Most people assume grilling fish is a pain in the ass. Isn’t it always sticking to the grate and falling apart? How do you know when it’s done? And ugh, what about the BONES?
Now look: Would your faithful summer grilling correspondent be here telling you to grill fish if it weren’t going to be delicious and easy? Of course not. The secret to fish on the grill is doing it whole.
This is hands-down my favorite way to prepare and eat fish, and while it may seem ambitious, it actually solves just about every problem people usually have with grilling fish: The skin keeps the meat from flaking everywhere, it’s much easier to turn than a filet, and since it’s cooked on the bone, the meat stays juicy even if you overcook it a little. It’s foolproof.
Plus, you and your friends get to look the animal in the face as you’re preparing it and then eating it together. How many times can you say that about something you’ve made?
BUT WHAT IF I EAT THE BONES, you may be asking/screaming. Not to worry there, either—by choosing a fish with fewer hard bones and more cartilage (which melts under the high heat of a grill) like the branzino we’re cooking here, the larger bones will stay attached to the backbone and peel out of the way easily.
So let’s make and eat some of the best fish you’ve ever had (plus a killer Caesar salad).
1. Start with a 1 to 1.5-lb branzino.
Branzini are usually 1-1.5 pounds, so anywhere in that range is good. Other good fish to grill whole are striped bass (basically the same as branzini, which are also known as “European seabass”) and red snapper. If you want to go with something with a richer fish taste, try mackerel, which are also delicious on the grill. A branzino is great, though, because it’s a perfect size, has flesh that’s a nice balance of rich and light, won’t fall apart like a flaky cod, and isn’t full of bones like salmon is. If your grocery store doesn’t have whole fish on display, it’s worth asking the fish guy — sometimes they keep them in the back. Just ask for it cleaned — they’ll remove all the guts, gills and scales for you so it’s ready to go. And when you’re choosing your fish, pick the one that has the clearest eyes, which means it’s the freshest.
2. Dry it inside and out, then rub with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, and stuff it with a few lemon slices and thyme.
3. Light a hot grill fire and clean the grate well.
Let the grill heat up over the coals for 5 minutes or so before cleaning it with a wire brush. Your fish is much less likely to stick if the grate is hot and clean. You want an even bed of hot coals that’s as big as the fish you’re cooking.
4. Oil the grill.
Another step to ensure the fish won’t stick. This is easiest to do by daubing some olive oil onto a kitchen towel, then drawing it across the grate holding it with a pair of tongs.
5. Place the fish directly over the hot coals.
6. DON’T TOUCH IT for 5 or six minutes.
As the fish’s oils hit the coals as it cooks, you may see a few flare-ups. Don’t worry if these are small flames—they’ll make the skin extra crispy and delicious. If there is a lot of fire, use a thin jet of water from a spray bottle to zap the spots of burning oil on the coal bed. Not too much water, though, or your coals will cool down.
7. No touching.
8. When it’s time to flip, gently wiggle the fish with your hands (or very gently with the tip of your spatula) until it slides freely on the grate, then flip. If it feels stuck, cook it a minute longer before you flip.
Flipping a whole fish is easiest if you’re not afraid to use your hands. Put some olive oil on your spatula (don’t use tongs), then gently slide it under the tail toward the head lengthwise (lifting the tail with your fingers if you need to). With your fingers securing the fish flat on the spatula near the gills, gently pick it up and flip. If you mangle the skin a little bit on your first try, it’s okay—it’ll still be delicious.
Long, thin, metal spatulas make this easiest (they’re called “fish spatulas” in the store for a reason). If you start grilling fish all the time, you can also consider trying a mesh fish basket, which makes flipping as easy as possible (and is great for doing a big batch of small fish like sardines). But seriously, you can do this with just a spatula and your hands.
9. Cook the other side for the same amount of time.
10. When it’s done, use the same wiggle & flip technique to remove the fish to a plate.
11. If the flesh is opaque and juicy, it’s done.
12. (For this post, I made both a branzino and a larger striped bass. The bass is pictured below.)
13. Ok, salad: Rinse and dry your head of romaine. Dry it well. Then cut the head in half lengthwise, leaving the stem intact so the leaves stay bundled together.
14. Drizzle the cut side with olive oil and salt and pepper.
15. Place cut-side down for 5 minutes, then flip to char the other side for 2-3 minutes.
16. To make the dressing, combine the olive oil, grated Parmesan, lemon juice, chopped anchovy filet, salt and pepper in a bowl.
This is the branzino.
This is the striped bass.
Both were delicious, but the branzino won.
Grilled Whole Fish & Romaine
Serves 2-3 people with a 1.5 pound fish
For the fish:
1 1-1.5-lb branzino or striped bass, cleaned and scaled by your grocery store’s fishmonger
2-3 lemon slices
4-5 sprigs of thyme, rosemary, or other fresh herbs
Salt & pepper
For the Grilled Romain with Parmesan-Anchovy Dressing:
1 head of romaine lettuce or hearts
1 cup shaved Parmesan
1/2 cup of good olive oil
2 or 3 anchovy filets, chopped into a paste
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
For the fish:
1. Before you cook it, give your fish another good rinse in the sink to make sure it’s nice and clean for the grill.
2. Dry the fish with paper towels, then rub it inside and out with about 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Salt and pepper it both inside the cavity and on the outside of the skin.
3. Put the lemon slices and herbs inside the cavity, and it’s ready for the grill. Some people recommend scoring the fish by making two or three deep slits along the filets on each side. Unless your fish is gigantic, I don’t think this is necessary to cook it evenly, and it makes it harder to keep intact while flipping. So skip this.
4. Light a hot grill fire and clean the grate well (let it heat up over the coals for 5 minutes or so before cleaning it with a wire brush). Your fish is much less likely to stick if the grate is hot and clean.
5. Our final anti-stick step is giving the grate a light coat of oil. This is easiest to do by daubing some olive oil onto a paper towel, then drawing it across the grate holding it with a pair of tongs. Now your grill is ready.
6. Place the fish directly over the hot coals. You want an even bed of hot coals that’s as big as the fish you’re cooking. Now, DON’T TOUCH IT for 5 or 6 minutes (for a 1-1.5 pound fish; if your fish is in the 2-2.5 pound range, extend the cooking time to 10-11 minutes per side). The less you touch it, the less likely it is to stick.
7. When it’s time to flip, gently wiggle the fish with your hands (or very gently with the tip of your spatula) until it slides freely on the grate. This ensures that it’s fully un-stuck before you try to flip it. If it still feels pretty stuck, cook it a minute longer—when it’s ready to turn, it should unstick itself naturally.
8. Cook the other side for the same amount of time, and when it’s done, use the same wiggle & flip technique to remove the fish to a plate. If the flesh is opaque and juicy, it’s done. Give your friends some forks and eat it together, flaking bites of meat and skin off the bone
9. When one side is demolished (don’t forget the collar—the tasty morsels right under the gills), peel the spine off from the tail, revealing a pristine filet on the other side. This is extremely satisfying.
YES, there’s still another side to eat. Repeat.
For the Grilled Romain with Parmesan-Anchovy Dressing:
1. Rinse and dry thoroughly your head of romaine. If it’s wet, it can get soggy, so really dry it off with paper towels.
2. Cut the head in half lengthwise, leaving the stem intact so the leaves stay bundled together. Drizzle the cut side with olive oil and salt and pepper, and put it face down on the grill next to the fish. Put it just a little bit off to the side of the hottest coals if you have room, so it doesn’t char too quickly and burn.
3. When there’s a good amount of delicious dark golden brown char on the first side (5-6 minutes over medium-high heat), flip it and lightly char the other side for 2-3 minutes.
4. To make the dressing, combine the olive oil, grated parmesan, lemon juice, chopped anchovy filet, salt and pepper in a bowl and whisk until it’s incorporated. Done.
5. Serve each person a half a head, drizzled in the delicious dressing.