Tuna steaks may look like red meat, but swordfish is to my palate the fish that offers the most steak-like experience. In addition to being buttery, juicy, and meaty, swordfish has a substantiality few other ocean creatures can match.
It is one of the best ways to bring out its meaty qualities when it is grilled. Only a few steps are required: selecting the right piece of swordfish, preparing the grill correctly, and grilling the steaks to perfection.
When choosing swordfish for grilling, you should take into account its size. As a more delicate protein than, say, beef, fish tends to stick and fall apart on the grill. The swordfish is more robust than many flakier options, but it can still meet that fate.
How to Choose Swordfish Steaks for Grilling
Your local fish market rarely has swordfish whole—it’s just too big a fish. This makes it difficult to tell whether what you’re buying is fresh. A whole fish cannot be checked for the clarity of the eyes or the pinkness of the gills or any of the other methods we recommend for judging freshness. When it comes to swordfish, there are only a few ways to tell if it’s still good to eat.
The appearance of swordfish isn’t always indicative of freshness, but it doesn’t hurt to consider it. Swordfish steaks should be light in color, ranging from cream to a gentle pink to ivory. You don’t want swordfish flesh that has turned brown. Also, swordfish have some darker muscle tissue that can turn brown as it ages; a slight reddish tint indicates freshness.
Smell is a better measure. A swordfish at the market should never be stinky or smell unpleasantly fishy. Rather, it should have a faint but distinct fishy aroma. There can be some difficulty differentiating between them-isn’t any fishy smell bad?Nevertheless, there is a difference. It is best to have your fish smell like the ocean breeze rather than the docks after a long day of sun.
By following our grilling instructions below, you can easily avoid this problem, but before any of that, you want to choose swordfish steaks that won’t complicate things.The thickness of the steak is the most important factor. A swordfish should be about one to one and a half inches thick. If it’s too thin, it will bend and break when you flip it; it will also cook through before fish has fully released from the grill (more on that below). You will have to choose between removing the fish when it’s properly cooked but risk breaking or tearing it, or leaving it on longer to ensure it’s easy to remove but risk overcooking it.Another consideration is the size of the steak. It’s fine to grill a large cross section of swordfish, but the bigger the slab, the more likely it will break when you flip and lift it. When flipping a massive pancake, the bigger it is compared to the spatula size, the more likely it is that you will ruin it.
For best results, buy a very large piece of swordfish and then cut it into smaller portions yourself, or have your fishmonger portion the fish for you. We also have compiled a guide that will help you choose the best fish for grilling.
How to Grill Swordfish Steaks
Prepare Your Grill
Grilling swordfish steaks follows the same principles as grilling anything else. You should preheat your grill and grill grate, clean the grates well with a grill brush, and oil the grates. Having a hot, clean, and oiled grill grate will make your fish much less likely to stick than a cold, gunky one.
Setting up a two-zone fire on your grill means spreading the lit charcoal over one half of the grill and leaving the other half bare. If necessary, you can sear the fish over high heat and then move it to a cooler portion of the grill to finish cooking over indirect heat.
Depending on the thickness of your fish, you may need to finish over indirect heat. Thin swordfish steaks can be cooked as soon as both sides are nicely browned, while thicker ones may need a few extra minutes to allow the heat to penetrate more deeply to the center.
Prepare the Swordfish Steaks
You can prepare your fish while your grill is preheating. If necessary, it may be necessary to portion it into more manageable sizes. You should also dry the swordfish well on both sides, using paper towels, to speed up the searing process and reduce the likelihood that it will stick to the grill.
Another thing I like to do is lightly rub the dried steaks with a neutral oil, such as canola or vegetable oil. It’s just one more way to protect against sticking.
Grill the Swordfish
If your grill is ready and your fish is ready, it’s time to grill. Season the fish all over with salt and pepper, if desired. Pepper is a spice, and thus always optional, while salt is a fundamental flavor ingredient—absolutely necessary, unless you have a salt restriction.
Salt removes moisture from proteins like fish and meats, so I sprinkle it on the swordfish right before serving. As soon as we have dried the surface of the fish well, we don’t want to get it wet again right before grilling it.
On the first side, I sear the swordfish steaks over the hotter part of the grill to get a good sear. Even with all of our preparations, the fish will still likely stick to the grill grate at first, so try not to lift or move the steaks prematurely. Once they have browned well, they should release on their own.
The best way to release fish that has adhered to the grill grate isn’t to jam a metal spatula underneath. You can instead slide a thin metal tool, such as the tines of a carving fork, or even the spatula blade itself, between the grill grates and under the fish. Then gently lift from below, being careful not to force it if it’s stuck.
Turn the fish over and repeat on the other side. By rotating the swordfish steak roughly 45 degrees partway through searing it on each side, I created a crosshatch pattern on it. Would that be necessary? No, absolutely not. Other than the fact that it looks nice, there is no benefit to branding fish with a diamond pattern.
In order to do this, you need to lift and rotate the fish even earlier than if you just waited until it was time to flip. It is your choice whether to do or not to do it.
If the fish is not fully cooked, allow it to finish cooking over the cooler part of the grill, flipping and rotating it every minute or two to ensure even cooking.
The last question is: How do you know when your grilled swordfish steaks are done?
In addition to thickness, two of the essential factors that influence doneness are grill heat and the type and quantity of charcoal you use, its distribution on the grill grate, how long it has burned, and where exactly on the grill you have placed the swordfish.
Any recipe that estimates completion time is, in short, useless, and you should beware of those that do.
If you’re cooking over direct heat, you can usually sear a swordfish steak on each side in about four or five minutes, give or take a few minutes here and there. All you need for the exterior is a good searing. However, you still need to make sure it’s cooked evenly throughout.
A perfectly cooked swordfish, to me, is somewhere between medium and medium-well, with a small amount of translucent flesh in the center that has warmed through, but is not chalky or dry. Others might prefer their fish well-done. You should cook fish to 145°F (63°C) in the center to ensure that any pathogens have been killed. That’s well-done in the world of fish, but too hot for my taste, but if you want to follow their guidelines, then go for it.
For swordfish, I prefer an internal temperature of about 130°F (54°C). When you’re trying to take the temperature of a piece of fish this thin, moving the probe even one millimeter in one direction can cause a different reading. While a good thermometer is capable of being accurate, it isn’t perfect in this case.
Basically, you push the probe all the way through the piece of meat, then slowly pull it back up until you find the point where the temperature is lowest. That should help you get close to the true temperature center. However, it’s not a guarantee.
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