

If all this sounds like too much trouble, you can always take a page from the “en papillote” method of cookery. Traditionally done by enveloping the food to be cooked in a parchment paper package, it can also be done using aluminum foil. Just oil a large piece of foil, add your fish, seal well, and put the packet on the grill. The end result is steamed rather than grilled, but it’s delicious nonetheless. It’s also easy and absolutely guarantees that your fish won’t stick.

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