Prep School: How To Grill Fish

Like all things you've never done before, grilling fish can be ... challenging. Don't expect perfection your first time out; do expect to learn and improve with every go-round.

Why is fish hard to grill?

Fish is expensive and irritatingly easy to render inedible. Too much heat or too much time can turn those fillets from flaky to bulletproof in a New York minute.

Fish Recipes to Satisfy Pescatarians and Meat Eaters Alike

The problem with fish is that its flesh is more delicate than sturdy land animals and therefore more susceptible to heavy-handedness. It's because fish live — and I don't think this will come as any surprise — in water. Without getting too scientific and boring, creatures that live in cold, gravity-defying liquid environments require less connective tissue as well as less (and different) fat than creatures who live on land.

But here's the thing about fat: it's largely what makes the meat juicy. Think about that well-marbled steak you had last week. Juicy as a blind item in a gossip rag, right? That's the fat. And there's more of it in beef muscle than there is in fish muscle.

Of course, fish also has water in its muscle — about three-quarters of its weight — and that water evaporates when you start heating up the fish.

Between the lack of fat and the evaporation of the water, it's pretty easy to take a beautiful piece of fish and render it drier than dry.

Hence, the single best piece of advice to keep in mind when you're grilling is to keep an eye on the temperature of the fish. Remember, if it's a little underdone, you can always throw it back on the grill.

Grilling whole fish vs. fish fillets

Before I tell you how to actually grill fish, I should address the differences between grilling whole fish and fish fillets.

There are plenty of reasons to grill whole fish. For one, whole fish makes for an arresting presentation. Furthermore, whole fish tend to be more forgiving of heat. The skin keeps the flesh from drying out and the bones — because they conduct heat rather poorly — aid in keeping the internal temperature down. However, whole fish can be harder to come by than fillets — and more intimidating.

If you're going with fillets, go with a thick, sturdy fish like salmon, tuna or mahi mahi. They don't need to be cooked all the way through and won't fall apart when you flip them on the grill. If you like to keep the skin on, especially if you're doing something like salmon, grill your fish skin side down for most of the cooking time. After you flip them, let them go for just another minute or two. That will give you nice, crisp skin with fillets cooked to your perfect level of doneness.

If you only have skinny little fillets, but you're dying to fire up the grill, you can always fold them in foil and place that nice little package on the grate. If you go this route, place a layer of lemon slices over the top of the fillets before you encase them in foil. It'll help keep them moist and look pretty when you serve them.

How to grill fish in 5 easy steps

1. Before you cook, clean your grill with a wire brush!!!

2. To prevent your fish from sticking to the grill, brush it on both sides with any cooking oil. Some people like mayonnaise instead of oil (see recipe below). The seasoning adheres to it nicely and it also prevents your fish from sticking to the grill. Speaking of seasoning, season your fish with salt and other spices, like pepper, Old Bay or your own spice mix. Just remember, if your spice mix has salt, don't salt the fish separately.

3. Get your grill going to medium-high heat, then set your grill grate over the heat source so it gets nice and hot.

4. Place your oiled (or mayoed) fish onto the grill, presentation side down. The presentation side is the side you want your diners to see. With skinless fillets, the presentation side is the bone side because the skin side will still have some connective tissue attached to the flesh. That's not a big deal; it just doesn't look as nice.

If you're doing a whole fish, like red snapper or sea bass, oil it up and lay it down.

5. The rule of thumb for cooking fish is roughly 5 minutes per side for a one-inch-thick fillet. If you have a meat thermometer, use it. You want an internal temperature of about 140F. The flesh will be mostly opaque with just a glistening hint of translucence. Of course, the doneness level of fish is a personal decision. The more you grill fish, the more you'll understand what you like and how to achieve it.

Once your fish is done, remove it immediately to a warm serving platter and let it rest for just a few minutes. Garnish it with a squeeze of lemon, a pat of butter or anything else you think would be festive and serve it immediately. Regardless of how it turns out this time, remember what you did so that next time, it'll be even better.

Mayo Grilled Salmon

Now that you've learned the basics of grilling fish, put those lessons to the test with this super easy recipe. Simply cover salmon fillets in salmon, season and grill. They will come out perfectly grilled but moist thanks to the mayo. Once you master this salmon you'll be ready to move on to all sorts of other fish options.

For the Mayo Grilled Salmon recipe, click here.