Among the most simple things in the world to do is to cook whole fish. You can also guarantee a fresh fish by buying a whole fish, since the signs of freshness are much more obvious on a whole fish than on a fillet. In addition, it’s usually cheaper even after you account for the weight of the bones and head.
There’s nothing easier than roasting a whole fish: You just stick it in the oven. (And now that I’ve shown you how to serve cooked whole fish without hacking it to pieces, there’s no need to be afraid!) But in terms of flavor, I’ve got to say grilled whole fish is my favorite. As the skin cooks, the grill heat causes it to crisp and crackle, making it taste great. In addition, cooking over hardwood coals adds an extra dimension of flavor.
Grilling a whole fish is a little more difficult than roasting, mainly because if the fish sticks to the grill grate, things can get messy. You shouldn’t have any problems as long as you know a few key tricks. Find out how to become a fish-grilling master in no time. We also have compiled a guide that will help you choose the best fish for grilling.
Is it Necessary to Have a Fish-Grilling Gizmo?
The first question is whether to use one of those fish-grilling baskets. It’s up to you, since you won’t go wrong with a fish basket, but you won’t need one to grill a fish successfully.
It’s nice to have the basket since turning the fish on the grill becomes effortless. The basket also helps hold things together well when the cavity is stuffed with aromatics.It’s also another piece of equipment to buy, store, and maintain. Additionally, the basket can eat up a lot of grill-grate space if you’re trying to cook more than one thing at a time. Truth be told, if you know the tricks below for grilling a fish, you really don’t need one of these.
Prepare the Fish and Grill
When grilling fish, the first thing you need to do is prepare the fish as well as the grill. My grill is set up so that I can move the fish from a hotter area of the grill to a cooler one, depending on how it is cooking.
For whole fish, I find that placing it over the hotter parts of the grill is best because, much like in a skillet, the fish’s skin is less likely to stick. If it’s a big fish and the skin has nicely charred, but the fish isn’t completely cooked, I want to be able to move it over to the cooler side to finish cooking without the skin burning.
After that, the grill grate needs to be cleaned and oiled thoroughly. Grilling fish with this step is especially important, since delicate fish is more likely to tear if it sticks to the grill. A dirty grill grate is far more likely to stick to the fish than a blazing-hot, clean, oiled one.
Last but not least, I like to take my fish out of the refrigerator about 20 or 30 minutes before cooking it so that it can come to room temperature. Ice-cold fish are more likely to form condensation, and wet fish are more likely to stick to a grill. Once the fish has lost its icebox chill, I pat it dry thoroughly to remove any excess moisture on the skin, stuff the cavity with aromatics, and season it both inside and out with salt and pepper. Once again, I rub the whole thing down with oil to prevent sticking.
Set the Fish on the Grill
After you’ve preheated the grill, cleaned and oiled the grates, and prepared the fish, it’s time to cook. You’ll notice in the photo above that I set the fish at a 45° angle to the grill grate. I still do that in my restaurant days so that I can get nice crosshatch grill marks on the fish, but you have to rotate it 90° to complete the crosshatch. It’s also a good position when it comes time to turn the fish.
As well, I position the fish’s dorsal (back) side closer to the coal flame, because that’s the thicker part and will take the longest to cook.
Time to Turn the Fish
A little bit of guessing is involved in knowing when to turn the fish. I generally wait until the skin has browned nicely before turning it.
With a spatula, most people attempt to turn a fish on the grill, but that’s asking for trouble: You need to slide the spatula under the fish, and if the fish is stuck in any way, you won’t know until the fish is shredded. Some use tongs, but I find that you’re more likely to manhandle a fish with them.
I use a carving fork instead. You can attempt to lift the fish from below by inserting the tines into the grill grate. Stop trying, and let it cook longer until the skin releases. The fish will lift right up when it’s ready. If you prepare the grill and the fish well, and wait long enough, the fish won’t stick.
It’s just a matter of waiting for it to cook through. An instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part should register about 135°F (57°C). If you see the skin getting too brown before the fish is cooked through, use the carving fork to lift it, then move it to a cooler part of the grill.
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When the fish is ready, let it rest for five minutes or so. You can serve the fish as is, with a squeeze of lemon and/or a drizzle of olive oil. You can also serve it with a condiment like this olive-and-tomato compote I made.