Grilling Fish for Health and Flavor
Chef Perry P. Perkins
Many of us are looking for healthier grilling options without sacrificing great flavor.
When my readers contact me asking about great-tasting, guilt-free grilling, I always point them to one of my favorite food groups: fish and seafood. It's hard to beat a succulent, tender bite of firm salmon or tuna, with a crispy char on the outside and just a hint of smoke, fresh from the grill.
Fish and seafood are so simple to cook outdoors...and, ironically, they're one of those foods that intimidate a lot of backyard chefs.
But they shouldn't.
Fish is perfect for the grill. Direct high heat sears fish fast, sealing in moisture and flavor. A simple marinade (or just salt and pepper), a few minutes on each side, and voila, you have a delicious, nutritious dinner!
The biggest issue with grilling fish or seafood is making sure it doesn't stick to the grates. It's vital to carefully clean and oil your cooking surface, and some folks like to brush the fish with a little oil, as well.
There are four methods I like to use for cooking fish and seafood on a gas or charcoal grill: Direct Grilling, Grill Baskets, Foil Wrapping, and Plank Grilling, and each of them works great.
Go get friendly with your local fish-monger, and see which method works best for you!
Direct grilling is best for thick fillets or whole fish. Firmer fleshed fish like salmon, steelhead, and tuna, get great results being grilled directly on the grate.
Make sure your oiled grill is as hot as possible before laying on the meat (this will also help to prevent sticking). Likewise, when you go to flip your fish, move it to an unused area of the grill, to ensure that the grate is as hot as possible.
Rule of thumb: small fish/fillets = 2 minutes per side. Thick fillets/steaks, or large whole fish = 10 minutes per inch of thickness.
The grill basket has become a common barbecue accessory, and more delicate species of fish like trout, tilapia, and sole sometimes fare better when grilled in one of these handy contraptions. Basically, the fish is put in between two grates, which are typically hinged to close together, holding the fish securely inside.
Fish Grill Basket, Silver/Natural, Amazon.com
Small sea critters like prawns and scallops are much easier to manage in a grill basket, as well.
The main purpose is to keep these more fragile fish from falling into the coals. As fish cooks, the flesh becomes flaky and can start falling apart (great for eating - tough on the cook). Believe me, I've watched many a hard-won brook trout slip through the grates to become aroma-therapy on the hot coals below. For these kinds of fish, a basket is a way to go!
A good grill basket also makes turning your fish, a delicate and sometimes frustrating operation, a breeze. With a basket, just grab the handle and flip the whole rig. The fish stays locked between the grills. Easy-peasy!
While really more like steaming or poaching, than grilling, foil wraps (or, as we used to call them in Troop 651, "hobo packs") certainly have a place in the outdoor chef's bag of tricks. Foil wrapping is great for combining the flavors of fruits, vegetables, fresh herbs, or marinades with your fish while protecting them from charring or drying out over direct heat.
Trout is a fish I'm very familiar with, and the thin skin and flaky meat can be a pain on the grill, but wrapping them in foil (with a little salt, pepper, lemon slices, and fresh herbs) vastly reduces the difficulty. You end up with a lot more fish on your plate, and a lot less falling through the grates, by foil wrapping.
You'll want to use a piece of foil about twice as large as the fish you want to grill. If it's a large piece of fish, or you're adding lots of other goodies to the pouch, plan to double-wrap it. Start your foil packet on the hot grill, smooth-side down, over direct heat.
Cook a 1-2 inch thick piece of fish, unopened, for about 10 minutes, flipping once. Remove from the heat and let rest, sealed, for another five.
Open 'er up and check for doneness (fish should flake easily) and either serve immediately or close back up and keep cooking in five-minute intervals.
We eat a lot of salmon and steelhead here in the Pacific Northwest, and grilling fish on soaked wooden planks (as the local Native Americans have for thousands of years) ensures moist, mildly smoky fish. It's super-simple, too, with no danger of disasters from flipping...'cause you don't!
Amazon.com carries a good variety of planks, and the most commonly used is cedar. I've found I have a slight preference for alder (see link), but try 'em both and decide for yourself.
While salmon is by far the fish most commonly cooked on a wood plank, you can grill just about any kind of fish or seafood you want using this method (it's awesome for shrimp!)
You'll want to soak the plank for a couple of hours in clean water, and then bring your grill up to about 400 F (medium-high). Lay your cleaned and prepped fish, skin side down, on the plank, and set the whole thing over indirect heat (turn off one burner on a gas grill or moving the coals in a charcoal grill to one side), and close the lid. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes until the fish is cooked through, or when the internal temperature reaches 135 F
Oh, and don't sweat it if the plank starts to burn, or even catches on fire while grilling. The plank usually chars around the edges, and as long as it doesn't reach the meat, it's all good.
So there you go! Hot and healthy, fast and delicious...try these new methods on your own grill and you'll see that fish and fire were made for each other!